Posts by Elianna

Peace Corps: Togo

Today we had the opportunity to talk to sociology professor Gail Murphy-Giess’s daughter, Patty. After spending two years in Togo with the Peace Corp, Patty returned to the United States in August and came to our class to discuss her experience.

Togo is a small country in the north west of Africa, wedged between Ghana and Benin. With only 8 million people, Togo has over 40 ethnic groups, with two making up the majority. The main conflict going on in Togo currently regards the political sphere. Midterms did not take place as planned, and though elections are supposed to occur in 2020, it is likely that they will not take place due to the intention of the current president to extend his terms. So, in the face of these conflicts, what is the role of the Peace Corp Volunteers?

Patty told us that volunteers are supposed to stay neutral, but that this is impossible. Patty was living in a small village with only a few thousand people. The official projects in the village included health and malaria prevention, english education and gender equity, and agriculture and food security, the latter on which Patty focused. In working on these projects, Patty formed close relationships with the villagers and found that they wanted to know her and, by proxy, the United States opinion on the happenings in Togo. When friends and villagers asked her opinion, she was inclined to engage, rather than stay neutral as the Peace Corp suggests. Patty also found that people had a great interest in the US in general. People felt positively towards the US, but were often misinformed on US intentions and policies. That said, the US was widely perceived as the land of opportunity, and everyone wanted to go there. This was especially true in the villages, where people were less inclined to protest, as they would in the big cities, and more apt to accept society as it is and hope for a better future in the US.

Patty also spent some time expressing concerns about NGOs. Though Patty, as a recent Peace Corp volunteer, comes from a very different background than the other speakers that we have had in this class so far, we found that her concerns lined up with the others that we have heard. First she talked about the concept “biopolitics,” which refers to how people view resources, who has power, and how agency is practiced. Because of NGOs, Patty said, biopolitics have shifted. NGOs often take the role of the state by providing, for example, teachers and health care. This creates a cycle of dependency, and takes the pressure off the state to provide for its people. Furthermore, NGOs often do not listen to what people actually need, but instead are motivated by outside interest. In other words, their work is funder-based. In contrast, the Peace Corp focuses on community based development and, because it is funded by tax-payers, does not have to succumb to external pressures for project.

So was her experience with the Peace Corp in Togo a success ? In many ways and in many places it can be seen as a success, and in others, a potential detriment. A crucial element in this discussion is impact evaluation. This is a fairly new idea. The Peace Corp, Patty explains is working on evaluating their human impact by standardizing methods of collecting data and using a needs assessment in every location. Patty admits that the process of impact evaluation is new and flawed, but essential to understanding how the Peace Corp can make the most change.

Brendan O’Donghue: The Private Sector

It took a second for the Brendan O’Donghue’s face to appear on the monitor, and when it did, we couldn’t hear him for a minute. The whole class was sitting in the Economics Collaboration room, eating Jimmy John’s and eagerly awaiting our conversation with O’Donghue, who was skyping with us from Nigeria. In a few minutes, the internet connection became stronger and O’Donghue’s face and voice game through.

A friend of Neal’s from Afghanistan, O’Donghue was online today to talk to us about development work through the private sector. O’Donghue works for a company called Zipline, which is based in Silicon Valley. Zipline has technology to operate drones that deliver life-saving medication in hard to reach places. The algorithm, which takes into account speed and ease of delivery, operates with incredible speed and accuracy. The drones get life saving medication to the person in need within 15 minutes of being requested, and drops the medication via parachute within two parking spot spaces of the exact GPS location. Right now, Zipline has operations all over Africa and Southeast Asia. It contracts directly with the government, under the assumption that the partnership will save the government money by decreasing health care costs. Right now, it takes the company about three months to set up an operation, but O’Donghue spoke of the companies goal to set up in a day or two. At that rate, Zipline’s technology could be crucial in combatting the effects of natural disasters.

O’Donghue’s professional background is interesting. After graduating from Hamilton College, O’Donghue had experience working on Wall Street, for government, and in the non-profit world before transitioning to the private sector. This diversity of experience gave him the ability to discuss the pros and cons of each sector. While Wall Street provided financial stability, O’Donghue felt like he wasn’t making a difference. He transitioned to the non-profit sector and government, but found both to be corrupt. Governments were especially frustrating, as the high-stakes of governmental decisions make them very risk-averse, which make it hard to get anything done. O’Donghue has had a positive experience in the private sector so far, especially in a Silicon Valley company. The company is risk-loving, which means he can work with speed and flexibility, make mistakes, and still be a success. Zipline is also a socially conscious for-profit company that hires almost entirely local staff in order to be sustainable. For a class of people who are interested in rebuilding economies after conflict, hearing his lived experience in each sector was really helpful.

Zipline has come out with really exciting technology. While they are currently limited to emergency medical supplies, they hope to expand that. Who knows? Maybe one day a Zipline drone will drop your to-go food order on your doorstep.

Major General William Hix

Major General William Hix walked into our classroom last week wearing a brightly colored, button-down shirt and a dark green suit jacket. He is older, soft-spoken, and upon first glance, you would not assume his extensive experience with the US army. Upon speaking with him however, MG Hix’s humble expertise became evident. 

Having graduated from the US Military Academy in 1981, MG Hix has a Masters Degree of Military Art and Science. He currently serves as the Director of Strategy, Plans, and Policy, Deputy Chief of Staff G-3/5/7, Headquarters for the Department of the Army. He is responsible for developing strategies, plans, and concepts that shape the geo-strategic security environment, inform army decision making, and for anticipating and providing forces for national security. Previously, he spent time in other strategy and planning assignments, as well as on operational assignments with both command and staff positions.

