This is an interview done in South Africa by Andre van Wyk for allAfrica.com that appeared today, November 11. Aaron Williams, the new Peace Corps Director, was on a world tour visiting Peace Corps countries on one of those famous ‘all/see’ trip all PC/W staff take. I thought that you’d like to see what the Director is thinking, two or so months into his new job.
The Obama administration earlier this year named a former United States Peace Corps volunteer, Aaron S. Williams, as the program’s new director. The Peace Corps, which will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary, draws thousands of Americans who want to work abroad and under the new administration, it is looking at its areas of focus and how best to continue implementing its programs most effectively. Williams spoke with AllAfrica during a visit to South Africa.
Is this your first visit to Africa since your appointment, and what role does the Peace Corps currently play on the continent?
Yes, this is my first visit since I was appointed two months ago as director… As you know, the Peace Corps is all about trying to promote world peace and friendship. That’s our principal mission and it has continued to be that way for nearly 50 years. We’re about to celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2011 and right now we have 7,500 volunteers in 74 countries around the world and we’re in 23 countries in Africa.
Which countries have you already visited on this trip, and what issues have arisen which you believe to be the most important?
I’m only going to visit one country on this trip to Africa: South Africa. I’m here primarily to meet with the country directors of all our programs in Africa and from here I go on to Bangkok to meet with our directors in Asia and the Middle East.
One of the things that I do when I visit a country is of course go out and visit our Peace Corps volunteers. I went to visit volunteers in Mpumalanga [province] and the North West [province] to look at volunteers who are working in programs in health and education. Those are the two principal sectors in South Africa.
Can you tell us what differences in policy or emphasis the Obama administration will bring to the activities of the Peace Corps?
This is a marvelous time for the Peace Corps as we approach our 50th [anniversary]. President Obama has issued a call to service to Americans and Americans have really responded in an extraordinary manner. Applications this year are up 18 percent. We have approximately 15,000 applications for about 4,000 positions right now so we’re seeing extraordinary interest on the part of Americans.
We also teach about 250 languages worldwide and the reason for that is so that Peace Corps volunteers can really reach out and work as partners in communities, with grassroots organizations around the world. One of the things that we try to do is that we want to be a responsive to partnerships. We’re a people-to-people organization. We work directly with communities.
Which African countries have benefited the most from Peace Corps assistance?
I think nearly all African countries have benefited… Historically, the first country that the Peace Corps went into was Ghana. Ghana is going to be the first country to celebrate its 50th anniversary and we have had uninterrupted service… [there] for nearly 50 years.
I think certainly here in South Africa we’re working in areas that are of great interest to the South African government and to South African society, civil society and business. We’re focused on education, we work on HIV/Aids. I had a chance to speak to South African government officials while I was here, in the ministries of health and education, and we want to support national priorities and we will continue to do so. Of course, our role is to work at the community level.
What are the Peace Corps’ biggest achievements, and its failures, in Africa over the last five years?
I think our biggest achievement has to be capacity development. We work with young people throughout the continent in terms of improving their learning ability. For example, we work with deaf children in many countries in Africa. We work with orphans who have been orphaned because of the HIV/Aids epidemic. We work in areas of small businesses and development with young people. As a matter of fact, probably two-thirds of all the people that we reach in Africa are children…
And now a new departure has been the new food security initiative. Secretary [of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton is very interested in food security; it’s going to be one of her primary initiatives and has the full support of course of the Obama administration. It is a priority at Peace Corps, and we’re going to do more to expand our work in agriculture. Agriculture has always been an important part of Peace Corps’ involvement in working at the community level.
What would you like the Peace Corps in Africa to be doing in three or four years?
I would like to see us continue our program in education; we’re very much involved in teacher training … hands-on involvement with teachers in the schools. I want to see us continue to expand our work in health, not just in HIV/Aids, but also in malaria and tuberculosis. We have trained skilled volunteers who work at the community level, really strengthening the capacity of NGOs at the grassroots to work in these areas.
I want to see us having a broad, expanded role in food security, especially because in Africa women play an instrumental role in the agricultural sector. I want to see us reach out to women who are involved in agriculture. I want to see us reach out to young people and introduce them to the importance of agriculture and food security. So those are the areas [where] I’d like to see us really establish a broader presence and deeper involvement at the community level.
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