If I had to describe my nearly nine months of work in Kyrgyzstan, a few choice come to mind. Challenging. Uncertainty. Waiting. Reflecting. Planning. A lot of talking about doing things. Surprising. Sheep-y. (Okay, more than a few words.) But the one that I want to talk about most is this: networking.
As a volunteer, you surprisingly learn a lot about networks. A network, in the most basic sense of the word, is a pattern of connections. The way a community interacts with each other, a layout of infrastructure, a series of handshakes and business card exchanges, interconnected organizational systems, the glory of a free wireless network (or the disappointment in a faulty one). By observing and understanding how unique components interact, you can not only find your role in this network (or system or community or machine – just a matter of perspective), but also discover ways in which the system can be improved or refined. That is one of our key tasks as volunteers, directly leading into our biggest goal: capacity building.
Capacity building is thrown around a lot – it’s a buzzword in the development community, and has become the focus of most development programs over the past five or so years. Development has gone through several iterations over its lengthy history – forcing “modernization” programs onto country’s economic or agricultural systems, construction of infrastructure or institutions, public-private partnerships, sweeping reform. These all have varying degrees of success or failure, depending on whom you ask. By investing in capacity building, development programs empower local ownership over issues, encourage designing development interventions with the input and effort of the target community, and focuses on long-term growth because you invest in people. People, unlike irrigation systems, new types of seeds, or futures exchanges, can invest in other people by teaching, providing knowledge as a program develops with the community, and can ensure that those skills are not lost when a development organization or foreign institution leaves.
And that is the goal of Peace Corps Volunteers – capacity building, or increasing the knowledge and ability of individuals and/or organizations to improve their capability to provide goods, services, and growth.
In order to do that, we have to understand the network or system in which these organizations and individuals exist. For some volunteers, that is their school, their village, their hospital. For me, it’s my whole organization, and, to some extent, the entire nation. My organization straddles public and non-profit, and exists in a complicated, sometimes convoluted, network of interconnected organizations and programs in over 80% of Kyrgyzstan’s villages, towns, and cities, not just the capital where I live and work.
The network in which I work is built off the Community Action for Health, an initiative launched in 2001 to integrate health promotion into Kyrgyzstan’s health reform program (currently in its third iteration since independence in 1991). The CAH program was designed by the Swiss Red Cross to move Kyrgyzstan away from the Soviet healthcare model, and developed rural, volunteer-based organizations educating communities about health concerns and a formal structure through the Ministry of Health to support them. This program, now in it’s twelfth year, has two main goals:
- to enable rural communities to act on their own for improvement of health in their villages; and
- to enable the governmental health system to work in partnership with village communities for improving health.
These volunteer organizations, called Village Health Committees, number more than 1700, and are active in over 75% of Kyrgyzstani communities. They are folded in a complicated system of actors and organizations, and work on a variety of levels, including in both of the organizations in which I work – the Republican Centre for Health Promotion and the Association of Village Health Committees – as well as international donors and organizations that provide its funding and project development. The CAH program aims to address a large number of Kyrgyz health issues – both practical and institutional – and is aiming to evolve into something more sustainable, more grounded in community action, and more effective in addressing community issues.
That’s part of my work, and I plan on writing more this month on the Community Action for Health, its actors, structure, the work that it does, and the work that I do with addressing the network.