December 2, 2011

Reflections of a US Peace Corps Volunteer - 09/07/11

Legal Disclaimer
The following represents the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the official positions or opinions of the United States Government, the United States Peace Corps, or the Republic of Rwanda.

Now that that's out of the way...

What is this blog?
This blog is designed to give you an insight into what it's like living (and, in my case, serving) in a foreign culture and country. It will be written by me, Shawn Grund, and drawn entirely off of my experiences in Rwanda where I currently serve as a Volunteer with the United States Peace Corps. I graduated from UMD in the spring of 2010 with a degree in Communications and a minor in Mathematics. In October of 2010, I was officially accepted into the Peace Corps and now serve as an Education Volunteer. More on me later.

This blog will hopefully cover many different topics, all of which will give you a better understanding not only of what it's like to live abroad (especially in a post-conflict country in Africa), but also of Rwanda and what it's like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. But before we get into all of that, let's do some introductory topics.

A little background on the Peace Corps

"What kind of a peace do I mean and what kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax-Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. We must re-examine our own attitudes towards the world. Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."-- John F. Kennedy

In 1961, The United States Congress officially approved funding to begin a humanitarian program for third-world countries aimed at sharing the knowledge and experience of Americans with the world at large. With heavy backing from President Kennedy, the United States Peace Corps was born. Educated men and women from all walks of American life were called to volunteer 27 months of their lives in the poorest and least developed places in the world. There they would fully integrate into a community and begin to transfer their knowledge and skills to the local population with the overall goal of building capacity. Fifty years later, Peace Corps has participated in the development of 100+ countries through the use of over a quarter-million Volunteers. Today, Peace Corps operates in more than 70 countries and supports almost 8,000 active Volunteers.

The Peace Corps has three primary goals:
1- To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2- To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3- To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans

In every case, Peace Corps is asked by the host country to send Volunteers. Peace Corps Volunteers serve in a host country as invited guests of the host government. Peace Corps' role in development takes a community based approach. They do not provide funding to build schools, materials to pave roads, or almost anything of material value. What they do provide is knowledge. Peace Corps sends trained men and women into a requesting country to help develop the people, not the infrastructure. The foundation of all the work Peace Corps does across the world is the Volunteer.

A Peace Corps Volunteer serves for a total of 27 months (3 months of training and 2 years of actual work). Each volunteer serves within a specific Sector of Peace Corps. These include Education, Health, Community Development, Youth Outreach, Business, Information Technology, and Agriculture. During their service, a PCV is given a primary assignment to carry out; they may teach schoolchildren, train teachers, plan and conduct HIV/AIDS seminars, work in hospitals, or develop sustainable farming practices. In addition, PCV's are encouraged to find secondary projects as requested by their communities. The PCV will live, work, eat, sleep, and play within their community. For all intents and purposes apart from actual citizenship, the PCV is a full member of their host community. Yes, this includes speaking the local language.

A Brief History of Rwanda
Rwanda is a democratic republic in the heart of Africa. It shares a common border with Uganda to the north, Tanzania to the east, Burundi to the south, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west. Even though it is approximately the size of the State of Massachusetts, Rwanda boasts 11 million citizens, making it one of the most densely populated countries in Africa.

Due in part to the region's relatively isolated location and in part to the military strength of the Rwandan Kings prior to the late 1800's, the territory then referred to as Rwanda (which encompassed present-day Rwanda, most of Burundi, and parts of neighboring Uganda and Tanzania) wasn't breached by a European explorer until 1832. This means that while neighboring regions we being colonized and, in many cases, assimilated into the slave-trading world, Rwanda was left untouched. Because Rwanda's colonial period happened so late on the world stage, virtually no Rwandans (if any) were ever sold into slavery.

It wasn't until the Berlin Conference in 1884 that Rwanda was legally colonized by Germany (as part of then Ruanda-Urundi) and put under its protection. The Germans, however, had very little actual interaction with the Rwandan Kings or the Rwandan people before being defeated by Belgium in 1916. In 1919, the League of Nations declared Rwanda a mandate territory of Belgium. After the United Nations was established, the former colonies of the world were to be made ready to govern themselves. Rwanda was again placed as a trust territory of Belgium in 1948 under the arrangement that Belgium would provide assistance in establishing an independent Rwandan nation. Rwanda formally gained independence in 1962 and replaced their monarchy with an elected democracy.