Though MG Hix is quite busy, he is a good friend of Neal’s, and graciously took the time the speak with us. One of the most interesting parts of our conversation with MG Hix was his perspective on the global economy. MG Hix referred to the economy as a geopolitical force. He went on to explain how the economy plays a crucial role in shaping the geopolitical climate because it can give people the resources that they need to fulfill greater objectives. He described the world economy as a pie: you can either split it up, and while you might hope that everyone gets an equal sized peace, this will not happen. Or, you can make a bigger pie. The goal, Hix explained, should always be to make a bigger pie.

One part of the growing world economy that Hix explained was China. When asked how China’s growth would affect the world economy, Hix said that he expected the focus to shift East. He chalked this shift up to two main concepts: complacency of Atlantic nations and growth in technology. The former is related to aging. Hix talked about how, in Europe especially, Western nations are failing to see how their aging populations will negatively affect economic growth and present unforeseen challenges. In terms of technology, Hix expressed concern that Europe was not using automation to grow like China is. Rather, in Europe, which has some of the some of the most revolutionary robotics companies in the world, China has a large percentage of the shares.

The opportunity to discuss something so crucial and complicated with MG Hix was wonderful. He gave us plenty to think about, as well as a whole list of books to check out, and, with a nod to Neal, one final piece of advice: always find people smarter than you, and get them on your team.

Chatting with Morgan Wack

Yesterday, we had the opportunity to have a Skype conversation with Morgan Wack. Morgan graduated from CC in 2015 with a degree in Sociology and minors in African Studies and International Community Development. He is now getting his PHD, but what he spoke to us about was his time as a fellow at the program Princeton in Africa.

I am skeptical of the work of international NGOs. While they often have good intentions, many NGOs are seen as a new version of colonialism, with little regard to local culture and customs, and often creating a dangerous cycle of dependency. However, Morgan’s description of his work gave me renewed excitement about the potential of NGOs.

First, Morgan echoed my concerns about NGOs. He acknowledged that often, NGOs create a disconnect between the community and the government by taking away that responsibility of the government to provide basic resources for its people, under the (correct) assumption that NGOs will fill in the gaps. Furthermore, NGOs often don’t have a structure set up for evaluation of their impact, and they are very connected to their ideas and policies. Combined, they have a hard time recognizing when their programs aren’t working.

The most effective NGOs, however, Morgan explained, are those that work directly with the government to increase its capacity. The hope is that this, in turn, allows individual people to take control of their lives. This is, of course, complicated by corruption and conflict, but working to empower the government to then empower the people, should be the goal of the most effective NGOs.

He also made sure to credit his education at CC for a much of his positive experience. “CC taught me to produce work rapidly,” said Morgan. “Be sure to explain that in your cover letters!”

Internal War with Dr. Kalev Sepp

After taking a quick quiz, the whole class piled into the Economic Collaboration room, where our paraprofessional, Cate, was setting up a Skype interview. After a few minutes, Dr. Kalev I. Sepp’s face popped onto the screen. Everyone stopped chatting. Dr. Sepp was online to discuss with us how countries recover from an internal war.

We were very lucky to be on a Skype call with Dr. Sepp. Currently a Senior Lecturer in Defense Analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School, Dr. Sepp specializes in special operations, strategy, and irregular warfare. He also served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, as well as a member of the White House Counterterrorism Strategy Group. He is a former US Army Special Forces officer, with a PHD from Harvard University and has many other important accomplishments.

In discussing internal war, Dr. Sepp used the example of the US Civil War. He shed light on the build up of the Civil War, the war itself, and then how the economy recovered. One aspect of this lecture that I found particularly interesting was the need to consider the residual effects of war and what actions must be taken to address these effects: are there still ethnic tensions? Who address them, and how? Who is responsible for law enforcement? Should there be trials for the separatists? Should they be re-accepted into society?

Sepp answered these questions by recalling the US response. But he said that the thing that allowed the US economy to rebuild was this idea of a shared culture: both sides of the civil war believed in the validity of constitution and its ability to protect human freedoms. This connection was what caused the South to step down. However, Sepp pointed out, not countries with internal war have a similar experience.

It was a wonderful opportunity to talk with Dr. Sepp about the difficulties of internal war. We are very lucky to have such an expert in our classroom (even when its electronic!).

Conversations with Major General Randy George

The first thing that Major General Randy George did when he walked in the room, was shake everyone’s hand. It was 11:30am on October 23, second Tuesday of Block 3, and we were all excited for the opportunity to meet him (as well as to have been able to sleep late!). Major General George had come to class to discuss rebuilding the economy in Afghanistan. He was the perfect person to discuss this subject. After holding command positions in Iraq and Afghanistan, MG George served on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, and as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He also has a Bachelor of Science from West Point, a Master’s in Economics from Colorado School of Mines, and a Master’s degree in International Security Studies from the Naval War College.

Despite all these qualifications, MG George is very humble. Soft spoken, with a sharp jawline and kind eyes, MG George talked about growing up in Iowa, his relationship with his wife, and the difficulties of war. He spoke of his efforts in Afghan villages to ensure that Afghanistan could stand on its own. One of the ways to he worked toward this goal was by giving $250,000 to each village. This allowed the people to autonomously decide the best, most sustainable ways to spend the money in their community. People built schools, roads, and more.

MG George was proud of the work he did in Afghanistan, but he admits that it is very difficult and often there is no clear path to success. Though he is nervous to return to Afghanistan, he believes that the consequences of the US leaving the county could create a dangerous power vacuum and destabilize neighboring countries. When he returns to Afghanistan in a few months, he will be working on training the Afghan police force and military.

As MG George prepared to leave, he gave our class a few pieces of advice. “Become an avid reader,” he said, “and learn another language.”