Big data is Peace Corps’ ticket to renewed policy relevance (and mojo)

Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen recently spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies about the future of the iconic agency under her watch. As a former Peace Corps teacher in Malawi, I was struck by Director Olsen’s honesty regarding the agency’s need to “demonstrate results” in addition to sharing “wonderful” stories.

Director Olsen framed Peace Corps as a “strategic point in longer-term development efforts,” with volunteers providing “data points” to development partners such as USAID. These words suggest a seismic shift for a staunchly qualitative agency searching for relevancy in an increasingly quantitative world. Director Olsen appeared to identify Congress as the catalyst: “the Hill says show me [results].” Whatever the impetus, this change is good.

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Peace Corps always has done some things well. Its marketing game is formidable. Among organizations operating overseas, only Peace Corps provides the rigorous linguistic and cross-cultural toolkit needed to immerse in a foreign, high-poverty environment for two solid years. By applying these skills and living like locals, Peace Corps volunteers earn respect and belonging from underserved populations. No organization has a wider or deeper web of relationships in the developing world. Relationships matter.

Yet, some in Washington have questioned whether Peace Corps is a prudent use of taxpayer dollars. For starters, there is very little quantitative evidence that Peace Corps succeeds as a development intervention. Peace Corps also isn’t cheap at roughly $50,000 per volunteer per year, although that figure would likely drop if Peace Corps expanded its active volunteer roster. The figure also fails to account for what volunteers do after service. Nevertheless, certain members of the Washington intelligentsia have Peace Corps in their crosshairs.

Even prominent returned volunteers such as Brian Forde have raised concerns about the agency. Peace Corps has a digital problem, according to Forde, a former Obama official who served in Peace Corps Nicaragua. With developing countries rushing online, Forde called for a “digital Peace Corps” that leverages technology and private-sector partnerships to “empower communities across the globe.” Forde knows what he’s talking about, having founded Llamadas Heladas, a startup that eventually became one of the largest phone companies in Nicaragua by enabling customers to make international calls at a tenth of the price charged by established carriers.

Yet, Forde’s commentary begets a much larger conversation about Peace Corps’ role in the fourth industrial revolution  —  big data. About 7,000 in number, Peace Corps volunteers, scattered in far-flung places around the world, are uniquely situated to serve as last-mile data miners  —  collecting, sharing and analyzing original datasets for the benefit of local people. In Malawi, one volunteer could oversee data for 30 villages, allowing Peace Corps Malawi to serve a staggering 3,000 villages per year. While data can be political, Peace Corps could maintain its independence by targeting data that won’t invite controversy.

Data are valuable. Communities would benefit from data visualizations of their achievements and remaining challenges. University researchers would swoon. Peace Corps could share the data it collects in real time on digital maps to inform the decisions of host country governments, international development agencies, and nongovernmental organizations. With original data, Peace Corps could demonstrate some serious bang for the taxpayer’s buck in terms of causal impacts (e.g., 50 percent reduction in cholera), as opposed to banal outcomes of little substantive value (e.g., 20 people received a training). Currently, little impact evaluation is happening outside of targeted initiatives such as Stomping Out Malaria.

This data-driven approach would boost the morale of volunteers. Imagine every volunteer finishing service with a basic understanding of how to use statistics and econometrics to crunch numbers. Peace Corps volunteers have spent too much time, often in vain, teaching people how to build fuel-efficient mud stoves. What would really excite them is figuring out whether mud stove trainings led to a statistically significant reduction in wood consumption and then sharing that knowledge to inform public policy. The data are there. The Peace Corps volunteers are there. Let’s put them together.

It’s 2019. Soft skills instilled by Peace Corps are still invaluable. Yet, heartwarming anecdotes and good intentions no longer ensure Peace Corps’ relevance in a data-driven world. In addition to learning the local word for “mango” and the proper way to show respect to an elder, Peace Corps volunteers need to understand the Central Limit Theorem (look it up, it’s beautiful). Ignoring this reality will only bolster the false perception among some in Washington that Peace Corps has outlived its usefulness.

Michael Buckler is an attorney at the U.S. International Trade Commission in Washington, D.C., and co-founder of Village X, a direct-giving nonprofit that funds development projects chosen by villages in rural Malawi.