History of Peace Corps in the Baltics
From Peace Corps Wiki
The Peace Corps Worldwide
When President John F. Kennedy became President of the United States in 1961, he issued a call to service to Americans with these words: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” He manifested this vision by establishing the Peace Corps to promote world peace and friendship. The history of the Peace Corps began then and developed into a story of more than 165,000 Americans who have served as Volunteers in 135 countries. In 2002, as the Peace Corps commemorated its 41st anniversary, there were nearly 7,000 Volunteers serving in 70 countries around the world.
The Mission the Peace Corps
The Peace Corps has three goals:
- To help the people of interested countries meet their need for trained men and women.
- To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
The Peace Corps is unique as a development assistance organization in that money is not a component of the assistance. The Peace Corps is the only American government program that engages in the people-to-people exchange of knowledge and skills. The history of the Peace Corps in the Baltics is a history of individual achievement. It is the achievements of individual Peace Corps Volunteers and individual Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians who have worked together to improve their community, who have gone on to higher education, who have created businesses that employ other people, and contribute to the greater good of their country. It is a history of bridge-building between the people of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the people of the United States. It is a history of mutual learning and growing respect for one another as our understanding increases.
Establishment of the Peace Corps Program in the Baltics
After Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regained their independence in 1991, the three countries committed to restoring democracy and taking their rightful place in the international community of nations. While mobilizing their own resources to meet the demanding needs of rapid development, the three governments requested foreign countries’ assistance, including the US Government and the Peace Corps. After the initial request was received, a team of five specialists from the United States Peace Corps in Washington, DC came to the Baltics on January 14-February 4, 1992 to clearly define the government’s request, identify the specific needs that were to be addressed at the local community level, and assess the potential for the Peace Corps to provide Volunteers to assist communities in meeting their needs.
The team met with senior government officials, leading academics, school directors, members of the new entrepreneurial class and farmers. What they found presented an unusual challenge for the Peace Corps. Long accustomed to working in countries with scant infrastructure development, poor health conditions, high illiteracy rates, and lack of trained manpower at all levels, the situation confronting the Baltic States was in no way similar. The task here was to recover rapidly from the privations of forced isolation from the outside world during the Soviet occupation. The population was well-educated and technologically sophisticated. They needed to transform their economy that was in a state of near-collapse. They needed to develop the human resources to run the new economy and establish the structures of civil society, long absent in the Soviet system. They needed specific new skills that were lacking in the immediate post-Soviet society, and they needed to do this as rapidly as possible.
It was determined that several human resource development needs existed that were appropriate for the Peace Corps to address. These were in English education, in the development of a small business advisory network to promote rural enterprises, and in environmental protection. In the end, the Peace Corps did not develop an environmental protection program, not being able to find the appropriate local structures to work with. Moreover, with the passing of time, local needs changed and the Peace Corps adjusted its focus to match these changes. Please see the individual country chapters for details on how those changes were made.
After the nature of the Peace Corps program was agreed upon, the official bi-lateral agreements were prepared. The Peace Corps Director, Elaine L. Chao, accompanied US Vice President Dan Quayle to the three countries on February 6-7, 1992 to sign official agreements to provide Peace Corps assistance. The three Baltic States were the first of the former Soviet Republics to invite the Peace Corps’ participation in their transition effort.
On March 1, 1992, four American staff members opened an office in Riga. They finalized the project plans, stated the goals and expected outcomes of the programs, and outlined the numbers of Volunteers and types of skills needed. Through a recruitment process in the US, the Peace Corps began to seek qualified Volunteers to meet each country’s needs. This included secondary school English teachers (TEFL), teacher trainers, and agribusiness/small enterprise development (SED) advisors. American staff worked closely with the representatives from the relevant Ministries in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to identify the towns and agencies where the Peace Corps’ help was needed and wanted. The staff also designed the first 12-week Pre-Service Training program, hired host country staff for language training and administrative support, as well as experienced American technical trainers to prepare future Volunteers for their two-year service in the designated countries.
