Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Jeanne Paul (Brazil 1964-66)
CorpsAfrica Adapts the Peace Corps Model to Build Resilience in Rural Africa
BY MARC CHALUFOUR
Liz Fanning was inspired by her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and, with CorpsAfrica, has created volunteer opportunities for young Africans to work in their own countries.
In the early 1990s, Liz Fanning spent 1993-95 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small Moroccan village in the High Atlas mountains. She studied the impact of human and animal populations on endangered species—and witnessed the power of the Peace Corps’ model to aid communities and build mutual understanding between cultures. She also kept hearing the same question from young Moroccans: “How can I sign up?”
Fanning had no answer. The Peace Corps, an independent organization run by the US government, only accepts American volunteers, sending them overseas for two-year service trips. While some African countries, including Ghana and Nigeria, have mandatory national youth service programs, says Fanning, no organization existed to give young Africans Peace Corps-style volunteering opportunities in their own countries.
After returning from Morocco, Fanning worked in development and recruiting at a series of nonprofits, but often thought about the question she was asked again and again in North Africa. Eventually, she decided to do something about it. Borrowing many aspects of the Peace Corps structure—she retains close ties with the organization—Fanning launched CorpsAfrica in 2011. CorpsAfrica, which operates in Malawi, Morocco, Rwanda, and Senegal, places African volunteers in their own countries. After a month of intensive training, they relocate to a remote village for ten months and work with the residents to identify and carry out a project. These have ranged from creating $500 wells for potable water in Malawi to CorpsAfrica’s biggest endeavor yet: constructing a $30,000 basketball court in an overcrowded refugee camp in Malawi—made possible by a donation from the National Basketball Association.
After ten years, the organization has grown to include a staff of 20, while volunteers have completed more than 500 projects. Now Fanning, a 2019 recipient of the Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service from the National Peace Corps Association and a 2021 AARP Purpose Prize Fellow, is looking to expand the nonprofit. Her goal is to reach every country in Africa, welcoming thousands of volunteers annually. And while the coronavirus pandemic has posed many challenges, it has also helped demonstrate the strength of the CorpsAfrica model—and shown some new ways forward.
Learning to Listen
At the heart of Fanning’s vision for CorpsAfrica is the relationship between volunteers and their communities. Unlike with the Peace Corps, they don’t arrive with a preplanned project or sector-specific focus. Instead, they show up and listen—for as long as it takes—and follow the answers wherever they lead.
“We train our volunteers in human-centered design,” Fanning says. “We don’t want to go to a community and say, ‘Do you want a school?’ It’s the wrong question. If you want to help somebody, listen to them; facilitate conversations to help them identify their highest priority development needs.” Then the volunteers can help connect the community to the resources needed for their project.
Fanning says because CorpsAfrica’s model aims to empower local communities—not impose solutions from a distance—everything is done with minimal outside influence. Fanning is the sole American employee of the organization, although a recent grant is allowing her to expand the nonprofit’s headquarters. Most of the programmatic work is led by each country’s central office. “They all are very independent,” she says. “We try to work together as much as possible, but each country is so unique, so our offices and programs are tailored to their local environment.”
That’s reflected in the nonprofit’s funding model: each community contributes around 25 percent of the cost of their project—at least ten percent in cash and at least 15 percent in donated land, labor, or other asset—with the remainder coming from CorpsAfrica donors. Fanning says volunteers are trained to “build the capacity of the local community to help themselves, so they have ownership of what happens and they are invested in it financially as well. That’s critical to long-term sustainability of the projects. The community members are owners, they are customers, not charity beneficiaries.”
Over the past 60 years, says Fanning, “Africans have seen young Americans’ commitment to service through the Peace Corps and that example is something young Africans are now taking for themselves.” After their terms end, many decide to build on their experiences by taking jobs with NGOs (nongovernmental organizations)—including CorpsAfrica, which has a high number of alums on staff—and expanding Africa’s capacity for development work. She also hopes that CorpsAfrica’s fundraising efforts in Africa will help to build a culture of philanthropy on the continent.
