Monday, August 25, 2008

Peace Corps to Pare Ranks of Volunteers

Thought you might be interested in this Washington Post story about Peace Corps' financial woes. I might note that the annual Peace Corps budget is equivalent to what amounts to a rounding error in the calculation of the overall US federal budget...

Despite Bush's Goal of Doubling Program's Size, Tight Budget Forces Cuts
By: Christopher Lee Washington Post Washington, D.C.

The Peace Corps, the popular service program that President Bush once promised to double in size, is preparing to cut back on new volunteers and consolidate recruiting offices as it pares other costs amid an increasingly tight budget, according to agency officials.

The program, which has a budget of $330.8 million, is facing an anticipated shortfall of about $18 million this fiscal year and next, officials say. Much of the gap can be attributed to the declining value of the dollar overseas and the rising cost of energy and other commodities, officials said. That inflates expenses for overseas leases, volunteer living costs and salaries for staff abroad, most of whom are paid in local currencies.

Those factors "have materially reduced our available resources and spending power," Peace Corps Director Ronald A. Tschetter wrote in a July 22 letter to Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the program. "Tough budgetary decisions must be made now in order to ensure a financially healthy agency next fiscal year," he added.

The agency estimates its foreign- currency-related losses at $9.2 million for fiscal 2008 alone, spokeswoman Amanda Beck said yesterday.

In part, the program is caught in the political standoff between lawmakers and the president over the federal budget. If, as seems likely, Democrats delay final passage of the spending bills that fund the government until after Bush leaves office next year, programs such as the Peace Corps could be forced to operate at current funding levels indefinitely, administration officials said.

Beck said the agency could experience another $9 million in losses in fiscal 2009 in a "worst-case scenario" in which the agency has to operate under a year-long continuing resolution.
But that scenario is very unlikely, McCollum said yesterday, noting that her subcommittee has signed off on the agency's $343.5 million budget request and its Senate counterpart has approved $337 million.

"It's only going to be a short amount of time before a new budget gets through, and the Congress is committed to moving Peace Corps in an upward direction," she said, adding that the agency should ask for short-term supplemental funding if it needs it.

Beck said the "best course of action" would be for Congress to approve the president's full budget request. In a July 21 letter to Tschetter, McCollum wrote that she had "serious doubts" about the agency's plan to close regional recruiting offices in Minneapolis and Denver by Jan. 1.
"It is my goal to see a growing number of highly qualified, diverse and determined Americans of all ages committing themselves to serve our country as Peace Corps volunteers," she wrote. "Achieving this goal will require . . . a strong nationwide recruiting presence."

Tschetter described the closures as "mergers" with other offices in Chicago and Dallas that are part of a move toward a "field-based recruiting model" expected to save $1.5 million. Thirteen people will be reassigned to other jobs in the agency, officials said.

The tight fiscal climate also means an anticipated scaling back in new volunteers next year by 400, wiping out planned growth and leaving the overall number of volunteers at about 8,000, according to Tschetter. Volunteers serve for 27 months and are paid a stipend of about $2,500 annually.

Managers at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington have been asked to cut their budgets by 15.5 percent. The agency even plans to stop providing copies of Newsweek magazine to volunteers in the field, something it has done since the 1980s.

"It just seemed like an extravagance," Beck said. "Everything is under consideration, including the director's travel."

Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, a nonprofit group of former volunteers, said, "I worry about what the [budgetary] implications are for the next president, who we anticipate will have plans to expand Peace Corps."

Established in 1961 by President Kennedy, the Peace Corps provides skilled volunteers to other countries while promoting mutual understanding between Americans and people of other nations. About 190,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries since its inception.

The 8,079 volunteers today number the most in 37 years but are far fewer than the goal of 14,000 by fiscal 2007 that Bush set in his 2002 State of the Union speech.

Expanding the program remains a popular idea. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has pledged to double the size of the Peace Corps by 2011. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), his Republican counterpart, has praised national service and said there should have been a stronger national push to encourage people to join the Peace Corps and other volunteer organizations after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Pictures from our hike to Telimeli

Walk from Doucki, Dongol-Touma to Telimeli

Hot Season Trip – Guinea (Part Deux)

As things tend to, I keep saying I’ll come back and write the continuation of a story, post, etc. but I always get consumed and carried off by whatever and wherever life takes one here in Africa. I will stop apologizing – it’s just the way things are.

