Talking to Gabriel Krieshok (Madagascar)

Thanks to a “heads up” from Joanne Roll (Colombia 1963-65) who sent me this link:

I read about Gabriel Krieshok former lead of #ICT4D@PeaceCorps HQ.

On his blog, Gabriel had written:

For the first time in ten years, I have no official connection to the Peace Corps, and I have felt an itch to reflect on this journey and some observations that have stuck with me.

I must first say—that this process of moving on has been a little surreal. The nature of my relationship to the institution has changed over the years, through the various roles I’ve been lucky to have—volunteer, campus recruiter, and most recently as a staff member in Washington, D.C., where I voluntarily stepped down after 5 years of service just last month.

Movin’ On Again

After checking out his site, I got in touch with Gabriel, wanting to know more about what he had done with the tech world in the Peace Corps. It had been my experience working for the agency in the late nineties that a sizable number of the agency personnel was reluctant to become engaged in the brave new world of technology. They were in fear of it more than they might be living in any Third World country.

Reaching Gabriel by email, I asked him:

Where are you from in the States?

Gabriel: I grew up in eastern Kansas and studied Anthropology and French at the University of Kansas. I had the opportunity to spend a year studying in Europe during my junior year, and caught the bug of being addicted to language, immersion, and shared cultural experiences.

And you joined the Peace Corps after college?

Gabriel: I finished college armed with a liberal arts degree and a strong desire to get back overseas. In order to both learn and make something useful of myself, I attended an informational event for the Peace Corps. The recruitment video actually featured an interview with my 2nd cousin — whom I had no idea had served in the Peace Corps. If he could do it, so could I, I figured — so I started the application process.

This was still in the era of the apply-and-pray application (long submission process and no say on what country or region I would be assigned to). I applied fairly late in my last year at college, so I decided to take a job teaching English in a small town in eastern France. I wasn’t in a hurry to get a desk just yet.

I spent a great year teaching at a technical college in what I look back on as a sort of Peace-Corps-lite experience. When I finished, I was back home in Kansas for just a couple of days before I got the call from Peace Corps that I had been accepted to the Madagascar program and could leave in another two weeks but I had to accept immediately or wait another six months.

I accepted immediately.

What was your assignment?

Gabriel: I was assigned to be an Education volunteer in Madagascar, starting in the summer of 2007. I joined around 30 other educators in Washington, D.C. for a couple days of paperwork and last-minute ‘are you absolutely sure you’re in for this’ cautioning before we boarded a flight bound for Antananarivo by way of South Africa.

Gabriel with hat in the middle of his Peace Corps group

I moved around a little during my service — first for a security concern in the southwest region of the country, and then after my first year to helm the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader post in the regional capital, where I would then focus more on a particular English center project and overall volunteer logistics and Peace Corps administrative duties and site development.

My cohort’s ‘close of service’ was cut short three months by the political and military coup of 2009 when Peace Corps evacuated the entire country of volunteers. That’s another story.

Sum up your years with the Peace Corps after your tour, and your jobs.

Gabriel: The evacuation of Peace Corps Madagascar made my lingering decision between extending in-country and graduate school much easier — I’d pursue the graduate programs track.

I decided to go into a domain that I had begun learning about while in my small village in Madagascar. One project I had worked on during service was to help establish a wiki for volunteer projects across the country. It was popular, and got me thinking that the intersection of technology tools and development projects were (and continue to be) pretty limited.

In Madagascar

In terms of my own skill sets and experiences, I thought I had a knack for tackling some of the more technical challenges, but I didn’t know the policy world, the formal development sector, or the academic underpinnings for this type of work. I pursued a dual-degree at the University of Michigan to focus on Public Policy on the one hand, and Information Science on the other — hoping to marry these two domains into hands-on work for the social development sector.

While at Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, I worked for the International Center for two years as a Peace Corps Campus Recruiter. The timing was lucky, as Peace Corps was celebrating its 50th Anniversary of JFK’s 1960 2am speech on the steps of the student union that saw student activists take him at his word and sew the movement that pushed the newly-elected administration to actually build up a Peace Corps. I had the opportunity to meet and hear the history of Peace Corps from its very founders and icons (Al and Judy Guskin, Harris Wofford, Tom Hayden, Paul Theroux, Alejandro Toledo,). This experience had a profound impact on making me go from ‘Returned Peace Corps Volunteer’ to ‘Peace Corps Evangelist’ — having heard and learned first-hand the broader history of the global institution, and why it is so special as a beacon and force for good in the world.