Consequently, in June and July 1992, the first 45 TEFL and 23 SED Peace Corps Trainees arrived and were enrolled in 3-month training programs in Tallinn and Tartu (Estonia), Ogre (Latvia), and Vilnius (Lithuania). They were the first American Peace Corps Volunteers to come into countries of the former Soviet Union.
The following year, in March-April of 1993, despite frequent personnel and structural changes at the uppermost levels of government in the three countries, Memoranda of Understanding between the US Peace Corps and respective Ministries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were signed. The Memoranda clearly indicated the purpose and goals of the English Education, Rural and Small Enterprise Development projects, responsibilities of Peace Corps, Volunteers and host agencies, and policies carried by the Peace Corps and host country.
Peace Corps Baltics Management Structure
After signing the Country Agreements in February 1992, a single team of staff was sent in March 1992 to get the program started in all three countries. This team, consisting of the Country Director, two Associate Directors for TEFL and SED (through 1996), an Administrative Officer, and a Medical Officer, managed the three-country program from their Riga base. There were no offices in Lithuania or Estonia in that first year.
It had been the intention of the Peace Corps to appoint a Country Director and an American management staff for each country. In fact, the Country Directors were selected for Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1992. However, the U.S. State Department, which controls the number of “official Americans” posted abroad, had not allocated enough official positions to accommodate a full American complement in Lithuania and Estonia and would not permit the Peace Corps to post the new personnel in Vilnius and Tallinn. Thus, the anomaly of one management unit for three countries came into being and was perpetuated in the Baltic countries for a variety of bureaucratic and budgetary reasons.
In late 1992 and 1993, Host Country Nationals were hired to assist the Associate Directors for the TEFL and SED programs in the three countries. Offices were set up in Tallinn and Vilnius, staffed by two Program Assistants. Additional positions were added in these two countries starting in 1994, including Office Manager, Medical Officer, and Language Coordinator/Resource Center Manager. By 1996 the American Associate Directors for TEFL and SED were withdrawn from the Baltics post and the Program Assistants became Program Managers with primary responsibility for managing the program in their own country. An American Associate Peace Corps Director for Program and Training based in Riga provided supervision to country staff between 1996 – 2001, when that position was eliminated as part of the post closure strategy. At its peak, a total of 32 staff, American and host country, managed the program in the three countries. With 140 - 150 Volunteers in the three countries each year, this amounted to a ratio of approximately one staff to five Volunteers.
Since Host Country staff was central to the support of Volunteers, the Peace Corps consistently invested in their professional development. They attended international training programs in the US and throughout Eastern Europe and Asia where they joined colleagues from other Peace Corps programs, increasing their knowledge of technical issues as well as counseling techniques. In addition, the Peace Corps paid tuition fees for staff to work for advanced degrees at national universities or to earn specialized certificates relevant to their professional duties.
Since there was one Country Director and management unit, the three-country program became known as the Baltics Post. There was one central budget that funded all three countries together, administered from Riga. According to the available records, the Peace Corps in the Baltics has operated on the average annual budget of $1.733 million. This money was spent locally and included Program Support, consisting of local staff salaries, rents, communications, travel, supplies and other services, and Volunteer Operations, such as Volunteer living, leave and settling-in allowances, pre-service and in-service training, local travel, medical support and other Volunteerrelated services. Volunteer operations covered 56% of the total annual budget, while program support totaled 44%. The recruitment and international travel costs of Volunteers, and salary and international travel costs of American staff did not figure in the country budget, but were contained in the central budget administered by the Washington, DC headquarters.
Logistics were handled by the Riga office. The Riga office was entitled to use the diplomatic pouch for official mail and supplies of equipment, books, and medicines for Volunteer support. These items were re-distributed by car to the offices in Vilnius and Tallinn, with cars shuttling weekly among the three countries.
Although the Baltics Post was funded as a single unit, the Volunteers were recruited specifically for Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania according to each country’s request. Pre-Service Training was held simultaneously, but separately, in the three countries, all supported out of the Riga office. New Volunteers usually arrived together in Riga, had a three-day general orientation program, and then dispersed to each country to begin technical training. They came together once a year in an All-Baltics Volunteer Conference, and again at the end of their service for the Close of Service Conference. Administratively it was one post; programmatically it was considered three countries.
