Thought Leaders Forum explores the intersection of technology and development
The Peace Corps continued its Thought Leaders series with a virtual gathering on July 21. Four returned Volunteers — all professionals in technology — provided their viewpoints on leveraging technology to maximize effects in socioeconomic development, and how Peace Corps Volunteers can shape global development.
Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn welcomed all guests to the event, remarking how connectivity is becoming more offline-friendly, rechargeable, and affordable, and how Volunteers have laid the groundwork for projects such as providing solar power access to overseas communities. However, as the world has moved to virtual platforms, providing critical services such as health care, education, and banking, some have been left behind.
Christopher Burns, a returned Volunteer who served in Ghana, was the moderator. As the chief digital development officer and director for technology at U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Burns leads technical teams focused on emerging technology.
He opened the discussion by stating that digital technologies have ushered in a paradigm shift, and returned Volunteers can serve as powerful conduits to expand this to be more equitable.
Panelists included Emily Black, Dr. Hoang Thai Tao, and Aaron Simmons, who spoke about leveraging emerging technological trends.
Emily Black is a returned Volunteer who taught English in Kazakhstan. As a senior director at Save the Children U.S., Black oversees a portfolio of applications that include international-based projects and child sponsorship. She translates business needs to developers of computer-based applications.
“In Kazakhstan, parents placed priority on laptops and internet connectivity for their kids; they saw this as an opportunity generator for their kids," she said. "Coming back from the Peace Corps, I fell in love with the tech industry, and all that it could do. I have thought of my service every single day since I came back. It impacts everything you do, no matter what career you go into.
“Technology looks like the people [who] built it. People [who] have seen and experienced things different from their colleagues bring more depth to the technology being built. When I build technology now, my memories of service are a core part of how I interact with people.”
The second panelist, Dr. Hoang Thai Tao, is a climate mitigation researcher at the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response & Technology at the University of New Orleans. Dr. Tao’s research involves calculating flood mitigation and improved building standards in Louisiana – technological work that has a direct environmental impact. As an Education Volunteer in Mozambique, he helped build a school, community center, and library, in addition to working on housing and sanitation projects.
“There is a thirst for innovation; it’s just a matter of access. There is an opportunity to connect technology to development; as the Peace Corps is very bottom-up, we work directly with the people, whereas tech is very top-bottom. We need Peace Corps service insight to best apply specific technologies effectively,” he said.
The third panelist, Aaron Simmons, is a principal software engineer at Maxar Technologies, where he handles a spacecraft simulator. As a Volunteer in the Philippines, he taught computer technology to teachers, and was part of the team that created a text hotline for reproductive health facts.
"My work with the Peace Corps made me focus on pragmatic solutions to problems. You have to be focused on what kind of problems you are solving for people,” he said.
As the moderator, Burns offered the concluding remarks, stating that as 2.9 billion people are without access to online technology, there is an incredible opportunity for Peace Corps Volunteers to build digital skills so that those left behind can safely and effectively navigate the online world. As the Peace Corps is focused on the connective tissue — what brings all communities together — Volunteers can serve as facilitators and responsibly contribute to global development, linking practitioners with grounded data for proper resource allocation.