San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Peace Corps celebrates half a century in Costa Rica

On Jan. 23, 1963, 26 college graduates from the United States arrived in Costa Rica to volunteer among farmers and in math and science classrooms in rural communities.

Costa Rica was the third country in Central America – and among the first 20 worldwide – to receive Peace Corps volunteers as part of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s mission to foster intercultural relations.

Forty-eight years after those first volunteers arrived in the country and 50 years after Peace Corps was established, more than 3,200 volunteers have invested two years of their lives here, installing greenhouses, teaching English and starting businesses, among other projects.

In its half-century here, the Peace Corps has adapted to fill the country’s most pressing needs. At first, volunteers served as teachers and agricultural workers. In the ’70s and ’80s, the central focus was agribusiness. Then, ecotourism began to grow as an industry, so volunteers were recruited to work in that field.

Today, Peace Corps Costa Rica has four programs: Community Economic Development; Children, Youth and Families at Risk; Rural Community Development; and Teaching English as a Foreign Language, the agency’s newest program.

On the occasion of Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary, The Tico Times sat down with Peace Corps Costa Rica Director Steven Dorsey to talk about the agency’s role in Costa Rica, projects it has been working on, and the future of Peace Corps in the country.

TT: What is Peace Corps?

SD: Peace Corps is a U.S. government agency, part of the executive branch. It was established under executive order by President John F. Kennedy on March 1, 1961 … to send college-educated young Americans abroad to serve as volunteers in countries that have requested assistance from the United States in a variety of different sectors.

How does the Peace Corps work in Costa Rica?

Volunteers come for a period of 27 months: three months in training and 24 months on assignment. We have a staff right now that supports 130 to 140 volunteers throughout the country.

We get our funding from the U.S. government. … Volunteers get a minimum stipend every month, which includes their housing and their food and communications. It’s a small stipend that amounts to about $300 a month, depending on the cost of living where they are located. With that $300, they have to pay for housing, food and communications.

What is the greatest misconception among volunteers arriving on the job?

On the first day volunteers come in, they are driven past a Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, a Pizza Hut. They ask, “What is this? Are we in Miami?”

People join the Peace Corps for the developing country experience. A lot of people come to Peace Corps thinking they will be living in a rural village with a dirt floor and that they won’t have electricity or running water. That is not the world most volunteers find themselves in. Yes, some live in pretty Spartan conditions, but most have a house with walls and most of the walls reach to the roof. They have a door to their room and they have a cement floor and they might have running water. … For the most part, our volunteers [here] aren’t going to get the dirt floor.

But there is still a need in Costa Rica?

Our volunteers don’t do a lot of primary health care work, which they do in Guatemala and Honduras. We don’t do a lot of that here because they have a fairly strong health system. … For the most part, Costa Rica doesn’t have the extreme poverty that other Central American countries have … [but] we still have 20 percent poverty in this country. We still have pockets where very little benefit of economic development has reached, where it probably won’t, where the government doesn’t invest many resources. That’s where our volunteers can have an impact.

Peace Corps has pulled out of countries once they become developed. Is there any chance of that happening in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica was at one point very close to being closed out as a program in 1999-2000. Another government agency, USAID [United States Agency for International Development], pulled out of Costa Rica in 1996-1997. USAID was going through some budgetary challenges and they were selecting countries in which development had reached a point where they could comfortably pull out. Costa Rica was one of those. … At that point, Peace Corps was thinking, well, if USAID is pulling out, why not Peace Corps? It got to the point that Peace Corps Costa Rica was down to 20 volunteers and a handful of staff, and the idea was that it was going to pull out. The program was going to close.

But two things happened. PANI [the Child Welfare Office] made an appeal for Peace Corps to stay, saying they valued and needed the support that Peace Corps volunteers were giving to at-risk children and families. The other event that happened around that time, which was very telling, was 9/11. I think the U.S. government looked around and said it needed all the friends it could get in the world, and Costa Rica has been a good friend. It must have said, “Let’s continue to support Costa Rica in its development. Let’s keep Peace Corps there and let’s grow it back up to where it was.” And that’s what happened. [Peace Corps] was relatively stable at about 150 volunteers, went down to 20 and now we are back up to the same level.

For the foreseeable future, there is no risk that we will be pulling out of Costa Rica anytime soon. … There are still many communities in many areas of the country that don’t receive the advantages of economic growth, and those are the places our volunteers are at.

How do you decide which communities to work in?