Now let’s see if I can start where I left off: Getting off the beaten track of the touristy Fouta Djalon (beaten and touristy is actually a stretch, I was already off the track) and onto the remote road between Pita and Telimeli which truly is a track - at best.

After some delays getting from Labe to Pita due to some sort of strike – not a good omen for this fragile country – we arrived in Pita and set off to find Koumi-Berri, the chef du syndicate for vehicles towards Doucki. The sept-place still had some spaces to fill (with us it was already eight) and we took advantage of the time to stock up on supplies for our trip into the bush. Being unsure what we would be able to find, we played it safe and bought everything we would need for the few day stay in Doucki and the couple day trek from there to Telimeli. Having limited space and heavy bags (we would be carrying everything we had packed for the next month), the food consisted largely of spaghetti, maggi cubes, small cans of tomato paste and a couple onions. It was going to be a bit bland but it would get us there… Inch’Allah.

Two hours waiting in Pita, an equal amount of time crammed in a Peugeot and then a quick 2km walk to Doucki – we arrived just after dusk to the great hospitality of Hassan Bah. Hassan is a character – he speaks French, Italian, Spanish, and English along with a slew of local languages – a rarity doesn’t quite cover it. About ten years back, a Peace Corps Volunteer, working in a next-door village, stumbled upon his wealth of knowledge about the surrounding area and helped him establish himself as a local guide. He has since perfected his trade and now provides a unique, if rustic, experience for those wishing to explore the surrounding hills, canyons and cliffs. The benefits of his tours – bringing foreign tourists along with their foreign cash – have been spread amongst his family who in turn spread it to the wider community. It is a great example of the community being truly invested since they see the direct and positive impact of it on their lives. Although – it has not extended so far that they didn’t start cutting down large tracts of forest to clear land to plant rice… but I will get to that later.

Chris and I got settled into our mud hut, took cold-water bucket showers, and had a nice meal of rice with manioc leave sauce. After another night of good conversation we retreated to the candle lit hut for a little reading and sleep – it was to be a big day tomorrow. We arranged to go on a large loop through the surrounding area with Abdurahim (Hassan’s brother since he was busy with family obligations after a recent death in the family). He was to take us through most of the major sites in the area – with help from that Peace Corps Volunteer – they all had been given catchy names such as “Indiana Jones” and “Hyena Rock”. This part of the Fouta Djalon is referred to as the “Grand Canyon” of Africa and rightfully so, it was by far one of the highlights of my time in Guinea. In fact, after Dogon Country in Mali, it is the most picturesque place (other than some of the beaches I suppose) that I’ve seen on my travels here in West Africa. If you were to take Dogon, make it a canyon, add lots of green, take out all the little animist villages, make it even more remote (if that’s possible), and you have something close to this beautiful area of the Fouta Djalon.

Doucki is situated on the top of one side of the quasi canyon and we set off the next morning passing “Hyena Rock,” descending past the “Bob Marley Stage” and down to the valley floor. After walking along a little stream for a while, our guide materialized an eclectic lunch of rice, avocado, tomato, maggi, and sardines – surprisingly good (at least to someone who doesn’t have access to avocados…). From there we needed to get back up to the top of the cliffs, 1000-1500 feet above, by making our way through a narrow crag in the cliffs – aptly named “Chutes & Ladders”. It was a steep climb up ‘ladders’ of bundles of bamboo poles lashed together with vines. It wasn’t quite the rainy season when we went in early May but had it been a few weeks later, they surely would have been more like “chutes” ;-) Upon reaching the top, it was a little after 3pm and still the heat of the day. Rather than continuing on in the blazing sun, we found some pools and took a refreshing dip before finishing the 15km loop back to Doucki.

Early the next morning we started our more than ambitious if not mammoth trek from Doucki to Telimeli – over 70km away. Looking back, it sounds a bit silly that we were going to try and attempt that in two days. Hassan accompanied us for almost an hour and a half for the first 7km where we caught a passing mini-van ~6km to Dongol-Touma. Having what was to be our last meal of rice (compared to our bland spaghetti) and a cold coke, we set off just after noon. The first day was pretty much all downhill and we covered a good distance going a little over 20km. Not quite as dramatically scenic as Doucki, it still merited a few photos. Unfortunately, the air was smoky from all the slash and burn going on to clear land to grow rice. We tried to reason with Hassan one night about how they were mutilating this beautiful area to make way for rice. Ultimately, however, feeding your family will always overrule almost any argument – even though they understood the value of maintaining the local environment for its tourist value – that could not compete with their basic need for food.

