Fact Sheet: Peace Corps Latvia
December 13, 2001What has the Peace Corps done in Latvia?
The history of the Peace Corps in Latvia is a history of individual achievement of Peace Corps Volunteers and Latvians co-workers who have worked together to improve their community. They have taught students who have gone on to higher education and coached entrepreneurs who have created businesses that employ other people. It is a history of bridge-building between the people of Latvia and the people of the United States. It is a history of mutual learning and growing respect for one another other as cultural understanding increases. It has been an experience that has touched many people in different ways: Volunteers, students, co-workers, and the national professional staff who have made it possible for Volunteers to do their work.
Since 1992, 128 English teachers have worked in Latvia with 21,937 students from Forms 6 – 12 as well as with student teachers and adult learners. As native speakers of English, they have helped their students gain greater confidence in spoken English, debate, writing, and in critical thinking skills. All Volunteers have helped prepare students for their 12th Form exam and almost all have reported a 100 percent pass rate among their students. In this way, they have been constructive members of school faculties, opening doors to business and higher education opportunities for young Latvians.
With Independence, Latvia’s strategy for economic development was tied to participation in the free-market world economy. It had been 50 years since Latvia had openly traded with the non-Soviet world, and the concept of capitalism, once officially suppressed, was suddenly the order of the day. People had to re-learn business management techniques switching from the centralized command economy to a free market system. The Peace Corps sent Volunteers to work on this transformation through the Small Enterprise Development project. Most of the business development Volunteers have worked through Regional government centers and business incubators. They advise individuals in the start up of new businesses, help others improve management and marketing techniques, and in almost all cases, introduce the use of computers in business management to small-scale entrepreneurs.
Organizational and Community Development
Since 1997, business advisors have also worked directly with the emerging non-governmental organization sector. They have helped NGOs establish good management practices, create publications, develop funding strategies, and have taught the elements of project design and management and the benefits of networking among like-minded organizations to share information in order to maximize organizational impact.
Although Peace Corps Volunteers do not have funds to distribute, they have helped local counterparts learn the technique of designing projects and writing grant proposals that have attracted funding to their local community. Over the years, teams of Latvians and their Peace Corps counterparts have succeeded in raising hundreds of thousands of Lats in project funding from both American and European sources, from official government funds as well as private foundations. From two US government grant programs alone, both funded by US Agency for International Development (AID), a total of LVL 261,845 ($422,330) was raised to support projects. When combined with required local contributions, the amount came to LVL 470,655 ($759,122). More than 176,700 Latvians benefited from activities supported by these two US funds.
Who are the Volunteers and Why Do They Volunteer?
Many Latvians have asked why people would leave their home, friends and family, and a good job, to spend two years earning only a small stipend. What motivates them to go so far awnd a good job, to spend two years earning only a small stipend. What motivates them to go so far away from all that is familiar to live among strangers in a distant land? There are layers of reasons, those that are easy to express, such as a wish to know other cultures, to learn a foreign language, or just adventure. Then there are deeper reasons, such as desire to give something back to the world. Americans do recognize the extraordinary good fortune they have enjoyed as a people and want to give something in return. Many are at a point in their lives where no one is dependent on them or their salary. They have not yet settled down with a family of their own, or their children are grown and living independently. It is a moment of time when they can make a contribution to the well-being of other people.
Most people entering the Peace Corps are recruited during the first few years following their university graduation. While 80 percent of the total number of Volunteers serving in the Peace Corps worldwide are under 30 years of age, in Latvia, only 72 percent were in this age category. The need for more experienced Volunteers was evident, and 28 percent were older than the world average. In fact, 12 percent were over 50 years of age with many years of professional experience to call upon. Virtually all Volunteers held a Bachelor’s degree from a university, and 25 percent held a Master’s or Doctorate degree.
Who are the Professional Staff?
The story of the Peace Corps in Latvia is not simply one of Volunteers working in local communities. The Peace Corps has hired and trained a total of 33 full-time professional employees in Latvia who have carried increasingly more responsibility for the management of the Volunteers and the annual two million dollar budget. An additional 96 Latvians have worked on a short-term basis each year as language instructors, technical trainers, and training managers of the 11-week training program for the new groups of Volunteers entering the country.