For the next 32 years, the Government of Rwanda grew more and more corrupt and violence became more and more common. Policies made legal practice under colonial rule distinguished Rwandans into two basic ethnic groups; the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority. The Colonial governments generally saw Hutus as the common workforce and Tutsis as slightly more upper-class; and, the Tutsis, therefore, were generally wealthier and capable of holding high social and political positions with their colonial masters. Post-Independence, these ethnic divisions became major political and social flash points. By the late 1980's the primarily Hutu government began aggressive campaigns against the Tutsi ethnic group in an attempt to overturn the social structure. In April of 1994, then-President Habyarimana had re-opened peace talks with the President of Burundi, who was having similar ethnic troubles in his own country. On the 6th of April, 1994, a plane carrying both Presidents was shot down over Rwanda, killing both heads of state. Within hours, Rwanda descended into engineered chaos and, for almost 100 days, a strategically planned genocide designed to totally eradicate the Tutsi ethnic group ensued.

Men and women turned on their neighbors, their friends, and their families. The Interahamwe (Kinyarwanda meaning 'those who kill together') took to the streets armed with guns, grenades, and machetes to carry out their government's plan for 'ethnic cleansing.' It is unclear to this day exactly how many lives were lost, but it is estimated that nearly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in those 100 days (a staggering 20% of Rwanda's population). With this, Rwanda holds a single bloody statistical legacy: one of the highest number of deaths per day of any genocide-based conflict in human history, including the Holocaust. With nearly a million dead, another million living as refugees in neighboring countries, and half of a million guilty of murder or other genocide-related crimes, Rwanda was left in tatters by the time the Rwandan Patriotic Front seized control of the capital in mid-1994, forcing the former government, the 'génocidaires', and the Interahamwe to flee the country.

In the 17 years since the Rwandan Genocide ended, the Government of Rwanda has come a long way; having removed the concept of ethnicity entirely and begun promoting peace and unity among Rwandans as well as ensuring that those responsible for the events of 1994 are brought to justice. Differentiating based on the former ethnic groups is now illegal. Even use of the words 'Hutu' and 'Tutsi' is illegal (which is why this is probably the last time I will discuss this using the terms themselves). While the Rwandan courts are still trying and convicting Interahamwe members and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is still convicting high-level officials of the former government, Rwanda has moved on to unity. Today, all Rwandans are seen as one ethnic group: Rwandan.

The Rwandan people speak a Bantu-derived language called Kinyarwanda, although French and English are also National Languages. Over 99% of Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda, but Swahili is also common due to its use by returned refugees from Tanzania. Kinyarwanda, in many ways, is a straightforward language; every letter always makes the same sound and the vocabulary is minimal compared to English. Yet, Kinyarwanda is complex in its own right, mainly because of its 16 noun classes. In comparison, English has 2 (singular and plural). These noun classes affect almost every word that the noun deals with. For example, there are 16 different ways to say "it is good," depending on what 'it' is and which class it belongs to.

Peace Corps in Rwanda
In 2008, Rwanda made two major changes to their education system. First, they changed from six years of free basic education to nine years of free basic education. Second, they changed the official language of instruction from French to English. Before implementing this policy, the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, invited Peace Corps to return to Rwanda (Peace Corps Rwanda was established in 1980 but abandoned in 1993) to work in the Health and Education Sectors.

Currently, there are 129 Volunteers in Rwanda, with about 70 of us serving in the Education Sector. The majority of the Education Volunteers teach English in secondary schools (approximately grades 7-12), although we also have Math, Science, and ICT teachers. Most of us Education Volunteers work in rural schools and live in very rural communities without running water or electricity.

The Peace Corps Rwanda program is still rather young in terms of Peace Corps posts. Most of the Education Volunteers in country currently spend most of their time teaching students and training teaching in English and methodology. However, a few secondary projects have already begun to take hold, including a judges training program, an ICT teaching and training textbook, and a program designed to prepare students for the science portions of the national exams.

It is my pleasure to offer my experiences in Rwanda in the hopes they can be used to further the understanding of Rwandan culture, living abroad, and what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. If you wish to contact me directly with questions (or want me to write about certain things), feel free to email me at grun0177@gmail.com. Please understand that I have limited access to internet in Rwanda and may not be able to receive or respond to your email for several days.

-Shawn Grund
Peace Corps Volunteer, Republic of Rwanda (Education 2/ Rwanda 5)
Education and Technology

September 3, 2010

Turkey's process of Europeanization and the prospects for its full membership in the European Union

In his final web-log as the Alworth Institute's International Fellow, Dr. Oktay Tanrisever (Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey) discusses Turkey's process of Europeanization, which goes back to the modernizing reforms of Ottoman Turkey at the beginning of the 19th century, and seems to be one of the most challenging Europeanization processes for the European Union. What are the features of Turkey's Europeanization process and what are its prospects for full EU membership?