We persevered down the never-ending road descending all the while and even though we improvised a nice little short-cut – by sunset we were still a ways from our night’s destination of Ley-Mira. Luckily for us, someone passing (of which there may have been three all that day) offered to give us a lift the remaining 16km. In general, the people along the way turned out to be incredibly nice – we were frequently loaded up with all the oranges we could ever want, let alone carry. Using our water purification tablets to be safe, we were welcomed to fill up wherever there happened to be a pump. Pumps weren’t in every village but they were frequent enough so that 2 liters could sustain you in-between… in fact I was quite surprised by even the small number we did come across in that extremely remote area. One sign that really emphasized the degree of sophistication that existed in Guinea was how there was almost always a cement building in every family’s compound – something that is very rare outside large cities in Mali let alone tiny villages in the remote backwaters of the country. Anyhow, after our new friend Abdoulaye Berry gave us a ride to Ley-Mira, we were well fed and showered before stretching out on a mat in his hut to sleep.

Being woken before sunrise, we were almost pushed out the door by 7:00 and on our way. It was four flat kilometers to a ferry crossing where the road started its gradual ascent towards Telimeli. Of course it wasn’t that simple, there was a sign just a few yards past the river, which was a little less than clear. We decided rather than go off in the wrong direction, we would wait a little while for someone to pass and ask which way to go. However, that was a bit optimistic being as remote as we were. Finally, a car did pass and kindly answered all our questions: “Is Telimeli this way?” – “Yes.” “Is Telimeli this way?” – “Yes.” “Which way is shorter?” – “Yes.” “Where are you going?” “Yes.” Great, thanks for the help!

We tossed a coin, went straight and were rewarded a short walk later by a water pump and people that truly were helpful. Relieved we’d chosen the correct road, we continued on and by mid-morning, we were tired and just wanted to get there. Where we had originally wanted to walk the entire length, Chris and I had an unspoken understanding that if a car did pass we would take a ride. Marching on in silence up the evermore-inclining road, our feet hurt, shoulders hurt, and we drudged on. Still an unknown distance from our destination, we ran out of water and couldn’t seem to find a pump… the last two we had passed were both kaput. While stopping a short distance from one of those pumps to rest, a villager who’d seen us approach the broken pump came over with a jug of water. This was a very generous gesture as the last water source was at least two to four kilometers away. We gratefully accepted the water, filled our empty reservoirs, and added our purification tablets – the half hour wait couldn’t come soon enough. The water was probably well or river water and wouldn’t be a good idea to drink, but still not knowing when we would find the next water source, it was our only option.

About a half hour later, just as we were starting to consider drinking that water, we walked into a tiny village where we determined Gougouja, the town were we could continue onto Telimeli was not too far away. We resolved to press on and wait to get water there. By now of course, it was well into the heat of the day and we finally pulled into Gougouja about 2:30pm thoroughly exhausted and parched – waiting another painful 30 minutes for our tablets to do their trick. We ate some rice and sauce for lunch and waited almost 3 hours for a car to take us the remaining 45 minutes north to Telimeli – just as we were loading our bags onto that car; another one pulled up and passed us coming up the road we’d just walked.

The next morning, we were up early once again to catch transport to Kindia, about a 3.5-hour drive south. The journey passed unspectacularly – unspectacularly since nothing went wrong and there were no delays. The scenery was actually quite pretty and we had plenty of chances to appreciate it – we all frequently had to get out and walk up a hill while the car drove up to meet us at the summit. Does the fact that that seems normal and doesn’t register as a unique or special event mean something??

In Kindia, we had a short wait (two hours) before finding a car going to Madina-Oula on the Northwestern border of Sierra Leone – what seemed to be the best entry point to access our destination of Outumba National Park. It wasn’t and our route gave us yet another opportunity for an adventure… however, I’m going to end this post here and pick up with our remarkable journey over one of the worst roads I’ve ever encountered in all my life in the next edition.

To be continued…

Where I've Been...