By: Ron Burkard
In 1965 I became regional director for the CARE-managed Accion Comunal Peace Corps program in Colombia, moving from Guadalajara, Mexico to Barranquilla. The wonderful area I covered was the then-departamentos of La Guajira, Magdalena, Atlantico, Bolivar and Cordoba. There were about 50 urban and rural volunteers in the region at the time. Several of them are still friends, more than 40 years later! CARE’s contract with the Peace Corps ended on short notice when I had been in Barranquilla for less than a year. This was one of the shortest but most meaningful of 17 assignments during my 33 years with CARE.
During those short nine months living on Colombia’s north coast that I learned basic principles of community development that served me well in my future career. One story highlights those principles and the approach to working with communities used by CARE and the Peace Corps in those exciting early years. Somewhere in Colombia there is a community (whose name and location now escape me) whose top priority was to build a monument to La Piña (the pineapple).
Community development PCVs were assigned to rural communities and marginalized urban areas to work with Juntas de Accion Comunal, where they were to help organize, prioritize needs and move towards solving problems hindering development. The usual suspects were health, schools, clean water, access roads and income. In this instance, the PCV was disheartened to learn that community leaders wanted to build a monument to La Pia in the town plaza. What’s wrong with these people? he wondered. Well, it turned out that the areas economy had recently been transformed after the cultivation of pineapples began a few years before. The community wanted to acknowledge the importance of the changes La Pia had brought.
After being encouraged to go with the flow the PCV (at first reluctantly) helped the community move forward with fund-raising activities, raffles, dances, etc. All this required a great deal of organization. At long last the monument was completed and appropriately inaugurated with a joyous fiesta. This success built confidence in a community previously not used to working together. It was followed by construction of a school, health center and other activities.
Lesson learned: Let the people lead they know best! This basic principle served me well in future CARE assignments throughout Latin America, South Asia and in South Africa. When I joined World Neighbors as its executive director in 1997, it came as no surprise to learn that this approach had been key to the organizations philosophy since its founding in 1951, and that WNs founder John L. Peters was one of the community development experts the Peace Corps looked to for guidance in its formative years. Viva la Piña!
Ron Burkard joined CARE in 1963, serving abroad in Mexico, Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, India, Bangladesh and South Africa. Contact him at email@example.com.