It’s probably more of an art than a science, but essentially program volunteers every year are tasked with identifying communities where volunteers should be assigned. … A lot depends on what the current volunteers say. They may say, yes, my community needs a follow-up volunteer, or maybe they need a different kind of volunteer. We also work with our partners, PANI, Dinadeco [the National Agency for Community Development]. … We ask them: Where are your priorities in terms of placing these volunteers? What are the areas that need the most help? We also look at economic and social development indicators of the country. Then we look at placing our volunteers in the most needy parts of the country. We look at pockets that are not as developed, where poverty exists. We visit the community at least three times before volunteers are assigned, and we convene a meeting where we introduce what Peace Corps is and how it works and what a volunteer does and how they live. We also have to look into safety and security. Is it safe to assign a volunteer there? Many of our volunteers are coming in by themselves. We do have married couples, but we are assigning a lot of young female volunteers to rural, small communities. We want to make sure those are safe places.

Peace Corps has come under fire internationally for its response to incidents of rape or sexual assault. Any reaction to recent headlines?

In terms of the congressional hearings and the cases of rapes and sexual assaults, Peace Corps Costa Rica is not immune to the problem. I hope and I believe that we have a different approach to what is portrayed in those hearings. We do not blame anyone for falling victim to any crime, especially rape or sexual assault. We provide immediate support. But it does happen, and it has happened in my time. I have been here two years.

How many incidents have you responded to?

In the last two years, three.

How do you protect volunteers against the risk of sexual assault or rape?

Volunteers are always at risk. We tell them when they come in that their best safety net is their community, their host family, the people they know, their friends and their neighbors. You are safer when you are in your community than when you are outside your community. So our advice is to minimize time outside the community – say, in San José.

How do you respond if an incident like this happens? Do you send them home?

That depends on the volunteer and the volunteer’s wishes. We support them whatever their decision might be, and if their decision is to stay, we make sure they are in a community that is as safe as possible. For our volunteer profile, the average age is 25 and female. If you look at that same profile of young, single females in the U.S., the incidence of rape and major sexual assault is greater in the U.S. than it is in Peace Corps Costa Rica. It is tragic whenever it happens, but it is not exceptional in terms of what is happening to young females all around the world. So our goal is to help our volunteers be aware of risk, minimize the risk to every extent possible and, if one of our volunteers becomes victim to sexual assault or rape, to encourage them to get a hold of us right away.

How is Peace Corps in a position to get Costa Rica to the next step in its development?

I think it is in a unique position because Costa Rica’s next stage of development is not going to happen based on foreign investment or tourism or even high tech. It is going to be based on community-by-community development … communities getting better services, getting more confidence, taking more control of their own development; that’s what is going to pull the whole country along toward the next stage. And that’s where our volunteers are working.

How is Peace Corps making an impact?

We have volunteers working on some interesting and innovative projects both in the environment as well as in the classroom. … One group planned a soccer tournament in the south to raise awareness in HIV and AIDS education and prevention. The youths that participated were charged with multiplying what they learned.

We had another group of volunteers get together and say, “We are working with youth in our communities and we see a lot of leadership potential in these kids, but there is not a lot of opportunity for them to get together.” Our volunteers got some funding from CRUSA [the Costa Rica-U.S.A. Foundation for Cooperation] and they said, “We are going to have a leadership camp from all around the country. It is going to be a national camp.” During that week, they talked about life skills. They talked about their responsibilities to go back to their communities and what they needed to do when they got back. They collaborated with PANI on the project, and PANI decided to pick it up, and now there’s a PANI leadership congress every year.

Another project was ALA – Alianza Liderazgo Ambiental – which is designed to create young environmental leaders aware about environmental issues. For that conference, Peace Corps volunteers did a surf camp.

With all we do, the whole point is to help the organizations we work with learn about project design and management, grant applications and how to report on a grant. … It’s a catalyst to help them understand that there are funds available.

With all social programs, there’s always a risk of creating dependency. How does Peace Corps Costa Rica help communities walk on their own feet?

Volunteers can catalyze something in a community, but they are not there to do all the work. They are there to catalyze, to build capacity, to cajole, to train and eventually to pull back and see it take off and see it work. You don’t see a big Peace Corps logo. We don’t do that. … It’s about volunteers supporting community members and community organizations building their own capacity.

What is your immediate goal for Peace Corps and Costa Rica?

I think Costa Rica can be and ought to be the first developed country in Central America in terms of its social and economic development. The political stability is pretty much there already. They have made some very important steps in social development. There are some things they still need to work on, but they have done a pretty good job. I think Costa Rica has the potential.

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