This past weekend I attended the National Peace Corps Association Conference in Minneapolis, representing the College of Business. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer myself (Dominican Republic, ‘05 – ‘07), this conference made me feel like I’d come home. I spent the whole weekend talking with fellow RPCVs about their service and why our Global Social & Sustainable Enterprise MBA program is so relevant to Peace Corps. I also had the opportunity to listen to Bruce McNamer, RPCV Paraguay and CEO of TechnoServe, deliver the keynote address. TechnoServe “helps entrepreneurial men and women in the developing world capitalize on business opportunities that create jobs and income for poor people.” This business-oriented approach to solving poverty is exactly what we believe at GSSE and is exactly why I came to GSSE post-Peace Corps.
During my service, I witnessed aid agencies that spent thousands of dollars on new trucks and office space. I experienced the frustration of not being able to help my community because of a lack of contacts, resources, and know-how. And I became aware of the complacency that accompanies a culture of handouts, when people get used to receiving charity. However, my main function in the Peace Corps was advising a cooperative of coffee farmers struggling to make ends meet. If they couldn’t make enough money selling their coffee, they would have to clear cut their land to replant with a short-cycle crop in order to survive the season. The resulting deforestation creates a downward spiral of a stressed and eroded natural environment, which leads to a depressed local economy. Therefore, the goal of the cooperative was to improve the quality of the coffee, and aggregate the harvest, so that enough could be separated out and sold into the specialty coffee market, thus increasing their earnings, and making this complex crop worth cultivating.
I didn’t realize it until about halfway through my time there, but what my cooperative needed, in addition to the agricultural trainings they were receiving from federal agronomists, was basic business training. The cooperative was a community-owned business. It had expenses, revenue, a product, sellers and buyers. As an official entity, the cooperative had the ability to take out a significant loan based on the membership dues they had collected. They could apply for grants on their own, without sponsorship by another organization. With these abilities came a level of responsibility that the leaders of my cooperative felt keenly. However, they also identified a lack of knowledge as a serious risk to their success. None of the members of the cooperative had ever even opened a bank account, let alone managed large amounts of money. This is where an organization like TechnoServe could provide invaluable services.
My farmers had incredible passion and motivation, and they understood what needed to be done in order to improve their coffee and increase their incomes – they simply lacked the skills to make it happen. By embracing business as a means to improving lives, I believe that communities such as my Peace Corps site in southwestern Dominican Republic can benefit in a more sustainable way than by receiving charity, and I believe that organizations such as TechnoServe and MBA programs that focus on social and environmental impacts such as GSSE have a crucial role to play in development.