What I Learned From the Peace Corps

Howard Williams, Country Director, Peace Corps Thailand, 2015- present

Hi, all.  The Sticky Rice editors asked me to write something about myself.  It’s not easy – where to start, what to say, and where to end?  I’ll try to focus on what I think are two important things I’ve learned about our work – relationships and wrap-arounds.  I know I will be repeating stories many of you have already heard so just skip ahead – or check for consistency :-).

What I learned from Peace Corps: Relationships matter.

For sure, none of us had the expertise to assume that the knowledge and information we could convey in another country, another culture, another language would be so compelling that we would see vast changes in practice and improvements in people’s lives.  Even countries like the Philippines (and Thailand), where people go way out of their way to make you feel welcome, politely listening to what we have to say is not the same as agreeing or, even more, committing to do something differently.  But if there was a good personal relationship, they might be willing to consider it.  And that’s a starting point for discussion, in order to learn more, to develop and offer something that might actually be useful.

At my site in Barotac Viejo, every single thing I did that offered something of value was through relationships.  My host mother was the school teacher at the nearby two-room school, grades 1-4, just 20 meters away from the house.  I learned we could access free fruit tree seedlings if we made the request to the Bureau of Plant Industry (Ministry of Agriculture) in the provincial capital, Iloilo.  I wrote the request letter and indicated I was assigned through the Bureau of Agricultural Extension (also Ministry of Ag – never mind that my counterpart had shown up only three times early on to report back, I suppose, that he had seen me).  At the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI – also lovers of acronyms – Peace Corps fits in perfectly in the Philippines in that regard), I was told they would approve the request if I removed any reference to Ag Extension as they were competitors within the Ministry of Ag.  Sure, I could do that, and got the seedlings – instant fruit tree orchard on the school grounds that the students would water from the school pump, where we also got our drinking water and took our baths.

My host mother, as head teacher, knew all the barrio residents, so she was assigned to do the 1980 census for our area.  I joined her to help out with the recording and to meet more people.  We consulted closely at several households when many older persons did not know their birth dates or ages. “Looks like July to me, maybe 20th?” “Probably 1901?”  “Yes, it does seem so.”  Duly recorded.

My association with her was very helpful as she was greatly respected.  I was sometimes introduced with this endorsement: “He grew up as a Presbyterian but he’s just like a Catholic.”  It was true that I had been in the Catholic church in town but that was to store jetmatic pump parts while arranging transportation.  But I could say the church was helping us out.  She had helped me convince several households that getting their drinking water from a pump was substantially better than from the irrigation canal where the water buffalo cooled and relieved themselves.

My affiliation with her and my host father also encouraged the feed and seed dealer in town to extend a loan to a neighbor for a rice demonstration and for municipal support for my request to the District Engineer who re-dredged a nearby irrigation system that had silted in years before; the system served 20 or 40 hectares of rice paddies, I can’t remember – the number seems to get bigger as I get older.

Of course, I did not know any of this going in but learned it from everyone around me, including other Volunteers.  Later, as a professional, I did know some things about education and program planning and evaluation but kept reconfirming that technical assistance was rarely so compelling that people would accept and act on recommendations without trusting the source.  After being in the Nepal Ministry of Education’s Planning Division for some years, under a USAID contract in the early 90s, I was in a meeting when Joint and Assistant Secretaries were complaining about consultants: “They don’t know Nepal, our systems and how things work, they get it all wrong, issue recommendations, then we (the Ministry folks) have to figure out how to work around the recommendations.”  One senior member then looked at me and laughed, saying, “We forgot you were in the room. But that’s okay, we’ve already trained you.”  Nice, I had integrated.

It wraps around #1.

After that assignment, several more requests came from the Nepal Ministry of Education through USAID and the World Bank as I was a known quantity to the Ministry staff and had shown I was there for them, not using them for my career.  I am still in touch with several and their families.

My first solo consultancy, before Nepal, was for Florida State to Liberia.  I was thrilled that my talent was recognized as perfect for the job of organizing a national policy conference on education.  Besides helping to plan and organize the conference and presentations with the Education Minister and staff, I was also to fund the activity by exchanging USD that I carried there in cash into Liberian Dollars (1:2).  I had not been informed that the largest Liberian currency at the time (1986) was a $5 coin.  So after each visit to the currency trader, I left with about 50 lbs. of coins in taped stacks.  So, a significant asset I brought to this first assignment was heavy lifting.  I later learned from Pamela, back in Tallahassee, at a reception for our Institute, that she overheard two staff saying they were so glad they got out of the Liberia assignment and got Howard to go.  So my second major asset was availability. Yes, I was indeed the right person for the job. I did enjoy working with the Liberian staff (those who were not overtly political under the murderous Samuel Doe Administration) and we had a successful conference.  I had a return assignment to work with them again, to assist with a five-year plan that we were unable to fully conclude as a civil war was breaking out.

It wraps around #2.

Flash forward to 2013, some 25 years later, several of the Liberian Ministry people had returned after the war and, because of our prior relationships, I was invited to help write and edit the Ministry’s new three-year plan and annual report for the President’s approval, even though I was principally there for a USAID girls’ education project – which somehow got prominent mention in the plan and report :-).  The project was named Girls’ Opportunities to Access Learning (GOAL), a name Pamela came up with while contributing to the project design.

