Stomp: How an Initiative to End Malaria is Forging a New Peace Corps

Christopher Hedrick is the country director for Peace Corps Senegal and the coordinator of the Peace Corps Stomping Out Malaria in Africa Initiative. Previously, he was CEO of Intrepid Learning Solutions, a leading corporate training services firm, and worked for Microsoft and the Gates Foundation.

In the village of Dindefelo, in remote southeastern Senegal, malaria has long been the biggest killer of children. One of my most vivid images from my service there as a Peace Corps Volunteer was of a little girl, Mariama, brought into the health clinic burning with fever. Too far-gone to be saved, she was soon carefully wrapped in a small white sheet before being laid to rest in the community graveyard.
When I arrived back in Senegal as Peace Corps country director in 2007, two decades after serving as a Volunteer, I assessed the development challenges facing the West African nation. I wanted to understand how those issues matched up against the ways that Peace Corps volunteers could meaningfully contribute their skills and energies. I found that the largest cause of child mortality had not changed since I had worked in Senegal in the late 1980s: malaria was still the biggest killer of kids in Senegal and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.
What had changed, though, was the enhanced opportunity for Peace Corps Volunteers to contribute to combating the disease. In recent years, several new technologies for malaria prevention, testing and treatment made it more possible than ever to prevent sickness and deaths. And the success of all of these approaches depends heavily upon the sort of capacity development and behavior change and communication work that Peace Corps volunteers, as trusted partners in their communities, can do so well.
Long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets can prevent mosquitoes from biting sleeping children, but only if they are distributed to every family and consistently used and repaired. New and inexpensive rapid diagnostic tests can cheaply tell if a fever is malaria or not. But that’s only useful information if you get tested soon after falling ill. Medicine to treat malaria is highly effective, curing almost all malaria cases, but only if the treatment is given in time.
In promoting access to and effective use of each of these improved technologies, Peace Corps Volunteers can play a key role in saving the lives of Africans across the continent. Volunteers have been helping to combat malaria since the early days of Peace Corps, but only recently have the access to the new malaria technologies and the explosion of information technologies allowed Peace Corps to scale up its malaria control efforts and be part of a global team that is dramatically cutting deaths from this disease.
A half century after its founding, the Peace Corps is building upon a new generation’s passion and technology to make more of a difference in the lives of people in developing communities across the globe.   Peace Corps is playing a more important role than ever in meeting global development challenges by embracing the characteristics of successful volunteers:  flexibility and nimbleness in the face of changing conditions.
The typical image of the solitary Peace Corps volunteer focused on local community development is an icon of “Peace Corps Classic,” as Sargent Shriver, the agency’s first director, constructed it in the 1960s. Peace Corps evolved, but much remained unchanged over the decades. Volunteers served in relative isolation, with little outside communication and collaboration. They were deeply integrated into the host community, with language and cultural fluency. Their development impact was largely evaluated anecdotally.
Some initiatives, such as the effort to eradicate Guinea worm and, more recently, HIV/AIDS prevention, joined volunteers with international efforts to address key development issues. But, by and large, the notion of Peace Corps volunteers serving on their own, mostly disconnected from the world, working at the local level with ambiguous results, was the reality.
Why change?
The world is a different place than when Kennedy empowered Shriver to build a brave new agency for global good: 
  • A new generation of Americans, the Millennials, born in the 1980s and 1990s, arrived with different expectations for how they want to live and work.
  • Technology has revolutionized communications and learning.  
  • The developing world has, advanced, requiring changed ways to contribute.
  • Congress has stepped up its oversight, requiring clear strategies and results to justify budget growth.
To thrive in this environment, the Peace Corps is transforming itself.  At Congress’ request, in 2010 Peace Corps published a Comprehensive Agency Assessment planning reforms toward focus, efficiency and effectiveness.  The “New Peace Corps” incorporates those reforms and goes beyond.
The new approach redefines the Peace Corps development niche, taking advantage of this generation of volunteers and technology. The Millennials are tech savvy and want frequent communication and feedback.  They have grown up working in teams.  They’re goal-oriented and seek a sense of accomplishment and recognition. Millennial volunteers are drawn to projects that tackle big challenges, like helping to end malaria.
This new generation of volunteers is entering service just as a technology revolution is reaching the developing world. Cell phone penetration in some countries in Africa now surpasses the United States, and Internet access is growing exponentially. In the New Peace Corps mobile devices are used to access free, ubiquitous technology tools.
Teamwork is replacing the iconic notion of the lone volunteer. Increasingly, volunteers are collaborating to pursue audacious goals and teaming with partners, such as international NGOs and USAID, to work for important change.  The Peace Corps Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative (www.stompoutmalaria.org), launched in 2011, is the model for this fresh approach.  Growing out of our experience in Senegal, we have rapidly built a team across 23 countries in sub-Saharan Africa to fight malaria. The program uses Skype to beam in world experts for intense training seminars, Google Drive for knowledge collaboration, and Facebook groups to build distributed communities of learning and expertise.
More than 3,000 Peace Corps Volunteers across Africa will be engaged in this campaign at little incremental cost. They aren’t working alone, but are collaborating with the President’s Malaria Initiative and others, providing the unique Peace Corps value to a global fight: community engagement and education at the grassroots level. Peace Corps Volunteers are now part of the team that has helped reduce malaria deaths by a third in recent years.
The New Peace Corps is truly new, leveraging this generation’s passion and this era’s technology.  What will not change, though, is the core competitive advantage of Peace Corps in international development: the volunteer’s deep understanding and love of the host community. This fundamental relationship will continue to link Peace Corps Classic to the New Peace Corps into the future.


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