My Time in Peace Corps: The Wish to Poverty Alleviation

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I have long had idealistic goals for what path I have wanted my career to take; I’ve known since I was a teen that I wanted to be engaged in public service, working to improve the lives of others, and doing something bigger than myself. What I had in the way of grand aspirations though, I lacked in clarity. Upon completing my undergraduate education, I was set to enter the workforce with no real vision of what career path I wanted to take, other than this vague notion that I wanted to serve the public good in some way. I studied history, with minors in political science and classical studies. This gave me a grounding in the liberal arts and social sciences, teaching me how to conduct research, critically analyze issues, and synthesize my thoughts and analyses into original writing. This broad education strongly influenced my interest in, and understanding of the importance of, public policy. What it admittedly did not do was give me the hard quantitative skills and field-specific knowledge one needs to pursue a career in the field. I was interested in pursuing a career in public service but did not have a clear path forwards. Joining the Peace Corps was logical if cliched, entry point into public service; after some time spent in various internships and a brief stint with the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso, I came to Tanzania, where I serve as a health extension volunteer.

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It has afforded me the opportunity to do substantive work in public service that has been rewarding in and of itself, while also providing valuable experience for future educational and career opportunities. My experiences in the Peace Corps have elucidated my goals and reaffirmed my desire to work in the policy field. The opportunity to work with communities at the grassroots level, implementing small-scale projects that are the end result of high-level policy decisions has shown me just how impactful public policy can be. Rather than having a general idea of where aid money is going, I have directly participated in the process, implementing one USAID and one PEPFAR-funded project (smallholder poultry production, and menstrual hygiene kit distribution and education respectively) with the goals of improving economic well-being and health outcomes.

In the community I live in southern Tanzania, the majority of inhabitants derive nearly all of their income from the once-yearly cashew harvest. In 2018, the Tanzanian government purchased the cashew crop at a higher than market rate; the cashew price was far lower than expected that year, and local farmers’ cooperatives put pressure on the government to do so. However, the government did not have this money, and instead of receiving their payments within a month or so of the harvest as they normally do, local farmers had to wait around 3 months. For farmers living in poverty, who have budgeted the income from their last harvest for a year, a two-month delay is close to disastrous. People were struggling to feed themselves. They could not buy medicine or afford clinic fees. The government, either in an attempt to fight for the economic well-being of its citizens, or, more cynically, in an attempt to gain their favor, enacted a policy (which likely had very little in the way of rigorous analysis backing it up) that had an appreciably negative effect on a large number of people. This has allowed me to see first-hand how economic insecurity can happen, or be ameliorated, as a result of policies enacted by a government.

A degree from the LBJ school will be essential for me if I hope to achieve these professional goals. I have come to realize that a strong quantitative skill set is necessary to perform rigorous analysis of the problems we face, evaluate their consequences, and develop solutions to them, and this is a major reason why I am applying to the LBJ school- the strong quantitative base in the core courses will provide me with the tools I need to perform rigorous analysis. The breadth of the core curriculum (with classes on economics, finance, public management, quantitative methods, policy research, and development) will allow me to develop a skill set that I can apply to a broad range of topics; from sustainable development to corporate social responsibility, to climate issues. While my primary educational goal is to learn tools, skills, and methods of policy analysis that can be deployed across a wide range of topics, the opportunity to gain knowledge in policy areas such as international affairs and economic development is eminently appealing. Finally, from a more utilitarian perspective, having the reputation of the LBJ School and the enormous Longhorn network as tools to leverage into a career in public affairs are enormously attractive.

My time in Peace Corps has solidified to me the value of working towards such a goal – particularly with regard to poverty alleviation, economic empowerment, and access to healthcare. Thus, I plan to follow a career path that will allow me to work in economic development, domestically or internationally. A decade from now I aim to be employed by a non-governmental organization, working to guide governments to select and test optimal policies to support sustainable development and poverty alleviation. I am applying for the Master of Public Affairs so that I can work directly in the policy-making process, with the ultimate goal of playing an integral part in the implementation of policies that improve the public good, empower underserved and underrepresented populations, and enable all to achieve prosperity.

07 July 2022

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