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Peace Corps looking for smooth exit from Slovakia

ŽILINA - On July 3, nearly 100 Slovak students converged on Žilina University to play the part of international delegates at Slovakia's third annual Model United Nations conference. Organised by two Americans serving as volunteers in the Peace Corps, the programme ran five days and took high school students through the paces of UN-style diplomacy and haggling.
After orientation and a speech by Malikus Suamin, Ambassador of the Republic of Indonesia, this year's edition got off to a restive start when the Cuba delegation addressed the pomposity of the United States: "Let's hope that this year's conference serves all the members and not just the richer, imperialistic countries," the Slovak Cuban delegate said.


Washington D.C.'s Dewey Smolken, shown here opening a 'multi media self access language centre' at the local high school in Spišská Nová Ves.
photo: Courtesy Peace Corps Slovakia

ŽILINA - On July 3, nearly 100 Slovak students converged on Žilina University to play the part of international delegates at Slovakia's third annual Model United Nations conference. Organised by two Americans serving as volunteers in the Peace Corps, the programme ran five days and took high school students through the paces of UN-style diplomacy and haggling.

After orientation and a speech by Malikus Suamin, Ambassador of the Republic of Indonesia, this year's edition got off to a restive start when the Cuba delegation addressed the pomposity of the United States: "Let's hope that this year's conference serves all the members and not just the richer, imperialistic countries," the Slovak Cuban delegate said.

"It's going to be an interesting week," observed Marcia Hauser, one of the two Peace Corps volunteer organisers of the event. "It's amazing how the kids take the idea of the conference and go with it, how intense and creative they become. It's even more amazing considering that they're doing it in a foreign language."

The model UN is one of scores of projects run by over 80 Peace Corps volunteers stationed in Slovakia. Other projects range from founding and maintaining language centres to crafting environmental trails to administering essay contests. But with the Peace Corps scheduled to decamp from Slovakia by July 2002, the future of many of these projects is uncertain.

"What volunteers are focusing on now is sustainability of projects," said Phil Stantial, country director for Peace Corps Slovakia. "It is of the utmost importance to us that they [the projects] live on after we leave. With many projects, it [sustainability] has already been ensured, but Model UN it is not yet quite there."

The Peace Corps does not directly fund projects, so finding organisations to continue activities is more a matter of administrative control than financial responsibility. Hauser and her partner Rhoda Sponholz have been in negotiations with several NGO's concerning Model UN, but have had particular difficulty finding one that is willing to run the conference in English.

"As far as I know, Model UN is Slovakia's only English speaking conference for high school students," said Hauser. "We are looking to turn it over to a Slovak organisation that will keep it going in English at the earliest possible date."

The Peace Corps, a volunteer organisation started in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, came to Slovakia after the fall of communism in central and eastern Europe in 1989. That year, President George Bush announced at a speech in Budapest that the Peace Corps would be opening a branch in Hungary; deployment of volunteers soon followed in several other regional countries, including the former Czechoslovakia.

Peace Corps activities have always been different in the erstwhile eastern bloc than in other parts of the world. While its mission - to help countries produce more skilled and educated citizens while facilitating cultural exchanges - remained the same, familiar images of volunteers digging latrines and living in mud huts were replaced by those of English teachers, environmental activists and business experts living in relative comfort but unsure of what exactly they were supposed to be doing.

In 1994, the United States General Accounting Office critisised the Peace Corps for "truncat[ing] and overrid[ing] its normal procedures and launch[ing] programs prematurely" when it moved into eastern and central Europe. According to its report to Congress, the Peace Corps provided inadequate training and assignments, and suffered from general confusion in applying its goals to specific situations.

Stantial admits that Peace Corps Slovakia was plagued by these initial problems but says it has since turned things around. "Peace Corps entered the entire region too quickly, and there is a period of adjustment in every country," he admitted. "In Slovakia, for example, one mistake we made was placing people into business centres throughout the country, which didn't work. We have since shifted are activities more into the third sector, which is a much better match."

Current Peace Corps volunteers are, as a whole, overwhelmingly positive about their experience in Slovakia. "When you first arrive you receive excellent langague, technical and cross-cultural training. After three months I could have basic conversations in Slovak and take care of all my basic needs," said Dewey Smolken, a 27 year old member working in Špišska Nová Ves since 1997.

After training, volunteers are placed in locations throughout Slovakia by the national office in Bratislava. Many of them work as English teachers, while others are part of the business development or environmental programmes - in either case, they usually work alongside an NGO. In addition to their regular responsibilities, Peace Corps volunteers are required to have secondary, community-based projects.

While more active than the average member, Smolken provides a good example of the kind of activities Peace Corps volunteers are up to in Slovakia. Aside from teaching English, he has founded a language centre, an English student newspaper, an amateur theatre and a summer camp.

With success stories such as Smolken, Peace Corps could be leaving Slovakia just as the organisation hits its stride. However, the decision to move out was based on Slovakia's status in the world rather than on the group's work.

"I would have to say I agree with the decision to leave when I compare Slovakia with other countries more in need of assistance," said Stantial. "After all, on the UN index of human development, Slovakia is the highest ranking of the 77 Peace Corps countries."

Topic: Tourism and travel in Slovakia


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