Go Big or Go Home: One and a Half Years in Peace Corps

tp10_kaneko_m01_016A recent post on the Peace Corps Subreddit mentioned that they were presented with too many happy stories about Peace Corps and they wanted to hear a more realistic account of the experience. So, this blog post will be a review and update of past posts with a mix of positivity and negativity which on average I hope is realistic.

Looking Back at past posts

On February 9th 2013 I wrote about an occasion in which I felt I had been let down by my Albanian colleagues regarding a grant application for which we could have submitted a proposal but didn’t. Making up for this initial failure actually has defined the last 8 months of my experience here which I will write about below.

On February 23 2013 I wrote a generally positive post about work life here. Looking back I can see how much motivation I had compared to now and how much importance I applied to the tiniest of accomplishments.  Everything was still new and interesting then. It reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a public prosecutor when we met to talk about a break in at my house. She suggested that now that I’ve been in Albania for 1.5 years or so, my life must be more enjoyable than it was at the beginning. I can see why she would think that but I hadn’t really considered that until she suggested it. In my experience, as I told her, in the beginning everything was new and exciting and I was filled with high expectations and optimism and motivation. Over time, the novelty faded, my expectations were lowered, and my motivation waned. For me, this second half of my second of two years has been the least enjoyable. There’s been a kind of journey from “shiny and new oh wow Albania” to “its odd how this is the new normal, Albania” to “Oh Jesus, 6 more months of this?” 

In April 2013 I wrote about my perspective one year into Peace Corps with one year left. I wrote about how the negative aspects made me dread one more year and the positive aspects made me worried I wouldn’t have enough time here. I also wrote about how I thought I had a better understanding of the pace of life and work here which would help me avoid issues in the second year that I had had in the first. In general, I would say that it is true I’ve adapted and I’m better off for it. Although some of these adaptations don’t seem on their face to be an improvement, such as caring much much less about all the problems I see or having much lower expectations, they are nonetheless healthier and more realistic.

What am I NOT doing now? An Update.

I stopped teaching English when the school year ended and haven’t taken it up again. After all, I didn’t join to teach English and I doubt the impact it was making.

I considered doing Model UN with the high schools but one thing I’ve learned about myself is that I just don’t have the temperament to lead groups of people, much less groups of teenagers.

At one point I attempted to apply for a $4000 grant with the local university but was thwarted by what may seem like an unlikely person, the Dean of the university. The vice Dean and I are trying again but I’m skeptical and will not grovel to an incompetent political hire so I can give his organization $4000.

My official placement here has been with the local city government to do something urban planning related. However, urban planning requires the fair and regular enforcement of laws, something Albania is currently not capable of.

I’ve also come to see the local city government as a purely political body that gives jobs and favors on the basis of winning votes rather than acting as a public agency that serves the citizens and I don’t really see a place for me there.

What am I doing?

I’ve adopted a strategy of “Go Big or go home” or “putting all my eggs in one basket.” What this means is for the last 8 months and especially the last three or four I’ve focused my efforts on one huge project which may not ever come to fruition. After failing to apply for the last agriculture grant as mentioned above, I was informed of a new one that was available for projects from $500,000 to $1.5 million. Ever since then, writing a proposal for the grant has dominated my professional life.

Let me give a little context. Where I live is either the poorest or second poorest area of Albania depending on how you measure it. The economy is made up of political appointment jobs in local government and subsistence farming. In the past 10 years, 1/3 of the population has left the region. Learning these facts, it was clear to me that I should focus my efforts in agricultural development to raise incomes.

After dozens of meetings with local colleagues, many visits with agriculture experts across Albania, and hours and hours of intimacy with Microsoft Excel and Word, we finally submitted a 1.2 million dollar project proposal to train subsistence farmers to grow a cash crop and to upgrade the facilities to process and export it. Now, we wait for a response from USAID.

Let me end on a very positive note. Because I volunteered for Peace Corps and Peace Corps placed me where they did, my Albanian colleagues and I have applied for a grant that they would never have been able to apply for otherwise. Because we wrote and submitted the agricultural project proposal, there is a real possibility that hundreds of rural families in the poorest part of Albania will double their annual incomes. No, it is not certain we will win the grant money. But, if not for Peace Corps and my determination, it is certain there would be no chance at all.

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3 responses to “Go Big or Go Home: One and a Half Years in Peace Corps

  1. Press on Joe and i will be praying that the grant is accepted. Your attitude is awesome in regards to the discouraging challenges you have faced. YOU have made a difference. I think your team’s upcoming departure in 2014 will be bittersweet. Hang in there!

    Judy Bates (Brendan’s mom)

  2. Having been here (in Tirana no less) more than a year now, it’s funny to look back on myself going through the exact stages you described. The wide-eyed “Wow, this place is amazing!” stage leads into the “Things aren’t quite as great as they seem” which leads finally to the “Holy shit, how the hell does this country even still exist?”. Rinse, wash, repeat.

    It’s been an interesting ride. I truly wish nothing but the best for Albania and her people, but they need to make a LOT of changes. And much like many other countries in the world, apathy is at an all time high. Problem is, unlike many other countries, this is worst possible time for apathy to dominate in Albania. They need to work together more than ever to overcome challenges. Instead, they are at the cafe drinking coffee while the EU, Party Leaders, The Chinese, and Islamic interests set up the groundwork for a pillaging on a massive scale.

    I tell any Albanian who will listen “Be careful with these outside investors – they aren’t a charity, they want something from you.” And in a country blessed with an incredible coastline, tons of freshwater and desperate citizens, Albania is primed for nothing less than a thorough raping of resources. The response I get is almost always “Yes, but they will bring jobs.” I can’t fault them for wanting jobs, but it’s classic Albanian can’t-plan-more-than-two-days-in-advance-syndrome that will, mark my words, leave this country completely up the creek without a paddle. I hope I’m proven wrong, though.

  3. I’ll be joining Albania PC in March. How do you think the corruption/politics of the Albania city offices compares to that which you would find in the US? Internal and external politics of local offices and communities have the power to give rise to bad projects and quell good ones.

    Good luck on your final year. I am not sure if your paths will cross but thanks for the great blog and your insights on Albania!

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