Peace Corps to close its doors

  • 2000-04-27
  • By Marta Kirse
RIGA - In two years the Peace Corps will close its doors in the Baltic States. Since 1991 Peace Corps volunteers have served as English language teachers and small business and NGO advisors throughout the Baltics' urban and rural areas.

"More and more Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians are qualified to teach English. The needs are less pressing than they were," Baudouin de Marcken, Peace Corps Baltic country director, said. "In small enterprise development, we are convinced that more and more support for that should be from the European Union, simply because that is what the countries are preparing to enter."

The Peace Corps' purpose has solely been to contribute during the transitional period.

"We are not talking about going from real poverty similar to the very underdeveloped countries of Central and Western Africa. The Peace Corps came in to provide short-term transition assistance," said de Marcken.

The Peace Corps began providing assistance in Latvia shortly after its break with the Soviet Union.

"The idea was that although these [former Soviet Union countries] were all developed countries, they were going to go through a period of major disruption and readjustment as they went from a socialist, centralized economy to a market economy," said de Marcken.

Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. in consultation with the United States Ambassador to Latvia made the decision to close, after considering the economic progress of each country, how close each was to meeting its own needs and what other support they have.

"This [Peace Corps' departure] is a normal thing. There has been enough progress in the development of the country that this type of assistance is no longer vital," said Greg Elftmann, spokesman for U.S. Ambassador to Latvia James Holmes.

The aim of the Peace Corps is to provide technical assistance to developing and transitional countries, offer these countries an opportunity to learn more about the United States and Americans, and to teach Americans about other countries. Volunteers must commit to a 27-month tour, which includes three months of training and two years at a specific site. There is the option to apply for a third year. As of October 1999, the Peace Corps had 45 volunteers in Latvia.

The first three months' training includes language and cross-cultural instruction, medical advice and technical training in a specific area (methodology of teaching English as a foreign language or Latvian business climate and legal framework). During this three-month period, all volunteers reside with a host family.

Twenty-six-year-old Tim Jacobs is an English language teacher in the southern Kurzeme village of Druva. The Tenafly, New Jersey native became interested in Peace Corps after spending a year teaching English in Prague. He said he was looking for a way to return to Eastern Europe, and the Peace Corps provided that opportunity.

As a volunteer in the English Education program, the Peace Corps' largest program, Jacobs teaches both the communications and grammatical aspects of the English language to high school students.

"My aim is to try to improve their language skills and understand the language better," said Jacobs. In addition, he conducts an English class for the teachers of the school.

Responsibilities of English Education volunteers also include working in conjunction with Latvian English teachers in modeling new methodologies and participating in the improvement of English language resources. Jacobs has been asked to lecture on "teaching practices in the United States concerning discipline and attendance, a real problem throughout Latvia," he said.

In addition to his work in the classroom, Jacobs provides exposure to English and American culture outside the academic environment through his English club. "We do things from watching videos, to cooking meals, to playing baseball."

In the small business development incentive, volunteers act as business advisors to small enterprises and NGOs. It is the Peace Corps' objective to assist small business and NGOs in developing a base of financial support. These advisors also serve regional business centers, and municipalities and regional governments. They aid the small entrepreneurs and regional organizations with the fundamentals of business by providing organizational and management assistance, basic accounting services, and lectures on the NGOs mission and recruitment of personel and voluntary staff.

Volunteers must have a business background, either education or work experience, to participate in this program. Eriks Markovs, NGO consultant in the northeastern town of Aluksne, graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration and is currently enrolled at the Monterey (California) Institute of International Studies. His two year's business experience in Latvia will enable him to receive his MBA after one more semester of study at the institute.

Working out of the NGO center in Aluksne, Markovs assists in developing the organization's internal structure to maintain it sustainability. His other projects include assisting the local government in visiting rural parts of the region to explain what the NGO sector is and the government's responsibility to the citizens, writing a business handbook for rural entrepreneurs and working in conjunction with the Aluksne human rights coordinator to hold democracy seminars for local schools. Furthermore, in conjunction with other Peace Corps business advisors, Markovs holds seminars throughout Latvia about project management and grant application writing.

Kaija Gertenere, director of the NGO center in Riga, believes the assistance provided by regional NGO centers will not decrease with the departure of the business advisor volunteers. "They [Peace Corps volunteers] have been complimentary to our work. The volunteers assist in doing the job better, but we will continue to do what is being done whether the volunteers are there or not," said Gertenere.