Recruitment and Placement of Volunteers
There are 11 recruiting offices in major cities all over the United States that advertise the opportunities and benefits of Peace Corps service. They screen and select the most qualified applicants for positions overseas. They review the qualifications of the applicants with the requests that have come from the country offices and make the best match possible.
Every year, approximately 100,000 people inquire about Peace Corps service. Of that number, 10,000 apply and are interviewed, and of that number, 7,000 pass from the recruitment office on to Washington, DC. Finally, approximately 3,500 of those are issued invitations to become trainees.
American and Host Country National staff developed Volunteer sites in each country. For TEFL sites, advertisements were placed in the national newspapers explaining Peace Corps services and asking interested schools to contact the Peace Corps if they had need of a Volunteer. Such applications were mailed from schools and other educational institutions directly to the Peace Corps offices in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. SED/NGO Program Managers mailed information packets to Regional and Municipal Governments, NGOs, and other organizations.
After the applications were received and reviewed, Program Managers visited tentatively selected sites. On site, they made an assessment of the requesting organization to be sure there was a viable assignment for a Volunteer, interviewed the potential supervisor and co-workers to be sure they were ready to work with a foreign Volunteer, and assessed the available housing and safety conditions of town. Since this was a skills transfer and exchange program, the presence of a friendly, open-minded counter-part to work with a Volunteer was an essential criterion.
The Volunteers were required to stay with a host family for at least one month to deepen their language and cross-cultural skills as well as for social and safety reasons. Foreigners were an oddity in the rural communities where Volunteers were posted, and the host family provided a sense of belonging so that everybody knew that the Volunteer was part of a local family.
The last step of the process was to match Volunteers with the needs of selected sites. After observing the Volunteers during their PST and getting to know their personal and professional characteristics, Program Managers submitted their Volunteer assignment suggestions for the final approval of the Country Director.
Preparation of Volunteers for Service
The Peace Corps places great emphasis on the training of its Volunteers. Well-trained Volunteers should have sufficient confidence in themselves to be able to cope with problems as they arise. They should be able to devise solutions based on a solid understanding of their role and of the cultural setting in which they work, and they should require little supervision during their two year assignment. Such Volunteers will be successful in attaining all of the goals set by the Peace Corps and the Host Country.
The Peace Corps provided an intensive 10 – 12 week Pre-Service Training program and continued to support Volunteers throughout their service with short-term in-service training designed to strengthen their performance in specific areas, be it language proficiency or technical skill. The principal areas of training were language, technical skill development, cross-culture, and personal health and safety.
Not all of the people who began training finished it. In the Baltics, a total of 602 people entered training, but only 555 successfully completed it and took up their assignments. For one reason or another, personal choice or inability to meet the training criteria, 47 Trainees did not remain.
The key to the success of a Volunteer, professionally and personally, is the ability to communicate in the national language. It not only provides the necessary tools of communication, it provides essential insights into the culture and values of the people who speak it. The Peace Corps prides itself worldwide on its ability to give Volunteers a basic understanding of a language in 10 weeks that allows them to build an acceptable degree of fluency during the first year of service.
Language and Communication Training
The language-training component provided Trainees with the necessary skills to be able to effectively communicate socially and professionally as Peace Corps Volunteers. The primary teaching methodology employed for language learning was the Competency Based Curriculum approach whereby Trainees were able to develop their language skills, including speaking, listening, reading, some writing and grammar, around experiences parallel to those that they needed for work and life in the Baltics. This was accomplished in an average of 150 formal and outside classroom hours.
The materials used for language learning and teaching during the training were designed and published by the local Peace Corps Language staff. A CD ROM of these materials is available from the US Embassy Public Affairs Office.
The training program was designed so that by the end of PST, all Trainees could be expected to be able to handle successfully a limited number of interactive, task-oriented and social situations and maintain face-to-face conversation in a highly restricted manner and with much linguistic inaccuracy. The speaker, however, could generally make himself understood.
