Sustainable Development, that’s the strategy and the goal here in the little village in the Dominican Republic where I live. It’s also the Peace Corps method in every village that every Peace Corps volunteer lives in. My job in the Peace Corps is to integrate into my community, become so part of them that when there’s progress, it’s not my progress, it’s our progress. We work together to identify community needs and problems then create strategies to solve them. All though it’s not always true, the purpose of my service isn’t even to solve community needs, it’s really to teach the community members how to organize and solve their own needs.
My community is so small (152 people) and so friendly (the list for this one would go on for days) that it was natural to integrate here. From the day I moved in, my community members saw and treated me like family. They made my job of integration easy. Sure, in the beginning I visited new houses and interviewed people for my community diagnostic but my neighbors were the ones who welcomed me in, gave me juice, fruit, lunch, dinner, water and opened up their homes and lives to me. So with integration down my service moved into the real service phase.
Through talking and living with my community members we decided on the projects I’d work on. My main project was and is working with a women’s association/business to organize and commercialize their business and products. As I soon realized lack of water was also a severe problem in Corozo. Other problems were lack of activities for young people, jobs for youth, the bad roads, lack of health care, instable electricity and cacao production down. Lastly, the one I dreaded, but everyone unanimously wanted, so I had to do, was English class.
Obviously, I can’t solve all of these problems in two-short years of service. I worked on projects that touched on some of the issues (not electricity because I’m terrified of being electrocuted here) but not all. Sustainable development and the goal would be if I worked with community members on addressing one of the problems and then they using the same skills they could address the others. Throughout my service, the women’s business has also been one of my top priorities.
The women’s business thankfully has had some success. They now have: production control, simply logging the date and who made products and with what; quality control, weighing portions, comparing colors and tastes and packing; they have new attractive labels and packaging,; they organize events better than any wedding planner; they’ve increased sales but who knows by what percent because they just started recording sales this year and they are still hard at work progressing. I’ve worked with the women in their daily and weekly activities, making product, packing product, recording sales and analyzing costs. I’ve become so intertwined in their success, their success is starting to feel like my own, and this isn’t a good thing.
Although I’m not done with my service part of my service, I want to start transitioning into making sure my service created sustainable development. I want to start stepping back from working so closely with the women on their daily activities to make sure they can do them themselves.
Currently, I still help the treasurer heavily with the bookkeeping. I don’t do the bookkeeping but she has trouble understanding charts and how to fill them in so I still go over the books with her weekly. I’ve seen multiple production days when I’m not there the women forget to record their hours worked or fill in the production notebook. I don’t want to diminish the women’s success, because they have been an integral part in their own success. The women are superb at always getting work done, if there is an order, it will be filled. No one ever skips work or doesn’t work the hardest they can. The women just aren’t accustomed to boring office details, which are sometimes the most essential part of a business. They are experts in cacao and hard manual labor, but they aren’t experts in notebooks and pens. They can almost always get weights right by looking at it, so don’t remember to weigh out portions.
Their success has come so quickly that they’ve been scrambling to fill orders and I’ve stepped in to help with the notebooks. I’ve taught and explained how each new practice works but the women seem to fall into their old ways. I don’t want the business to fail, I am interested in how much sales increase and how much profit they make from each product, so I end up filling in the notebooks out of my own curiosity. I thought once the women saw how important the administration part of a business was that they’d make it a priority but that still hasn’t happened.
I’ve started to realize the women don’t run their business like traditional businesses and that’s okay. I can’t push American business practices on them, if it doesn’t work in their culture. They have a president but in meeting you almost don’t know who is on the board and who is not. The women truly work as a team. I’ve realized I don’t have to make the women run their business like a fortune 500 company. They do need organization, but maybe they can find a middle ground. My hope is that through learning from each other and borrowing ideas, that the women can keep the essential family run feel and unity to their business but also use some of traditional business skills I’ve been trying to teach them.
I want their development to be organic and sustainable. I don’t want to force notebooks on them, or worse do the work for them. I want them to understand all the business practices and their benefits and then decide which ones to include in their business, because at the end of the day, and at the end of my two years here, the business is the women’s. They organized when there was nothing here in in their community. Before USAID, before Peace Corps and when I was still in middle school these women were making products. Now their association is turning into a business and I hope they have success as much as I hope they don’t lose the essentials of their organization. I hope they learn and adapt as well as never forget how they started. I hope their development is sustainable, even though my service isn’t.