Liz, where are you from in the States and where did you go to school?
I was born and raised in New York City. I attended public schools, including the Bronx High School of Science, then I went to Boston University for undergrad and NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service for an MPA (on the Sargent Shriver RPCV Scholarship!).
What led you to start your foundation? Your idea?
I started CorpsAfrica to build on the enormous success of the Peace Corps.
When I was a PCV, I met many educated young Moroccans who would ask me if they could be PCVs in order to help their country, and I had to say no. Their questions dogged me for 20 years because they deserved that opportunity.
When the Peace Corps first started 60 years ago, in many African countries there were maybe two college graduates in the whole country. Now there are hundreds of universities across the continent and plenty of college-educated young people. And, ironically in Africa, the higher your education level, the more likely you are to be unemployed. CorpsAfrica seeks to harness this potential and empower young Africans to be part of the solution for their countries.
We believe that development efforts are most effective when local people identify what needs to be done and take the lead in doing it. And we tap the idealism and energy of educated young people from those countries to make it happen, at the same time giving them the transformative experience of the Peace Corps, helping to shape their view of the world and their own futures.
CorpsAfrica is about giving the Volunteers the chance to roll up their sleeves and take the time to get to know people unlike themselves. It’s getting out of their comfort zones and learning about themselves and being able to do something different and humbling. I strongly believe that CorpsAfrica service is a life-defining experience and a launching pad for a successful and purposeful career. At the same time, it serves as a model of listening, humility, sustainability and accountability for development efforts in Africa.
How did it begin? i.e., what and who were the first Volunteers?
People often ask me why we started in Morocco. The short answer is, because that’s where the Peace Corps sent me. It’s also a large, diverse, politically stable country with a vast NGO network and plenty of educated, ambitious young people eager to find their place in the world.
We were able to raise the funds necessary to start through a special tribute to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who had served as Peace Corps Country Director in Morocco early in his career, and who had introduced me to my first Board Chair, John Salinger, who was a PCV under Holbrooke.
We launched in September 2013, and the first cohort in Morocco (the “Pioneers”) included nine women and one man. (We called him “the lucky one.”) Several of them had worked as Language and Culture Facilitators (LCFs) with the Peace Corps, so they knew what this was. There was also a young Moroccan woman who’d grown up in Dallas, Texas. She wanted to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco to get to know her home country, but the Peace Corps told her they wouldn’t send her there because of her strong connections. She heard about CorpsAfrica, and we jumped at the chance to include her. She’s still the only “Diaspora Volunteer” that we’ve hosted, but it was a great success, and we hope to include more in the future.
That first year the Volunteers were placed far from each other — and one of them was in the village that I’d served in 25 years earlier. That was really something.
Why did you decide on the Peace Corps and what was your assignment?
I didn’t think I’d get in, but I applied for the Peace Corps because I didn’t want to regret not having tried. But I got an interview, and the recruiter called a week later and said, ‘Do you want to go to Morocco in three weeks? Let me know tomorrow.’ It was a shock! I was working for the ACLU in New York and was on a career path, but I wanted to be part of the bigger world. The war in Bosnia was going on, and I wanted to do something meaningful. I wasn’t going to join the Army, so I joined the Peace Corps.
I was assigned to be a “Rural Socio-economic Planner,” which seemed nuts because I was an economics major and fundraiser from the Upper East Side, but I was ready to try. I was assigned to a national park in the High Atlas Mountains. It’s very humbling to live with people in a remote village of a foreign country and to realize how complex their lives are, and how they know so much more than you do about what they need.
There is a role for Peace Corps volunteers to bring in objectivity and skills, but it’s more about listening to the local people. That’s where I was so profoundly struck by the need for humility in development efforts, and it’s the biggest lesson that I took away from the Peace Corps, which eventually led me to found CorpsAfrica.
In the first days of the Peace Corps, the shrinks would tag Trainees and try to identify who would be the ‘best.’ From your experience, what makes a good PCV?
Ha! I heard about that. As with CorpsAfrica, I think it’s impossible to tell who will be the “stars.” That said, it’s usually the ones that stay at their sites and learn the language fluently.
In what countries are you working today? What’s next?
We’re in Morocco, Senegal, Malawi, and Rwanda – and hoping to open offices soon in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, The Gambia, Liberia, Uganda, and Tunisia.
Is the role of a CorpsAfrica Volunteer similar to that of a Peace Corps Volunteer?