After I finished the work on my degrees, I spent a year as a Research Assistant on a Ford Foundation-funded grant where I helped research the role of local broadband connectivity for marginalized and last-mile populations in the U.S.

A position opened at the Peace Corps to help design and build a global knowledge-sharing platform out of Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C. It was a no-brainer that I would apply, and I was ecstatic to get an offer to come on board for a new chapter with Peace Corps.

I spent a year designing and helping to scope out ‘Peace Corps Live’, the project name I had come up with for the platform (it stuck–ugh). Unfortunately, the project itself was besieged from the beginning by limited resources, staffing challenges, tangled bureaucracies, wild expectations, cultural resistance, and good old-fashioned risk aversion to do anything on this scale as an organization. I left this project after a year.

A quick aside-this continues to be one of the areas where were Peace Corps able to properly invest in this project, it would be one of the biggest dollar-for-dollar investments that the agency could make in diffusing lessons learned at scale, in perpetuating institutional memory, and in stemming loss from re-inventing any number of wheels that are constantly being re-invented.

I spent about a year and half as an IT Project Manager for the newly-created Office of Third Goal and Returned Volunteer Services, where I worked on projects ranging from analytics dashboards, RPCV policies, RPCV portals, and Correspondence Match.

It was around this time that opportunities converged and there was momentum to re-build what had been a dormant IT sector for Volunteers globally. I was asked to lead this effort. With the help of countless colleagues in other departments, internal and overseas staff, and engaged rock star volunteers, we were able to launch the Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) cross-sector initiative.

This effort was housed in the Office of Innovation, and we covered a lot of ground in providing strategy and support for projects in digital literacy, coding, mapping and GIS, design thinking, radio and television, mobile data, social media — and a host of others. It was a crucial sector, and a dream job for me.

Going to work at HQ

In order to absorb these strategies, stories, and resources, we at Peace Corps HQ started an effort known as ‘Digital Peace Corps’ in order to collect, curate, and mobilize information around Peace Corps’ ICT4D sector. It was a scaled back and simpler version of the earlier stalled-out Peace Corps Live project.

In October of 2016, we were given the green light with Digital Peace Corps, outlined in Peace Corps’ Open Government Plan.

Unfortunately, newly-installed leadership staff changes at the time led to the de-prioritization of the Office of Innovation projects, eventually leading to its shuttering altogether in late 2016 — effectively ceasing all activities related to Digital Peace Corps as well. I was able to internally publish the contents of Digital Peace Corps in their entirety, recognizing that it was likely that a follow-up administration and leadership team might have a different approach to Peace Corps’ role around technology, innovation, and ICT4D.

I have always been a firm believer in the 5-year rule of Peace Corps (a contrarian position within the agency), and so my desire to not extend combined with an expected level of agency burn-out inspired me to leave Peace Corps in 2017 and find a new challenge.

I was hired as a User Experience Designer by 1Source Consulting, where I led the efforts to re-design a Department of Treasury platform to make the regulatory process simpler and more efficient for breweries and distilleries. Honestly, I felt like I had won the lottery twice, to go from working for an organization promoting world peace, to one where I was helping people drink craft beer.

In my spare time, I founded, an open-source guidebook for aid workers and staff to leverage technology tools and resources, and I created a start-up — ProprThings ( — where I design useful 3d-printed objects inspired by design solutions to everyday life.

I’ve also started independent consulting for tech-related projects from time to time — particularly ones with an international development focus and have worked with a number of organizations in this space including Johns Hopkins, Creative Associates, Chemonics, TechChange, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, New America, and the World Bank.

Next month, I’ll be returning to the tech for social good space as I head to Abt Associates to help build out their ICT4D efforts.

I’ve been incredibly grateful to Peace Corps the institution as it has provided me with so many opportunities over the years to learn, to grow, to teach, and to address real problems in the world. It’s an incredible community, and I look forward to finding myriad ways to help ‘promote world peace and friendship’ in every project that I get to be a part of.

Tell, as someone who I thought had learned all the government acronym, what does ICT4D stand for?

Gabriel: ICT4D is the rather unsexy acronym given to projects where technology is used *explicitly* for a social good outcome. It can also be called ‘tech for good’ or ‘tech for development’. So basically really honing in on projects that promote education, that have a positive health impact that can help the environment, etc.

