Recently I’ve had a few friends and family ask, “what projects are you working on at the moment?” This can be a little bit difficult to answer, because in their minds I’m likely working with kids in a classroom, or doing something at a health facility, or any number of things we first imagine when we envision overseas volunteers. But I’m not really doing any of those things, yet. But I’ve been in Luderitz for 1 month, and Namibia for 3, so what on earth have I been doing with all this time? Why have I not been working on any projects yet?
The answer: I am! Just, not exactly in the way you’d think.
One of the top priorities the Peace Corps has had since its inception is sustainability. Sustainability is one of these fun buzz words we like to throw around, but let’s take a second to imagine what exactly that means. Sustainability doesn’t mean sending a new volunteer every 2 years to take over the responsibilities of a previous volunteer ad infinitum. Imports of any kind, whether material or professional, are inherently a dependency, and dependency is detrimental to the long-term self-sufficiency of anything. Instead, volunteers want to work so that, in the future, their presence will be entirely unnecessary. This means projects need to not only be well thought out, but that volunteers must also tap into the passions and demands of the people living and working in their site, to ensure as much as possible that projects will continue, and continue effectively, well after the volunteer leaves.
The Peace Corps starts its volunteers on this path through the creation of a needs assessment. A needs assessment is a comprehensive analysis of the volunteer’s community – the strengths, weaknesses, demands, resources, and other capacities of the community in which we live and work. As you can see, calling it a “needs assessment” is in some ways is a misnomer. For example, a Secondary School with which I’m hoping to work closely has already created a very vibrant boys group for students 13-18. This is something the community has identified as a need, and talented and passionate individuals have already been identified to manage and develop the program. A boys group at this school is obviously no longer a need – it’s an asset. It is still very likely that I will work with this group and support their activities, however, but I will not be building a project from the ground up and addressing a need. Instead, my focus with this particular group will be capacity building – what skills, training, or resources can I provide to help this group be even better? Or, if I don’t have the skills, training, or resources they need, do I have the ability to connect them with people or organizations that do?
It’s important to note as well that the needs assessment must be a collaborative creation. While my personal perceptions and reflections on Luderitz are certainly important in my work here (and, obviously, unavoidable) it is far more important to integrate the broad needs, desires, feelings, and perceptions of the community at large into my work. The go-it-alone approach could perhaps yield a few positive results, but will ultimately do more harm than good, and would be anything but sustainable.
I’m now roughly a month into my community integration and needs assessment, which I’m calling the Luderitz Youth Listening Tour. The basic idea is this – to have direct conversations with a variety of key stakeholders, including parents, teachers, pastors, community professionals and activists, and students themselves in order to gain a broad understanding of available programs and resources, demands, and community passions. In addition to my own conversations and notes with these stakeholders, I have also created a brief anonymous survey to document what, exactly, the community perceives as its strengths, demands, needs and wants.
These conversations, interviews, and surveys will provide the qualitative dimension of my assessment. From the quantitative side, I will be working primarily with the Ministry of Health, but also the Ministry of Youth and the Ministry of Gender and Child Welfare, to better understand the quantitative dimensions of the city’s problems – including figures like individuals living with HIV/AIDS, the number of orphans and vulnerable children, and so forth.
Ultimately, combining these details should give me a pretty solid understanding of the situation in Luderitz, and will give me a good footing from which to get started. Already, I’ve found a few very promising projects, and have begun some low-level work with a variety of groups and ministries. By the end of my service, my hope is that these early relationships will become something much stronger, and that a small, but lasting impact will be made by my time and collaboration here.
My needs assessment will be completed by the end of July, and I plan on posting a PDF copy of it here for anyone interested in reading. On that note as well – I would also be grateful for anyone willing to proofread the final version before that time. Please get in touch with me and we’ll make it happen!