Spencer Chappell (MPA/IPD '19) talks with the Immersive Learning team about her Design, Partnering, Management and Innovation Practicum (DPMI Plus) placement with Peace Corps Senegal.
Tell us a little about yourself!
Hello everyone! My name is Spencer Chappell, and I'm a Master of Public Administration Candidate currently finishing up my Peace Corps service as a Community Economic Development Volunteer in Senegal. I attended MIIS from Fall 2015 through the Fall Semester of 2016. I started my Peace Corps service in February 2017, and I've worked the last two years in the region of Fatick as a Business Advising Agent, helping local businessmen and women, entrepreneurs, women's groups, and associations improve their business management and accounting practices, facilitating entrepreneurial trainings, and teaching agricultural transformation techniques for food preservation and value addition.
While my two-year service will end in April, I've chosen to extend for another year to work as Peace Corps Senegal's Cashew Initiative National Coordinator. In this role, I'll organize cashew partners' meetings and business events for cashew actors around the country, assist PCVs with their cashew-related trainings, and create resources to be used in trainings in the coming years. The role also includes producing a Cashew Value Chain Capacity Development Strategy and Market Development Strategy.
How did you end up in Senegal with the Peace Corps? Why were you interested in working there?
Shortly before I applied for Peace Corps, the application process changed, allowing applicants to choose up to 3 preferred countries. As a longtime student of the French language, I selected Senegal as my first choice for placement, hoping to have opportunities to improve my French. I'd also heard great things about PC Senegal's Program and their focus on Goal 1 work, making it ideal for the Peace Corps Masters International (PCMI) and DPMI+ degree requirements.
What courses at the Middlebury Institute helped prepare you the most for your current position?
Nuhket's Social Sector Needs Assessment Class. Though we covered PC's PACA tools during PST (Pre-Service Training), few of my PC peers have used the PACA tools and other needs and capacity assessment tools as frequently or successfully. The underlying theories and tested methodologies covered during this course have been indispensable to me throughout my PC service.
Material covered and tools learned in Sarah Olsen's Impacting Accounting and Management class have been helpful in the various reporting formats required of Peace Corps Volunteers. The class also prepared me to deal with the discrepancies between NGO's stated mission and reported activities and the reality in the field, enabling me to read between the lines to assess where the programs fall short.
During DPMI Rwanda, we worked with local NGOs' staff to develop a social marketing campaign surrounding each group's existing NGO project. This experience prepared me to work alongside HCNs by exposing me to differences in professional behaviors and work styles. As in Nukhet's class as well, the focus on participatory design has been incredibly formational for my work in Senegal.
Have you faced any unexpected challenges in your current position?
Of course! I pursued an MA before entering PC as opposed to applying out of college so I'd have a larger "practical skill-set," and more professional experience to offer the host community. Even so, inevitable culture clash ensues, positioning variances in individuals' personal values at the forefront.
It's been really interesting to see professionally-esteemed members of the community hire their family members over more qualified individuals for USAID and other foreign-funded programs. As I'd interned with USAID grantees previously, I was familiar with the strenuous recruiting and vetting process for RFAs and RFPs, so I've found these nepotistic realities particularly frustrating.
Similarly, I was surprised to see how many foreign NGO programs still emphasize capital infrastructure programs. In the cashew industry context, for example, new processing centers are built every year, while existing structures sit unused as a result of incomplete technical trainings and/or insufficient business management capacities. Rather than designing the project to include training components, it seems many NGOs would prefer to plop a building down, stick some equipment inside, and call it good. This paradigm, of course, creates expectations that projects will include a material component and impedes actual capacity building efforts.
Overall, finding a pleasant work-life balance has been one of my largest challenges. In Senegal your work and personal lives are helplessly intertwined, making anything happening in the professional/work sphere much more personal than how Americans feel it should be. "Don't take it personally," would never be offered as advice in Senegal.
What projects have you worked on so far? How did they relate to your personal mission?
As many PCVs will tell you, the first year of service is filled with small projects that don't really stick. During my first year, my PC-assigned Counterpart set me up with lots of work, teaching 2 Computer classes, working with several women's groups, etc., but this was work I was entirely responsible for, lacking a co-trainer or co-facilitator, as is necessary in PCVs' work in their communities. While I was grateful for the experience I gained teaching and facilitating lessons within my sector's framework, it became abundantly clear the work from my PC-Counterpart was not aligned with my personal values and mission, prompting me to find other work partners.
Projects I'm personally most proud of include the 7-day Entrepreneurship Training mentioned above and Training of Trainers focused on women's economic empowerment. The Entrepreneurship Training, designed for local cashew producers, collectors, and processors, was co-planned and co-facilitated with several leaders of local cashew industry. 2 months after the training's completion, we began follow-up to assess how participants were implementing the action plans they'd developed during the training, and assist with any related projects, like applications for NGO funding, business plans, organizational management assistance, etc. As PC Senegal's Cashew Initiative Coordinator, I'll continue working with many of these groups and individuals in the coming year.
The second project I'm proudest of: my work partner and I just finished the first round of follow-ups for the Training of Trainers we've been organizing and implementing since November 2018. I can safely say this project helped me maintain optimism about the viability of community-led development. The project, designed for 1 representative from 5 women's groups from the surrounding area included 9 workshops covering practical skills (soap-making, various food transformation or preservation techniques, cloth-dyeing, and bleach-making), business management skills, and soft skills to help the reps manage their groups' dynamics and mitigate conflict. Before the 9th workshop, my work partner and I visited each of the representatives and their women's groups, reinforcing the goals of the project, fielding questions from the group members, and collecting feedback. Watching the reps run their meetings, seeing the products the groups were making and selling, hearing their plans for the future are some of the proudest memories I have from my Peace Corps service. The groups commended their reps on their dedication, mastery of new skills, and the clarity of their lesson delivery. While the work partner will continue periodically following-up with the groups, I feel confident the training achieved many of its objectives, and the groups are in good hands for the future.
What are your plans after you complete your time with the Peace Corps?
After my 3rd year coordinating PC Senegal's Cashew Initiative, I plan to pursue a job working in sustainable sourcing or monitoring responsible value chains. In my new role, I'll be charged with linking PC Senegal with private and public sector actors working in the West African cashew industry. While I don't yet know if I want to continue working in cashew, this experience will hopefully inform my trajectory for the future.