The acronym stands for ‘information and communication technology for development’, where development here is of the ‘international development’ variety — and the ICT part of it comes from the UK (we really call it just IT in the US) where the field sort of started out. Nowadays it’s both a term used by practitioners as well as academics, so while it’s kind of opaque outside the sector, it’s a very useful shorthand for identifying like-minded folks working in this space.

One last personal story from my Peace Corps Days.

My experience back in the ‘90s when I was working at HQ was similar to some of yours. I had written a proposal for a Crises Corps (later given the bureaucratic name of Response Corps) and Carol Bellamy (Guatemala 1963-65), the new Director wanted to do, but she hit resisted from a former priest Jack Hogan (Venezuela 1964-66) who had spent half his professional life at the Peace Corps and had recently been the acting director. Carol said she would start the Crises Corps but within the year she left the agency for the UN. But when Mark Gearan came in from the White House he moved immediately on the idea, fighting off the former priest and others and started it. A few months later I suggested giving laptops to all the PCVs, much like Shriver gave book lockers to the early PCVs, as a way of getting new ideas into the classrooms of the world, and I remember the same thing happening. Jean Seigle (Paraguay 1976-78) who like Hogan and Jody Olsen (Tunisia 1966-68) had made a career out of working for the Peace Corps. She and other ‘old timers” were against the idea of PCVs with laptops. It is not their fault that they have limited vision and imitations; they are just set in their ways. But do you see—as I do–the advantage of getting rid of staff, like these old ladies, after five years so new ideas and new younger people have an opportunity to be heard in the agency?

Gabriel: This was a remarkable story, John! Let me know if/when you’re in DC and have a chance to sit down for a beer — I really appreciate these stories and I think too many of them are lost and/or definitely under-appreciated at the agency!

As to your question about experience — it’s a good question. I’m not sure I’d put as fine a tip on it as the end of your question does — I would say that I think it has less to do with the 5-year rule and age than it does a mindset and scope of work within the agency more generally. I think you hit on something key, that many folks (you mentioned Jean Seigle and Jody Olsen) make a *career* out of working for the Peace Corps, and with that approach, their default stance is a sort of “old guard” posture that is highly risk averse and highly averse to any change in general. I think they seem themselves as trying to do the right thing, but personally I think many of them have traded in open-minded reception to new ideas for a vocational stewardship pocketed with as few bumps in the road as possible — and innovation of all kinds are seen as potential bumps in that road.

I can’t altogether fault that approach — I think I’m actually fairly risk averse in a lot of places in my life. I think what I found (and find) frustrating is when it’s apparent that the risk is trending the opposite way, and to do embrace the status quo is frustratingly *more* risky than progressing forward. Look at data responsibility as an example — I found more than a few cases where volunteers in the field were dealing directly with community-level data of a sensitive nature, and the volunteers didn’t have the training to know safeguards and proper handling of that data. One example I found was of volunteers positing household level data of HIV drug refills at the household level on an open and public mapping database. It wasn’t just one person — it was a systemic issue and one that many people *should* have caught, but the literacy around data was so low among volunteers and particularly our staff that no one caught it until much much later.

One way I suggested addressing this issue was to really level-up the knowledge and opportunities for mapping data and GIS in particular across the agency. It was a good idea, and was literally being offered for free by ESRI at the time as a donation (with zero licensing or future contractual burden on Peace Corps). It was turned down of course by the “old guard” folks, much like your examples, for being “too advanced.” It was suggest that Peace Corps “would always be about 5-10 years behind on technology — and we don’t need ‘Mercedes Benz solutions, we need Ford truck solutions'”….whatever that meant.

I’m not sure how you fix it. While I don’t think the 5-year rule is the only answer, I think actually following it WOULD help. I think also minimizing to the extent possible the version of Peace Corps that is career-oriented rather than service-oriented would help too. It would flip the burden from “how can this agency help push my career along” to “how can I take my successful career in international development and work a few years for the Peace Corps” — and so extensions from the 5-year rule would be seen as cowardly or inefficient or afraid to move on rather than rewarded, encouraged, and bragged on about, as they currently are.

But really, it comes down to good hiring and selection, I believe. And Peace Corps really and truly struggles with that. At all levels.

And then of course leadership. And I think we can both attest to the agency struggling in that area as well!

I agree and we’ll see what happens with Judy “coming home again” to the Peace Corps corner office. Thanks for your time, Gabriel. And good luck with your new job.

Thank you, John.

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