The success and achievements of the Peace Corps program in Latvia could not be possible without the Latvian national staff who have played a vital role in the stability and security of the program, in balancing between the Peace Corps and host agencies, Volunteers and their counterparts. They are the people who have acted as cultural bridges between the people of different cultural, educational and professional background. They are the people who taught Volunteers the Latvian language and introduced them to the country’s political, economic and cultural development. They are the people who have selected sites for Volunteers by matching the needs of the communities and Volunteers' educational, professional background and interests. They are the people who have put their hearts and souls in their work contributing to the development of their own country. They have been "the backbone of Peace Corps all these years" as said by the former worldwide head of the Peace Corps, Loret Miller Ruppe, in one of her speeches.
Throughout the years of the Peace Corps' presence in Latvia, national employees worked full-time in different positions varying from receptionists/travel coordinators, general services assistants, office and resource center managers, budget and fiscal officers, cashiers, language and cross culture coordinators and technical program managers.
As the Peace Corps' program developed, many national staff were promoted and the level of responsibility required a higher level of professional performance. Understanding the importance of the national staff's role in the successful Peace Corps program, the Peace Corps invested in training and educational advancement of these staff members. There is no staff member who hasn't gone through a training program related to the requirements of his or her position, helping each individual to better perform his or her duties and responsibts of his or her position, helping each individual to better perform his or her duties and responsibilities. Special programs were held worldwide where Latvian staff joined an international group from all over the Peace Corps world. Training was held in the USA, Tunisia, the Philippines and Thailand, and in most of the countries of Eastern Europe. Additionally, the Peace Corps maintained a staff development fund that paid tuition fees for interested staff who studied for advanced degrees in Latvian universities and took short professional courses, study that enhanced their professional competence. In this way, the Peace Corps invested in the professional growth of its employees and reaped the benefit of more able and responsible staff.
One of the most remarkable accomplishments of national staff was the creation of a highly effective Latvian language training program for in-coming Volunteers. Excellence in language training is a hallmark of the Peace Corps worldwide, allowing Volunteers to learn the elements of a new, difficult language in just 10 weeks. Volunteers are required to be able to speak a basic amount of Latvian before they can be finally accepted and sent to their work site. At a minimum, they need to be able to ask directions, call for help if they need it, identify themselves, buy things at the market, and tell a bit about their home and family. Some who have a gift for language have been able to give speeches in Latvian, be interviewed on television and radio, and converse easily with neighbors within a few months of their arrival at their post.
In 1992, when the first Volunteers arrived for training, there were no Latvian language training manuals in existence. The language teachers hired to train the Volunteers had to create the entire syllabus, workbook and teacher’s manual themselves. Each year they added to the materials and perfected their system. The result of their effort, a complete Latvian language training method, working from a base of English, is now available. Since it is not considered to be the property of the Peace Corps, it can be used free of charge by anyone who wants it. It will be put onto a CD ROM and distributed to various learning centers in September, before the Peace Corps/Latvia finally closes its doors.
What is the Peace Corps legacy in Latvia?
It is too soon to speculate on the legacy of the 10 years of Peace Corps involvement in Latvia. As any teacher knows, the rewards of the profession do not become apparent for many years, and then they come in the most surprising ways. In concrete terms, the Volunteer English teachers have created a body of work over the years, lesson plans, specialized activities designed to make students speak, games, songs, poems, and many pages of material to aid a teacher whose access to libraries and printed English material is limited. In the same manner, the Business Volunteers have created seminars in English covering a wide variety of business topics that have been successful in helping new business owners develop their business plans, marketing skills, and communications abilities.
The best of this material, both English lessons and business seminars, has been saved and placed on a CD-ROM that will be distributed to schools, Regional business centers, and NGOs where Peace Corps Volunteers have served over the years. It will add a teaching resource that can be drawn upon by other teachers when needed.
To address the second and third goals of Peace Corps, the goals dealing with mutual understanding, the rewards are longer-lasting and take longer to mature. It is known that Volunteers serving in Latvia in the early years still maintain contacts with their colleagues and friends. Some have used their experience to go on to international careers that bring them back to Latvia for business or other professional reasons. In thisnational careers that bring them back to Latvia for business or other professional reasons. In this age of instant electronic communication, these contacts continue to enrich the lives of American and Latvian colleagues, their families, and their friends who have been given a glimpse into the life and dreams of people who live in a distant land.