In addition, the language program equipped Trainees with skills for continued language study at their site. By the end of their years of service a number of motivated Volunteers were able to reach the advanced level of language proficiency, when they could converse in the language in a clearly participatory fashion. A total of 118 Volunteers (24% of the 492 PCVs tested) scored at the advanced level and five reached the superior level, which is near native-speaker, in Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian and Russian.
When the three countries emerged from Soviet isolation, a great deal had changed in the Western world. There were changes in technology, the development of a global economy, and the creation of huge bodies of social and scientific information all of which were of crucial importance to the people of the Baltics. Moreover, in the 50-year period of occupation, English had become the international language of commerce, science and diplomacy.
While foreign languages, including English, had been taught in the schools throughout the Soviet period, it is notoriously difficult to learn to speak a foreign language with just a few hours each week of grammar instruction. Few people, including the English teachers, could actually speak English. Peace Corps Volunteers, as native speakers of English, could greatly enrich the English language program in the secondary school system. This is what they devoted themselves to, the creation of an active learning environment where students gained confidence in spoken English. As the transition advanced, Volunteers became even more useful. The new economy demanded English-speakers, and many teachers with knowledge of English were attracted away from the school system to more lucrative jobs in the private sector. Volunteers helped fill this expanding gap in language teaching.
Shifting from an authoritarian form of government and a command economy, to an open society with a free market economy, also required the acquisition of new business management skills by ordinary people throughout the society. They needed new management tools, but they also needed to develop new ways to analyze problems and devise new solutions.
During the 10 years of the Peace Corps involvement in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Volunteers have assisted in the fields of English education, small business and non-governmental organization development and entrepreneur training. Since the beginning of the Peace Corps program, 555 Volunteers served in the Baltics: 346 English Education Volunteers, 162 Business and 47 NGO Advisors, each serving for two or more years. Over the period of 1992-2002, these Volunteers taught English to approximately 66,220 students and assisted approximately 21,670 business people and NGO personnel to develop their financial and organizational management skills. Altogether they served in 186 communities throughout Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, with 61% being towns of less than 10,000 residents.
All Volunteers had a primary assignment where they spent the majority of their time, as well as secondary projects that they developed on their own in conjunction with counterparts.
As their primary assignment, TEFL Volunteers worked in secondary, tertiary and university level schools, teacher training centers, and Ministries. They helped their students and fellow English teachers gain greater confidence in spoken English, debate, writing, and in critical thinking skills. They also prepared their students for the 12th Form exam and worked on the National English Exam preparation teams. Volunteers helped acquire new teaching resources for schools, established several fully equipped Language Resource Centers, and taught students, colleagues, and community members alike how to use computer technology.
Moreover, Volunteers introduced new approaches to active language-learning, creating teaching materials that included curricula, course and lesson plans, games, audio/visual aids, and published textbooks. Altogether 164 communities and 272 educational institutions in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania benefited from Peace Corps TEFL Volunteers assigned directly to them.
Most of the business development Volunteers (SED) worked through regional and local governments and business centers. They advised individuals in the start up of new businesses, helped others improve management and marketing techniques through business seminars and workshops, including how to use Information Technology as a business tool. They taught business-related topics to students, teachers and community members and helped establish Junior Achievement programs throughout the three countries, especially in Lithuania and Estonia.
By 1996, the number of non-governmental organizations was on the rise. In 1997 the Peace Corps began to provide advisers to NGOs to assist with organizational development, management, project development and fund-raising. Using skills similar to the business advisors, Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Volunteers helped NGOs establish good management practices, create publications, use computer technology, and develop funding strategies. In addition, they taught the elements of project design and management and the techniques and benefits of networking among organizations to share information and enhance their influence. In all, 104 communities and 190 regional and local governments, business centers and NGO organizations in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania benefited from Peace Corps SED/NGO Volunteers.
