What I Do (Part I)

So I realize I haven’t actually posted too much yet about what I actually do at my job as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Shymkent. While cultural exchange constitutes the last two goals of the Peace Corps, the first is still providing services to our host country – I am very grateful that I love my job here and that I feel that I am both contributing and learning a lot every day. This will be the first in a two-part post about my work here – the first will serve as a general introduction to my assignment and field of work in Kazakhstan, and the second will go into the specifics of my organization and projects.

For those of you who have been following along, you know that I am serving as an Organizational (NGO) Development volunteer in the Organizational & Community Assistance Program. There are some interesting changes in the program that have been and are still occurring, and it is generally a pretty exciting time to be working here. There are 10 Organizational Development volunteers in PC Kazakhstan (out of 65 original volunteers total), and we were trained for 3 months on a slew of very useful skills that will be familiar to everyone in the NGO world: grant writing, project design and management, needs assessments, monitoring and evaluation, grassroots fundraising, strategic planning, business planning, community development (including PACA – Participatory Analysis for Community Action), IT, etc. We also had weekly “Practicum” sessions where we applied these skills to assisting real-life NGOs in our community, and held a substantive day-long workshop for them as the culmination of our training. The PC training period was actually very helpful as it gave us both theoretical and practical lessons to take with us to our respective sites – our discussions always had some element of context-specificity, to raise our awareness of the unique environment we find ourselves in and how it differs from normal Western models. This better prepares us to actually apply our skills in the field, were our work is generally cut out for us.

The world of Non-Governmental Organizations in Kazakhstan faces many challenges. It has expanded under the watchful support of the government since independence in 1991, but the general consensus is that a majority (perhaps even the large majority) of organizations still exist in name only. Most NGOs exist to meet social needs of vulnerable populations, such as disabled persons, people living with HIV/AIDS, youth (including orphans and youth from disadvantaged or low-income households), women, or migrant workers and victims of human trafficking. Many however try to do several of the above at once, and have a lot of trouble articulating their exact mission and constituency groups, getting off the ground financially, attracting a strong staff or volunteer base, building a specific area of expertise, and/or conducting strong, sustainable and transparent projects or programming. While new fledgling organizations register themselves every year, this heartening sign of increased civil activity also results in a competitive atmosphere for limited resources, and a general overlapping in mission and services where few have really found their own productive “niche” by responding to valid needs assessments of community members. 

There are also cultural issues that volunteers face, which inevitably have a huge impact on all work-related activities. Time is much more flexible here, and many organizations struggle with things we consider basic staples of the professional world, such as regular schedules, meetings and deadlines. For example, I did a presentation on Time Management yesterday and found that many of our very motivated and active volunteers do not use a personal calendar or plan out their daily activities, simply because it is not expected here (in contrast, I remember at my U.S. middle school they handed out a free day planner to each of us at the beginning of every school year). Furthermore, remnants of Soviet mentality cause many organizations to turn to the government for resources instead of the community or local businesses, and developing a culture of volunteerism and social work is still extremely new here (at another one of my recent presentations on Volunteerism, most of the students defined a volunteer as “a person who comes from another country to teach English and help our society,” because the only volunteers they know are PCVs. The idea of why someone would work for no pay was also confusing to many. And the fact that they could and should become volunteers themselves was big news!). Finally, many cultural stigmas exist that work against the constituent groups of NGOs, whether it is discrimination against women, orphans, disabled or HIV-infected persons, or the general secondary importance of environmental protection to the much more urgently-needed development of industry and new capitalism.  

One heartening thing about entrenched cultural challenges however is that the potential for change is very visible in the new generation. A government initiative just passed to further develop youth projects and NGOs (a sub-category within Kazakhstan’s comprehensive 2030 development plan to become one of the world’s top-50 most developed nations). Globalization, urbanization and information technology have brought Snickers bars, Lady Gaga and a lot of motivation to study, work or travel abroad to young people in Kazakhstan. The government sponsors a scholarship called “Bolashak” (“Future” in Kazakh) that pays full tuition for Kazakhstanian youth to attend university in other countries, as long as they return to Kazakhstan to work for at least 5 years subsequently. As young people do become active in their communities and open themselves to new ideas and skills, they become progressive sources of sustainable change and inspiration to those that follow. In our own cadre of volunteers at my organization, the younger ones in middle and high school receive their biggest motivation from the examples of older volunteers who have already gone on to attend international conferences, travel/study abroad, or obtain hard-earned jobs in translating or development work. 

In response to this situation on the ground and feedback from volunteers, Peace Corps pioneered a new Youth Development program this year (the second half of the OCAP group), and starting next year will be moving to a full OCAP-YD system that will integrate OD tools but focus substantively on youth. Current PCVs have been asked to lead this transition and develop the new program, so I will be spending the next couple months working with our Regional Managers, conducting youth focus groups, collecting best practices from my own organization and our regional partners, and meeting with the Youth Development expert from PC Headquarters in Washington when she visits Shymkent in April. As you will see in my next post, a large part of my work at the Association of Business Women has been focused on our youth branch, youth projects and young volunteers, and that has led to a great number of secondary projects and collaborations with partner organizations that also work with youth. It is looking to be a very busy few months – but I couldn’t be happier about it!

This entry was posted in gender, grants, NGO Development, OCAP, OD, volunteerism, work, youth development. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What I Do (Part I)

  1. R says:

    Thank you for sharing the Peace Corps public materials – building a bridge from Kazakhstan to Colombia!

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