Continue reading "Turkey's process of Europeanization and the prospects for its full membership in the European Union" »

Turkey as an energy corridor between the Caspian Sea and Europe

The 2010 Alworth Institute International Visiting Fellow, Dr. Oktay Tanrisever (Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey) writes - Energy security has been one of the top priorities of Turkey's foreign policy since the oil crisis in 1973 affected Turkey's foreign economic relations very negatively. Turkey is highly dependent on external energy supplies to meet its domestic demand. Moreover, its energy imports constitute the main reason for its chronic balance of payments deficit. Energy security has also become a strategic issue for both the European Union and NATO with the development of common EU and NATO positions on energy security among member states since the mid-2000's. Both EU and NATO positions on energy security necessitate less dependence on the Middle Eastern and the Russian-controlled sources, as political instability in these regions have threatened European and Transatlantic energy security. This has also increased the importance of the energy reserves in the Caspian Sea for both Turkey and its NATO and European allies. What is Turkey's energy policy, and how does it affect Turkey's strategy and relationships with Europe?

Continue reading "Turkey as an energy corridor between the Caspian Sea and Europe" »

September 2, 2010

Sources of Turkey's increasing influence in the Middle East

In this guest web log, Dr. Oktay Tanrisever (Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey), the 2010 Alworth Institute International Fellow writes that Turkey is among the few states in the world that have increased their influence in the Middle East in the post-Cold War era. The modernization of the Middle East has become a very problematic issue as radical Islamist movements have been intensifying their confrontational attitudes towards the socio-political and economic reform efforts in the region. Consequently, terrorism has become a severe problem in the region especially in the aftermath of the horrendous terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 by the Al Qaida terrorist organization which has terrorist networks in many parts of the Middle East. In this context, in what ways has Turkey increased its influence in the Middle East? What are the implications for Turkey's changing international role?

Continue reading "Sources of Turkey's increasing influence in the Middle East" »

July 9, 2009

David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, and Iran

I caught myself wondering what David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher and mitigated skeptic, would make of the Iranian government and the politics it seems to engender. This may be an unhelpful idea and certainly Iran is a bit of a mystery in many respects. All of this is speculative but it might be interesting to explore. How might Hume have gone about examining the constitutional and political life of Iran?

Continue reading "David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, and Iran" »

June 25, 2009

Making Sense of the 2009 Iranian Elections

In this guest web log, Dr. Khali Dokhanchi (UWS) writes: The presidential election of 2009 is perhaps the most devastating development to the Iranian regime since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Most people assumed that the next crisis in Iran would be "external"--namely a military attack on its nuclear installations either by the US or Israel. No one expected that the regime in Iran would nurture the seeds of its own destruction. Irrespective of truth about how many people voted and who they voted for, people who felt that the elections were "rigged" took to the streets to demonstrate their unwillingness to continue with the status quo. What are we supposed to learn from these events? What do they mean?

Continue reading "Making Sense of the 2009 Iranian Elections" »

June 8, 2009

The UK political crisis

The transformation from economic downturn to political crisis started slowly enough. At first the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown was a ‘hero’ in the way that he took action to secure the banking system and seek international agreement. But a strange little time bomb was ticking away inside Parliament, the question of MPs’ expenses, and when the details went public, the electorate turned nasty. This gave it a specific emotional focus for a whole set of issues. Gordon Brown has been on the back foot ever since, even although the expenses are a matter for the Speaker’s Office and not for the government. The Speaker has already paid the price and has gone. One blow after another has landed upon Brown: Ministerial resignations, defeat in the local government and European elections. The crisis has two elements: a lack of confidence in Parliament, in the House of Commons in particular, and a slow ebbing away of authority from the Government of the day. What has gone wrong?

Continue reading "The UK political crisis" »

April 23, 2009

The Financial Crisis and the European Union

Dr. Marek Wroblewski (University of Wroclaw, Poland) Visiting International Fellow at the Alworth Institute has contributed this web log on financial crises. He writes: It is general knowledge that there is a financial crisis not only in the United States but also amongst European economies and in the world more generally. It would be hard to miss such significant news. But what is a financial crisis? How is it experienced, in the various countries of the European Union (EU), and what are its consequences?

Continue reading "The Financial Crisis and the European Union" »

April 16, 2009

The Development of the Russian Economy and its Impact on Eastern Europe

In this guest weblog, Visiting International Fellow, Dr. Marek Wroblewski writes: Russia is the largest country in the world as far as the occupied land is concerned, with a great natural resource potential, and a strong political and military position in the international arena. These attributes for a long time predestined Russia to imperialism and global power. Imperial collapse, however dramatic and painful for the country, only temporarily undermined its role of a hegemonic leader. Russia’s marginalization and exclusion of did not deprive the former superpower of effective instruments to influence decision-making processes taking place in the region and in the world. How does Russia use its economy to influence its immediate external environment?