As secondary projects, both TEFL and SED Volunteers actively participated in summer camps and longer-term projects. Many of these projects focused on youth leadership development, but they also included educational materials development and teacher training. Other secondary projects included issues of environment, gender in development, health education, HIV/AIDS prevention, and alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse prevention in young people.
For more specific activities and examples look in each country’s separate section.
Volunteer Support: Staff and Resources
The Peace Corps provided continuous support to Volunteers through their two years of service. This included regular visits from Program Managers and other staff to observe their work, discuss matters of adjustment with the Volunteer and coworkers, and to assess their general well being.
In-service training designed to widen and deepen Volunteers’ knowledge was a constant factor in the support system. Such training included special three-day workshops for Volunteers and counterparts in project design and management, regional networking, teacher training, and youth at risk, as well as shorter one-day refresher classes in language, technical studies, cross-culture, or other issues identified by the Volunteers. Volunteers took such training seriously and used these occasions to build their professional capacity.
As far as Volunteer health and safety needs are concerned, the Peace Corps maintained its own full-time medical staff, of qualified North American nurses. They provided Volunteers with health and safety information, consultation and counseling services and medical supplies.
The other part of the support system was material and financial resources. The Peace Corps established Resource Information Centers in Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius accessible to Volunteers, their counterparts and staff. The centers provided books and other publications for Volunteers’ work, language and culture studies as well as access to copy machines, VCRs, tape recorders and a place for meetings, seminars or workshops. The books were distributed to regional educational centers throughout the three countries prior to the closure of the program.
To support Volunteer and counterpart-generated community projects, in addition to SPA and EBDP funding sources, the Peace Corps established two other programs: The Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) and the Gifts in Kind (GIK) Program. PCPP did not directly fund projects but served to link Volunteers with interested individuals, groups, foundations and service organizations in the United States private sector that were willing to make financial contributions. Projects ranged widely in their scope of objectives and amounts requested as well as sponsors. GIK was created to help Volunteers seek material support that is not available in the country of service from corporations, foundations, individuals and organizations for the Peace Corps’ programs and projects around the world. In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the projects ranged from obtaining educational materials, such as books, to sporting equipment, as well as a photocopy machine and laptop computers.
Cooperating Agencies and Organizations
The US Peace Corps program in the Baltics developed cooperative relationships with many local and international organizations. The Peace Corps English Education and SED/NGO Volunteers established contact for their hosts and successful professional relationships with international agencies such as United States Agency for International Development (USAID), United States Information Service (USIS), International Executive Service Corps (IESC), American Chamber of Commerce, Junior Achievement (JA), Volunteer Overseas Cooperative Assistance (VOCA), SOROS-Open Society Fund, the British Council, European Union PHARE, US-Baltic Foundation, Baltic American Enterprise Fund, Baltic American Partnership Fund, Swede Corps-Swedish International Enterprise Development Corporation and others.
These organizations played an important role in the successful start up and development of the Peace Corps program in the Baltics. All generously provided services ranging from expert training, to educational materials, to technical advice, to substantial grants for complex projects.
The cooperation between EU PHARE and Peace Corps was considered valuable to both programs to give the most immediate support to entrepreneurs. Volunteers working in newly opened Business Centers assisted in setting up and developing beneficiary and staff training as well as local government networks. EU PHARE financed the centers with the assistance of local governments. Peace Corps Volunteers provided guidance and training locally.
There were a few Peace Corps Volunteers who directly worked with Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Chambers of Commerce. Other Volunteers worked indirectly helping beneficiaries identify possible business partners in the US. Similarly, PCVs assisted clients in developing business plans, and, with the cooperation of Swede Corps, assisted their clients to develop international contacts for possible business partners or markets in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries.
In later years of the Peace Corps program in the Baltics, the Peace Corps established a referral relationship with Baltic American Enterprise Fund, US-Baltic Foundation, Baltic American Partnership Fund, helping their local clients prepare business plans or project proposals to these funding sources.