The COVID-era Cohort
In March 2020, the Peace Corps was pulling approximately 7,000 volunteers out of Africa as COVID-19 spread globally. At the same time, CorpsAfrica gave their volunteers the choice to stay at their sites or return home. They’d been in their villages for a couple months and many had begun their projects. “They all stayed—every single one,” Fanning says. “They wanted to help, and in some ways they were safer in those communities than in the cities, where COVID was more rampant.”
Projects were paused and volunteers quickly pivoted to public health roles. Microgrants helped CorpsAfrica distribute face masks, gloves, and soap. Volunteers built foot-powered hand-washing stations, taught local tailors how to make masks, talked to their communities about safe practices like social distancing, and corrected misinformation. “They served as models of calm, prudent behavior,” Fanning says. “It was so simple for us to do and it really demonstrated the power of our model. And it was a way for these young people to be part of the solution. They were all immediately crisis responders.”
Measuring the impact of the volunteers’ work has been difficult but, Fanning says, anecdotal evidence suggests that their villages have fared better than others during the pandemic.
Most of the 2019–2020 class extended their tours, too, remaining at their sites for more than a year to finish their original projects. These included helping develop a health clinic for children in Malawi and sharing innovative techniques for improving rice production in Senegal. One of the standout projects of recent years though remains the basketball court at Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi.
The basketball court has been transformative, both for CorpsAfrica and for the children of the camp. Dzaleka was designed to house 14,000 people, but has become home to some 50,000, many fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. With such overcrowding, there are few outlets for play and the court—a high-end surface complete with the NBA logo in its center—provides a new and important social space.
“I’m very happy they are supporting us by building this court,” said Florence Masingo, a refugee from the DRC, in a video chronicling the court’s development. Shooting hoops, she added, was a great release from the stresses of camp life.
One of CorpsAfrica’s most ambitious recent projects was a basketball court, developed with support from the NBA, at a severely overcrowded refugee camp in Malawi. Video courtesy of CorpsAfrica
The project has given CorpsAfrica’s work a new visibility in the region and beyond, in part thanks to the promotional reach of the NBA, which helped celebrate the court’s development. The opening ceremony included speeches from government and NBA Africa officials, as well as a basketball tournament for camp children and youth. CorpsAfrica’s director in Malawi, Arthur Nkosi, says the project, and the newfound relationship with the NBA, has also opened new outlets for impact and outreach, inspiring his team to work with the Malawian government’s Ministry of Youth & Sports to use basketball to connect with more children in the country.
The pandemic prevented CorpsAfrica from training and deploying a 2020–2021 cohort, but 120 new volunteers were trained in fall 2021 and are settling into their communities. One of the first coronavirus-inspired changes to the organization’s approach came during their training, with the introduction of new curricula, including one dedicated to resilience.
The curricula aim to give volunteers the skills they need to help communities prepare for crises both unforeseen, like another pandemic, and ongoing, like climate change. Though volunteers rely on human-centered design to identify projects, they also have immersion projects to work on immediately—many of them climate-focused, like planting trees and vegetable gardens. Addressing climate change is a major component of volunteer training, Fanning says.
“It’s about making sure that the volunteers can identify impacts from climate change and they can listen to local people and find out what they think and how they’re adapting,” she says. “And they can bring that back to the climate change community and be the voice of these disconnected rural communities, which are the first ones to be impacted by climate change even though they’re the least responsible for it.”
As this latest group of volunteers gets to work, Fanning is focused on meeting the demand for volunteers across the continent. When CorpsAfrica expanded into Rwanda, 657 people applied for the first 10 positions. A new grant from the Mastercard Foundation will allow the organization to expand into Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Uganda over the next few years. And Fanning is looking beyond that.
“We want to be in every African country eventually,” she says. That even includes conflict countries, which other organizations avoid. When the Peace Corps pulled out of Burkina Faso a few years ago, staff there reached out to Fanning about opening a CorpsAfrica office; ongoing conflict in Ethiopia may delay expansion there but Fanning doesn’t anticipate halting those plans. “There are young people already there and they’re looking for ways to be part of the solution,” she says.
Fanning’s ultimate goal: 250 volunteers in each of the continent’s 54 countries—13,500 volunteers annually—within the next decade. “Then we’ll be ready for CorpsAsia,” she says.