Unlike Peace Corps Volunteers, CorpsAfrica Volunteers go to their sites with no pre-existing agendas. We don’t have sectors. I often joke that we’re like Seinfeld: We’re an NGO about nothing. But actually, we’re about everything. We train the Volunteers in facilitation skills and teach them, “If you want to help somebody, listen to them.”
Go in without the answers, not as a savior, but as a liaison to outside innovations and resources. That’s the role of the CorpsAfrica Volunteer. We reinforce the idea of “servant leadership,” which is really about checking your ego at the door and letting yourself be guided by the people you want to help. That’s the kind of experience that’s going to make them effective leaders in the future.
We train the Volunteers in something called Human-Centered Design, which is simply a structure for the facilitation process. It helps them make sure that everyone is engaged and leads the local people to identify small-scale, high-impact projects that address their highest-priority needs. The projects usually cost between $500 and $5,000, and the local people manage the budgets. We also require a ten-percent financial contribution from the community for every project. When I first started this, I didn’t understand how important that was, but it makes these communities “customers,” instead of charity beneficiaries. They can complain if it doesn’t work. If they’re putting money in, they’re going to care more, they’ve got skin in the game.
This whole process is more about the mindset change of the community than it is about the Volunteers or the project. I believe that a big part of why development efforts fail is because the local people don’t have any ownership. They often don’t have control over their own lives, but when you go in there and live with them, eat what they eat, sleep where they sleep, and help them obtain these skills, they start to do things on their own. And when you leave eventually, you know it’s going to continue.
How do you ‘manage’ your volunteers in CorpsAfrica, or do you try to manage them from America?
Oh gosh, that would be a nightmare. No, we have an amazing staff in each country, mostly former CorpsAfrica Volunteers. I manage the Country Directors, and they do an extraordinary job of managing everything else.
Do you have other RPCVs working with you today?
I’m the only HQ staffer, but I have amazing interns, including one evacuated PCV from Lesotho and one who’s been accepted to the next group headed to Morocco. We also have several RPCVs on our Board of Directors and Advisory Council.
Do you know of any other RPCV that is doing something similar to what you have achieved in Africa?
Many RPCVs have achieved great things on the continent. It’s one of the reasons I was inspired to start CorpsAfrica – I wanted young Africans to have a similar transformative experience that would inspire and empower them to achieve great things in Africa. #ShiftThePower.
Where and how do you get your funding and how can RPCVs support what you are doing?
We are committed to promoting a culture of philanthropy in Africa, so Africans truly have ownership of their own development and they get to decide what gets done. That said, we want and need funds from everywhere and anywhere in order to do that. It’s especially meaningful to me when RPCVs support CorpsAfrica, I want this to come from all of us, paying the Peace Corps forward by donating to CorpsAfrica. The organization embodies so much of what the Peace Corps believes about making the world a better place. It’s about local ownership and empowering young people to be a part of the solution. It’s about giving people a hand up, and not a handout. And, it’s giving deserving young Africans the opportunity to serve, like we did through the Peace Corps.
One of our dedicated Board members, Jocelyn Zuckerman (Kenya 1991-93) is providing a generous match for Giving Tuesday this year (December 1st) to encourage others to join her in supporting CorpsAfrica by doubling their gift. I hope lots of RPCVs will take her up on that.
Do you think there’s still a role for the Peace Corps in Africa, or should their efforts be turned over to organizations like CorpsAfrica?
That seems to be the question of the day.
I actually think that the Peace Corps is more vital now than ever. There’s always a role for well-meaning people (Americans or anyone else) to be a part of the solution, and the diplomatic role of the Peace Corps is unique and valuable to America. As Joe Biden said, we want to “ lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
The Peace Corps embodies that philosophy. To me, the fact that young Africans (and young Asians, South Americans, etc.) want to be PCVs is a powerful testimony to the impact of Peace Corps.
But I’m not exactly objective on this one. I always encourage people who want to go into international development to do Peace Corps first. It’s an extraordinary opportunity that changed my life dramatically. I wouldn’t have such strong convictions if it weren’t for the Peace Corps. Like CorpsAfrica, the Peace Corps is not like a typical NGO that should have a goal of working itself out of a job. We don’t have a specific problem to solve — we’re more about promoting a healthy global landscape of listening, communication, exchange, experience, humility, collaboration, friendship, and understanding.
One last question. What’s the best way to get in touch with you?