After the four years in Nepal, I was asked to do two six-week USAID assignments in Lesotho.  I did the first one but before the second one I had accepted full-time employment in DC, with the Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA).  I had informed the Project Director at Ohio University that I would be unable to fulfill the second portion.  He said, no problem, it happens, they would get someone else.  I later learned that he was not someone to give bad news to, so the project staff in Lesotho were never informed.  Just before my scheduled arrival, I started getting urgent then angry faxes saying where was I, this is very unprofessional, I should rethink it, then a harsh message from a VP at Creative Associates in DC that she wanted a statement from me that I had refused to travel and it was not they who failed to field me.  I was devastated by this response.  Pamela consoled me by saying, “You really haven’t made anyone mad before and, anyway, you will never see this VP person again.”

It warps around #3.

Three years later, that VP from Creative Associates joined the Academy for Education Development, where I had accepted a position after CEDPA, and she became my immediate supervisor.  Fortunately, we worked very well together and neither of us mentioned the prior event.

Starting out as a Volunteer, I had felt engaged at my site and in working with other Volunteers as a VAC member and later as a Volunteer Leader but sometimes I felt it didn’t measure up to what the “big boys” were doing, like USAID and the Development Banks, given their funding and scale.  I later felt I was doing “important work” with funding from USAID and the Banks but after some years realized I was losing touch with the people we were meant to be serving.  Pamela was feeling the same way and did a degree course in acupuncture (can’t get much closer to the client than that).

It warps around #4.

So I wound up rejoining Peace Corps in 2002 as CD in Ghana and reconnected with the Volunteers and the people-to-people approach.  It was great seeing Volunteers still doing what Volunteers do: making the most of their assignments and sites, becoming part of their communities and schools, learning from and supporting each other, and growing from the experience.  It was refreshing and satisfying to refresh my own experience as a Volunteer, which was probably the most pivotal period in my life.

After three years with Peace Corps, I rejoined the donor-funded world again and was looking at a longer-term position in DC when this opportunity came up.  And here we are.  At this stage of my life and career, I can think of no better place to be than here supporting the Thai staff and you, the Volunteers, who are still doing what Volunteers do, and doing it splendidly.

The editors also asked about favorite things. Here goes:

BooksBiographies/personal narratives: Wm. Manchester, American Caesar (MacArthur) and The Last Lion (Churchill); G. Kennan, Memoirs: 1925–1963; J. Gleik, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman; L. Olsen, Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour; E. Larson, Dead Wake; B. Bryson, A Walk in the Woods, A Short History of Nearly Everything; Intrigue/action: J. Le Carre, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to current ones; N. DeMille, The Charm School, Up Country, Night Fall, Wildfire; Preston and Child’s Pendergast series, start with Cabinet of Curiosities; Thrillers: P.J. Allen (of course), Deadly Untruths, The Yeti Quotient, Lies Beneath Ellicott City, Dead Reckoning in Frederick.

PodcastsI’ll randomly look at Ted Talks, like Brene Brown and Chris Hadfield.

MoviesAction/adventure/inspirational/drama/humor: Indiana Jones (first one came out while I was a Volunteer), Jurassic Park(s), Master and Commander, Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, Casablanca, Good Will Hunting, Winter’s Bones, Fargo, “Trapped” (takes place in Iceland), The Guard, Monty Python (most), Blazing Saddles.

TV shows: Mostly humor: The Extras (Ricky Gervais), Curb Your Enthusiasm, SNL, John Oliver, Jimmy Kimmel, Colbert, Daily Show.

Music: Finally narrowed it down to rock, happy jazz, Celtic, Indian/Nepali, Thai, pop, classical, meditation, ambient, other.

Hobbies: Mostly physical activities:  rugby, tennis, and jogging are several years past but they were a big part of my life (Pamela was fine for the tennis and jogging and a partner); now martial arts practice and teaching (no sparring); swimming; and walking, walking, walking – our favorite trips included walking from Edinburgh to St. Andrew (Fife Coastal Path), Nepal trekking, hiking to Bhutan Tiger’s Nest, walking along Portugal’s Douro River.

howard photoHoward Williams has 30+ years of experience in designing, implementing, and evaluating education programs, including girls’ education, as well as health, agricultural, and youth programs in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Central America, and the U.S.  Howard holds a Ph.D. in International Development Education from Florida State University.  His experience includes building capacities of national and local agencies and organizations, providing direct technical assistance, development of university exchanges and partnerships, and volunteer assistance.

Howard has served on longer-term USAID-funded project assignments in Nepal, Egypt, Georgia, Botswana, and Liberia and multiple short-term assignments elsewhere in the world, including Bangladesh and India.  He also has provided technical services to the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and UNICEF.  At the onset of his career in development, he served as a three-year Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines and later as Country Director in Ghana, Namibia, and now Thailand.  He served as co-chair for the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies’ (INEE) Minimum Standards Working Group for the three years prior to Peace Corps Thailand and provided technical guidance for a global assessment of the INEE Minimum Standards and for INEE review of Liberia’s Ministry of Education’s Ebola Emergency Response Plan.

Howard met Dr. Pamela Allen in graduate school and they have been married for the past 31 years.  Pamela has similar development experience, has worked in many of the same locations, and also is a licensed acupuncturist and published novelist.

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