A number of other organizations were valuable financial resources for Volunteers and their community-initiated projects. USAID funded the European Business Development Program (EBDP) that supported training, materials development and procurement of supplies and the Small Project Assistance (SPA) that monetarily supported the secondary community-initiated projects to help communities to help themselves. Another agency was SOROS Foundation whose resources were used for a variety of projects, including computer purchases for schools, establishment of Resource Centers, summer camps, health education, debate and other training workshops, student exchanges and material development.
Returned Volunteers and Third Goal Activities
The third goal of the Peace Corps is to increase the understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. What Volunteers have done once they return to the U.S. is very important and represents the long-term investment of the Peace Corps. For many Volunteers Peace Corps service motivated them to go to graduate schools for advanced study in variety of fields, either economics, politics, diplomacy, development, education, journalism, law or international relations.
For others the Peace Corps experience has allowed them to proceed with greater international awareness to certain lines of work such as business and economic development in Eastern European countries, the Foreign Service, work with international organizations and agencies that focused on Eastern European development issues, and teaching jobs inside and outside the United States. Many former Volunteers used the same Peace Corps spirit and continued their volunteer work in their own communities.
After their service, Volunteers have continued to share their Baltic knowledge and experience and have promoted its better understanding on the part of other people with whom they have worked or studied. Returned Volunteers have spoken to local churches and universities about economic and social progress of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian nations, delivered slide shows or picture presentations to students in high schools, universities and people in local libraries and to Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian ethnic groups in the United States. Finally, Volunteers shared their knowledge with friends, whether it is their hard-won patience and perseverance, or the gracious Baltic gesture of offering flowers to express appreciation to a teacher, a co-worker or family member.
Returned Volunteers have established a non-profit organization, Friends of the Baltics (FOB) that includes Returned Volunteers and other people interested in the Baltic region. One of the main goals of the organization is to facilitate exchange between people interested in developments in the Baltics. FOB members have performed a number of activities including volunteering at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC which featured the Baltic countries in summer of 1998 and raising a sufficient amount of funds to support talented but disadvantaged students from rural communities to pursue educational opportunities. Moreover, Friends of the Baltics supported “The Plenary”, an annual art symposium, in the city of Alytus held every summer in Lithuania and raised funds for “The Lighthouse”, a new shelter for women in Riga, in response to the alarming increase in the number of young women being trafficked from Latvia for sexual exploitation.
Returned Volunteers have worked on other individual projects to promote Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania such as: a report available on a web site on the Internet about all aspects of information technology in Latvia (Christina Deady, Group 7 NGO Volunteer in Latvia); the Lithuania section of Countries and Their Cultures, published by Macmillan Reference in 2001 (Coleen Nicol, Group 4 TEFL Volunteer in Lithuania); a book, In Search of the Elusive Peace Corps Moment: Destination: Estonia, written by a former Estonian Group 1 SED Volunteer Douglas Wells, that memorializes his Peace Corps adventures as well as chronicles a unique time in Estonia’s history when the country was making the transition to democracy and free market economy.
The Peace Corps placed great emphasis on developing good project design and management skills in Volunteers. These skills were transferred to local counterparts through working together to create complex projects, and then getting them funded. Throughout the later years, groups of Volunteers and their counterparts received training in the principles of Project Design and Management, a program that had been developed by experts at the Washington headquarters and adapted to the local environment. In 2000, knowing it was about to close its program, the Peace Corps offered a Training of Trainers workshop for Volunteers and their counterparts. This helped assure that this skill is firmly imbedded in the host agencies and that the skills continue to be passed on.
A habit that is peculiarly American is networking and sharing information among colleagues. Volunteers worked within their schools to encourage faculty to share ideas on teaching, share materials that had been successful, and help each other improve the quality of education in the school. Volunteers in business centers and NGOs worked to develop networks of allied organizations within the region, as well as nationally and internationally, in order to form coalitions to share resources, coordinate activities, and generally maximize the impact of otherwise small projects.
This was a significant change in the working habits of many Baltic citizens, and went against the instinct of distrust built up during the 50 years of Soviet rule. Where closely held knowledge was considered power, Volunteers engendered the notion that shared knowledge was even greater power.
Report on the U.S. Peace Corps Baltics U.S. Embassy / Estonia