Natural Experiments in Peace Corps’ Impact

3 minute read

I’ve been caught up recently with the amazing work of a friend over at the CDC, and the work he has been doing in Liberia.

In his acting duty as deputy team lead for the CDC in Liberia, Greg Thorne recently wrote a letter to Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet, thanking the Agency for its assistance in smoothing the path for the CDC’s efforts by providing facilities, vehicles, and most of all, Peace Corps staff members.

The letter was as incredibly heart-felt as it was diplomatic.

“We, the CDC team members, entered Gbarpolu as strangers,” Thorne wrote. “Carried by community goodwill . . . and connected by our Peace Corps colleague’s extensive local network, we were able to rapidly integrate with the county leadership and earn the trust necessary for them to openly discuss challenges and take our suggestions to heart.”

You can find references to it in this New York Times article and this blog post from Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet.

The second-order effects of grassroots diplomacy

What struck me the most, I would say, is that it presented a sort of natural experiment for an organization like the Peace Corps – one that the agency would have difficulty conducting in a scientific setting, but that we can gain invaluable insights from as it happened.

When organizationsl like the Peace Corps evacuate their expatriate staff from countries experiencing less secure and/or safe circumstances, often the local staff (and perhaps a skeleton crew of non-local staff) will stay in the country to help coordinate evacuation efforts as well as maintain the post (management items, communications, etc.)

What’s interesting in this case is that Peace Corps (as described in the article) was able to quickly establish a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the CDC to operate in Liberia where they would essentially partner to help respond quickly and effectively to the Ebola crisis.

“The Peace Corps has been instrumental in what we have collectively accomplished. Wherever we have deployed together, the Peace Corps has amplified CDC’s efforts and accelerated our progress.

This arrangement allowed the CDC to essentially plug in to the network of Peace Corps with very little time to ‘let the trail go cold’. This is a very good thing—as it highlighted something that we rarely get to see in terms of the diplomatic resilience of the Peace Corps for second-order effects.

That is, we were able to see how the goodwill of generations and generations of Volunteers in Liberia (Peace Corps has had a presence there since 1962, with a long break between 1990 and 2008) was able to be leveraged to help the CDC hit the ground running as a trusted partner to the communities.

Much more than the Peace Corps logo on the side of cars, it was the Peace Corps staff that were familiar with the communities, the terrain, and the customs.

More programmatically, Peace Corps team members have ably expanded outreach through their proactive pursuit of enhanced community awareness. Beyond such vital community connection, Peace Corps team members also offer a crucial source of continuity amid CDC’s comparatively brief tours in-country, allowing us to sustain relationships, carry forward knowledge, and, ultimately, maintain the momentum needed to control this epidemic.”

Too often, we aren’t able to see the impact of organizations like the Peace Corps up cloase—either by the minute efforts of Volunteers to bridge divides between communities and people, or by the committed Peace Corps staff, who are working harder than anyone else to promote the mission of peace in their country—one community at a time.

When do we, however, it can remind us of how valuable these efforts can be.