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Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) Peer Review Meeting

The White House
Eisenhower Executive Office Building
Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Remarks As Prepared:
Peace Corps Director Spahn: Thank you for this opportunity to provide perspectives on localization – a concept the Peace Corps cares about deeply and a term that encompasses underlying values around ownership, power structures, and whose voice is at the table. Localization requires deep examination of every aspect of assistance with the ultimate intention of moving decision-making closer to the end user. And, although localization can mean everything from how multilateral assistance is structured to where vaccines are manufactured, my perspective today is informed by the Peace Corps’ work with marginalized and underserved communities at the grassroots level.

We know that development needs to happen at scale. Governments and donors are asked to stretch every development dollar to achieve large scale, short term, measurable impact. And one premise of this approach is that the benefits will trickle down. This funding reality is unlikely to change. And yet, as we have seen right here in the United States, equitable systems and structures do not come about on their own.

I applaud Administrator Power and the other leadership here who are pushing large systems to think differently and to recognize that localization is a long-term imperative in a world that has potential at every level. This is not a call to action we can afford to ignore. The question is: How do we accelerate these efforts from the top down and the bottom up?

Since the Peace Corps was founded more than 60 years ago, Volunteers have been embedded in communities, learning the local language and culture, and working alongside counterparts – farmers, teachers, youth, health workers, and other motivated individuals – to support the development priorities of both the country and the community.

One of the core tenants of our approach is that, for sustainability, process can be just as important as product. Volunteers are trained in participatory analysis for community action and come together with counterparts to learn about program design and implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and grant management. With these tools and skills, I have seen communities come together to do amazing work! One group did baseline door-to-door assessments, implemented basic water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programming, and demonstrated measurable reductions in malaria, diarrheal diseases, and other health conditions – all with a $100 grant, only enough to fund paper, pens, and snacks.

And when they were successful, they chose to expand their efforts and trained the neighboring catchment areas. There is wisdom and will in every community – and sometimes a spark of energy or opportunity, and an ounce of prevention can lead to the kind of impact that sticks.

I served for five years as the Peace Corps Country Director in Malawi – and witnessed time and again just how different things look when you start with the community and look outward. I visited one of my Volunteers, Kyla, in Nsanje District – an area of the country that was experiencing extreme drought and food insecurity. When asked how many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) came to her village the prior week with interventions and support, she said, “Around 10.” Ten different organizations. Each organization coming in with different solutions and relying on the same community members to make it happen.

As we talk about sustainability and localization, at its core are the people and local organizations who are embedded in the community and serve as the ‘connective tissue,’ and who can offer the continuity of interventions and personal connections necessary to sustain development gains.

Leaning on my days in private equity, I think about the way that companies are selected for transformational, early-stage investment. It is not only the product or the business concept that must be good. Rather, the decision to invest depends heavily on the people and their ability to deliver.

Identifying and empowering the real changemakers and linking them to opportunities and to each other – at scale – has tremendous potential. We have seen this with Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe (DREAMS) Ambassadors, young women who become peer mentors and lead community HIV/AIDS reduction efforts. Apart from the empirical evidence to support the success of this model, in the words of DREAMS Ambassadors themselves: “Nothing for us without us.”

President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) Ambassador Nkengasong, who was taught science by a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, has challenged us all to unleash the power of youth – at scale. And that requires new thinking.

At the Peace Corps, we are challenging ourselves to think expansively about how we do just this. After 60 years, we are more than one volunteer in one community for two years. Rather, we bring to the table an extensive network of grassroots changemakers, staff, counterparts, and students both within and across borders, and have the opportunity to link them together.

In Central America, there is a new youth service program that was developed in partnership with private donors, a local NGO and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), with Peace Corps and the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) at the table. The program is establishing formal service opportunities for youth in a way that leverages the unique skill sets of each partner and intentionally links participants from service to jobs and other opportunities. It is still early but is an exciting example of how the ‘smalls’ – through innovative and intentional collaboration, can be force multipliers, reinforcing localization from the bottom up – while organizations with deeper pockets can fund the larger systems and structures.

I would also like to call out our long-term partnership with USAID through the Small Project Assistance (SPA) program. And, as a fun aside, we are celebrating 40 years of this partnership later this week! This program was designed to fund small-scale projects, with 25% community contributions, the kinds of projects that rarely make their way into a request for proposal, but that are adaptive and timely.

Right now, in Ukraine, where we do not currently have Volunteers due to the war, staff and counterparts have used SPA funding, leveraging the Peace Corps’ long standing community relationships, to develop and deliver trauma-informed materials for teachers and to train the trainers. You can imagine how relevant, timely, community-centered, and demand-driven that sort of assistance is right now for the Ukrainian people.

To reach and maintain development gains in a truly sustainable way, we must intentionally link large scale programming with community development, expand the reach of the smalls, who are already doing this work from the bottom up, and lead with the values that underly the concept of localization. If done well, it is an expansion of opportunity, a tool for empowerment, and a way to harness the incredible ideas, goodwill, and know-how of the next generation. An investment that will yield returns for decades.

The Peace Corps stands ready not only to be a thought partner, but also an innovator as we think about new approaches to advance locally-led development through whole-of-government development efforts.

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