Continue reading "The Development of the Russian Economy and its Impact on Eastern Europe" »

April 14, 2009

Economic Transformation in Poland: Success or Failure?

This guest web log by Alworth International Visiting Fellow Dr. Marek Wroblewski (University of Wroclaw, Poland) looks at changes in the Polish economy. He writes: Economic transformation in Poland is a product of the fall of the communist system and of the spread ofliberal capitalism. In the economic sphere, transformation initiated a difficult and costly process of transforming of a centrally planned economy into a market system. What were the changes and how were they implemented? What have been the outcomes for Poland?

Continue reading "Economic Transformation in Poland: Success or Failure?" »

April 8, 2009

Adam Smith is back, in a surprising way, on the ideas agenda

The global economic order is under serious scrutiny. The significant economic philosopher, Amartya Sen, has put Smith back at the centre of the discussion by reminding anyone who will listen that Smith was a moral philosopher, a friend of the poor (as Malthus described him) and interested in ethical issues and the market. He disliked monopolies (particularly monopolies of land and of trade). He admitted the role of “interest” in the motivation of merchants and business people. Smith did not, as far as I can establish, use the term “self-interest” but thought of interest in prudential (hence moral) terms. Sen stresses Smith’s understanding of institutions and the need for trust: repetition and consistency through trust are important in sustaining economic life. Prudent behavior is not to be underestimated as it contains within it the idea of honest-dealing. Sen’s article may be seen at Financial Times, March 11th 2009. This blog is simply going to give a few pointers, rarely quoted, to what I would like to call the radical-conservative Smith who we rarely here about, using Smith’s own words. Smith could be pithy as well as insightful and many of his comments on the behaviors of landlords and merchants are satirical.

Continue reading "Adam Smith is back, in a surprising way, on the ideas agenda" »

April 2, 2009

G20 and policy perspectives.

There were differences at the G20. Obama was willing to accept some blame on the part of the United States. Sarkozy wanted to energetically wave the finger and blame that old-French, Gaullist, target the “Anglo-Saxons” though in the face of the first black President of the United States this seemed always a non-starter. Was there a split between Europe and the United States? Policy stances, as outlined below, are taken along domestic political and often historically-determined lines.

Continue reading "G20 and policy perspectives." »

March 30, 2009

John Ruskin, the1860s and the eventual end of laissez-faire.

In 1860 John Ruskin first attempted to publish four essays that he later published as Unto this last. This was a condemnation, in difficult and sometimes stunningly beautiful prose of the state of England. Ruskin saw the glaring contrast between the alleged wealth of industrial production and the pattern of pollution and its long term consequences or of the exploitation of the laboring poor. What briefly (he wrote volumes) did Ruskin argue? Has Ruskin anything to tell us for today? What follows is a summarization of a longer piece on John Ruskin by Willie Henderson.

Continue reading "John Ruskin, the1860s and the eventual end of laissez-faire." »

March 25, 2009

Is “economic globalization” worth saving?

The endings of periods of sustained globalization have been dangerous times: the Napoleonic Wars; the First World War. Globalization has its good points and bad points. Its good points have been the dramatic changes in the prospects for sustained economic growth in India and China and the pace at which people have been pulled out of extreme poverty and the relative cheapening of production. Its bad points have been the dramatic increase in inequalities in countries where previous policy has been built around the notion of avoiding huge differences in income and the growth of pollution and waste together with the unevaluated spread of western consumption practices. Some argue that the greatest threat to the world economy is the possibly irresistible rise of protectionism. Some might feel that a pause in the reckless development of China or in the destruction of communities by international economic forces beyond their control are good things, allowing time to reflect on the environmental and social impact of the global economy. Leaders are face with a choice of doing nothing (already rejected but still supported by right wing libertarians); doing something to stimulate demand (though the outcomes are uncertain); protecting that stimulus package in-country by protectionist methods (probably very attractive in the short-run); going for global coordination (difficult to achieve).

Continue reading "Is “economic globalization” worth saving?" »

March 5, 2009

Gordon Brown, United States protectionism and the special relationship

Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, was in Washington D.C. this week, telling the Congress things that it likes to hear (how forward looking the United States is) and telling them a few things that on the whole it did not wish to hear. He also sent them a message about the so-called “special relationship” between Britain and the United States. He did not tell it that the present economic crisis originated in the United States though this is the case nor did he add that hence there is an obligation not to make the present situation worse by turning to protectionism. Nor did he tell them that he presided as Chancellor over the UK economy for several years leading up to this crisis. There is wobbly ground all around! What did Brown say and why?

Continue reading "Gordon Brown, United States protectionism and the special relationship" »