As I See It: The Path of Service
March 15, 2004 Victor Rozek
There are two times in your life when you are most likely to be called to the path of service: when you are very young and still believe you can save the world, and toward the end of your career, when you have enjoyed the world’s bounty and want to give something back. The first group is inspired by optimism and hope, the second by gratitude and an understanding of the universal value of reciprocity–worthy motivations in a world often lacking noble virtues.
Traditionally, the Peace Corps has been a favored vehicle for volunteer service. But the Peace Corps is a very diversified organization, sponsoring programs that include everything from counseling troubled teens in Belize to digging irrigation ditches in Ecuador.
While having a variety of service opportunities is laudable, there are some benefits to specialization. If stereotypes are to be believed, there is a certain class of people blessed with nimble minds and agile fingers who, in return for a dependable supply of coffee and Cheetos, can bend information technology to their will. For them, teenagers and trenches hold little appeal. (Actually, some of them are teenagers who could probably use a little counseling, and frankly wouldn’t know a shovel from a hole in the ground. But I digress.) The point is, when these folks wish to apply their unique skills to the path of service, an equally unique organization exists to facilitate their journey.
For them there is GeekCorps.
GeekCorps, as its Web site attests, “is a US-based, non-profit organization that places international technical volunteers in developing nations to contribute to ICT projects while transferring the technical skills required to achieve long-term stability.” As a mission statement it’s a little wordy but fairly straight forward. (ICT is short for information and communications technology, by the way.) Still, it took some effort getting there.
GeekCorps was the brain child of Ethan Zuckerman, a Fulbright scholar and businessman who thought it would be a grand idea to bring the Internet to the masses. Like many, however, he underestimated the scope of the task and early attempts to establish Internet connectivity in regions without the requisite infrastructure were not particularly successful. So rather than trying to impose technology on nations that had neither the underpinning nor the expertise to exploit it, GeekCorps changed its approach. It moved from championing a specific technology to transferring skills and building capacity.
“We work with what’s already there,” said Gina Dario, program coordinator at GeekCorps. Dario heads programs in neighboring West African nations Mali and Senegal, and she brings some serious credentials to the effort. Dario has a Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University, and formerly worked at the United Nations in the Electoral Assistance Division as a political affairs officer. Last December she was in Moscow observing the Parliamentary elections, and has also supervised elections in East Timor and Kosovo. We could use her skills in November.
“In Mali,” she explained, “Internet connections are few and far between, but the nation does have an existing infrastructure of over 150 community radio stations.” People throughout the country depend on radio as their primary source of information, but each operation stands alone and few have access to outside news sources.
Several years ago, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sent out a request for proposal seeking a means of connecting these radio stations and allowing individual broadcasters to create and share content. By happy coincidence, one of GeekCorps’ volunteers, Canadian Ian Howard, had written an unrelated paper in which he suggested that “wireless technology had the opportunity to bridge the digital divide.” His reasoning mirrored the experiences GeekCorps volunteers had when first trying to install the Internet abroad: Poor nations simply did not have the infrastructure for interconnectivity. But, suggested Howard, they could create a wireless infrastructure without a massive investment in technology. Wireless networking technologies, he noted, are “marginally more sophisticated than the radio that wakes you up each morning. Waves have not changed, but the devices that transmit and receive them have become more efficient. And more important, they have become very affordable.” Howard seemed a good match for the project and in January, Dario said, GeekCorps sent him to Mali to begin the process of designing a wireless network that will allow radio stations to share content and connect with each other and the Internet.
By comparison, the opportunities in other nations will vary according to need. “In Ghana,” Dario continued, “up to 80 percent of all jobs are provided by small to medium sized businesses. So there, we’ve sent seven rotations of volunteers to work with emerging technology and software firms. Their goal is to make these companies competitive not just by African standards, but by international standards.” In Senegal, GeekCorps sent in an application assessment team to evaluate the software driving specific industries, such as the cashew industry, and worked with local businesses to improve the quality of their software.
In 2001, a fledgling GeekCorps merged with the International Executive Service Corps, a 40-year-old organization that sends top managers overseas as consultants. Although funded by private donations during the first year of its existence, GeekCorps now receives project-based funding from government agencies such as USAID that sponsor large-scale programs abroad.
One of the more promising was launched last year by the departments of Commerce and State and USAID, in cooperation with several non-governmental organizations. The program is the Digital Freedom Initiative (DFI), and it underwrites training and a variety of technology transfer schemes to third-world nations. DFI made its debut in March of 2003 with a pilot program in Senegal committing 75 volunteers over a three year span. Announcing the program, Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans called it “a bold, innovative plan to spur global economic growth and to reduce poverty.”
Like many government initiatives, however, this one has multiple agendas. While volunteer organizations like GeekCorps tackle the hard work of on-the-ground training, which provides the means to reduce the poverty Secretary Evans is distressed about, his agency has another less altruistic aspiration. Evans, after all, is wedded to commerce not philanthropy, and if you look beyond the high-minded rhetoric, his primary directive is to “develop a business friendly regulatory framework conductive to U.S. investment and partnership.” The DFI Web site (apparently without intending to be funny) wants “the invisible hand of the market to be a helping hand to the poor.” Given how well the invisible hand has worked safeguarding Americans form unprecedented theft and fraud, that would be an unusual achievement.
Nonetheless, since its introduction, DFI has worked well enough to be expanded to Indonesia and Peru, and is expected to be rolled out to 20 nations in the next five years. This single initiative will present an array of opportunities for GeekCorps volunteers. And regardless of the uncertain benefits of the unaccountable invisible hand and investment-friendly regulatory frameworks, the skills shared by GeekCorps volunteers will certainly benefit and enrich the lives of many.
If Mali or Senegal are not your destinations of choice, GeekCorps has a presence in a number of other nations including: Ghana and Vietnam, and will shortly begin work in Macedonia. In the past, GeekCoprs has also sent volunteers to Mongolia, Rumania, Armenia, Lebanon, Bulgaria, Rwanda, and Thailand.
Applicants who wish to be considered for volunteer positions can apply online. GeekCorps has a database of some 1,900 volunteers whose technical skills are matched with project requirements. Beyond ICT expertise, GeekCorps’ expanding global presence makes foreign language skills very desirable. If selected, be prepared to serve between three and four months abroad. GeekCorps pays travel expenses, passport and immunization costs, lodging (usually a shared arrangement with other volunteers), and offers a modest stipend of between $500 and $650 per month depending on the cost of living in host nations. Cheetos and coffee are negotiable.
Think of it as outsourcing yourself but feeling really good about it.
Some years ago I heard a story that spoke eloquently of the need to listen and answer the call to service. It was about a man who died and went to heaven where he promptly started railing at God about the state of the world. “There is so much suffering and so much poverty; so much inequity and injustice,” he said. “Why didn’t you do anything about it?”
“But I did,” God answered. “I sent you.”
If you’re hearing the call, opportunities await at www.geekcorps.com.