Tech can reshape the U.S. Peace Corps and bridge political divides

Comment

Image Credits: National Museum of American History (opens in a new window) / Flickr (opens in a new window) under a CC BY-SA 2.0 (opens in a new window) license.

Brian Forde

Contributor

Brian Forde co-founded the Digital Currency Initiative at the MIT Media Lab and was formerly a senior advisor at The White House.

More posts from Brian Forde

Earlier this week, President-elect Trump met with some of the top leaders of American tech companies. Some of these leaders are trying to find common ground after being on the receiving end of some of his sharp-worded tweets.

Like many of my friends in the tech community, I’m faced with the reality of a Trump presidency and searching for a way to honor the calls of President Obama and Secretary Clinton for national unity and a chance for the president-elect to lead.

My struggle comes from looking for common ground with a president-elect whose policy goals I largely do not support but recognizing from my time working in the Obama White House just how ineffective obstructionist politics can be for Americans who rely on a functioning federal government.

As we seek to unite a divided country, one unconventional area where we might find common ground, and discover a hidden opportunity for the tech community, is updating a historic government agency — the U.S. Peace Corps.

Surprised? Let me explain…

In December 2013, President Barack Obama was preparing to meet with a group of U.S. tech leaders at the White House. I was the senior advisor for mobile and data innovation at the White House, and I asked Reed Hastings, the chief executive officer of Netflix — and, like myself, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer — if he would like to join me for breakfast with the director of Peace Corps, Carrie Hessler-Radelet.

Reed enthusiastically replied, “Yes!”

Carrie and I met with Reed the morning before his meeting with the President, and then I walked him to the West Wing. Reed seemed to relish his discussion with the President, jokingly offering the President a cameo in House of Cards. But I didn’t think much else of Reed’s visit until I saw media reports the following day. To everyone’s amusement, Reed considered the highlight of his day to be his breakfast with the director of the Peace Corps, where they discussed how the agency had been influenced and changed by technology.

Reed’s conversation with Carrie at breakfast that morning sparked two new questions:

  • As the length of time a new tech startup goes abroad has been condensed from 4-5 years to 12-18 months — could recently returned Peace Corps volunteers supply the boost Silicon Valley needs to grow businesses successfully and responsibly in the most remote parts of the world?
  • Before the end of the next president’s first term, it’s estimated that there will be 99 percent cell phone adoption worldwide — and 1 billion smart phone users. How should the Peace Corps staff up, train up and partner up to better leverage and teach tech in the most remote regions of the world?
Photo courtesy of Flickr/National Museum of American History
Photo courtesy of Flickr/National Museum of American History

 

Peace Corps’ got Entrepreneurial Talent

Every year more than 3,500 Americans finish their Peace Corps service, mostly in rural areas in more than 60 countries. The Peace Corps has long acted as the last mile of international development, but it could also become the last mile of critical tech training. It has an unrivaled footprint of volunteers canvassing the planet — they are ambassadors of culture, teachers of water-saving agricultural techniques and emerging leaders in their own right. They’re building deep, meaningful relationships with local communities.

Historically, federal agencies, non-profits and non-governmental aid organizations have heavily recruited this rich talent pool of international experience and resilience. One of the many positive side effects of the tech community working closely with the Peace Corps is also tapping into this rich talent pool of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. These resilient Americans can supply the boost tech companies needs to grow businesses successfully and responsibly in the most remote parts of the world.

As an example, more than thirteen years ago I served as a business and technology volunteer in Nicaragua. Based on the challenges my neighbors and I faced in making calls to the United States, I co-founded a small phone company in 2005. We erected 80-foot internet towers in rural villages to enable Nicaraguans to call the United States and other countries at a tenth of the price charged by established carriers. Eventually our company, Llamadas Heladas, became one of the largest phone companies in Nicaragua.

I am not alone. Other Peace Corps Volunteers have also gone on to start much more successful tech companies, including Reed — who served as a high school math teacher in Swaziland — and Amy Pressman, who served in Honduras before co-founding her billion-dollar tech startup, Medallia. And it’s not just tech startups, Knight Foundation, with more than two billion dollars in assets to support, among other things, the development of civic tech, is run by Alberto Ibargüen, who served in Venezuela.

Building a Digital Peace Corps

President-elect Trump should choose a Peace Corps director with technology in his or her DNA. Critically, the next director needs to make technology a priority in every facet of the organization, from staffing and training to the partnerships it builds. 

Why? Great, tech-powered, business ideas can come from anywhere. Take Lyft, for example, a billion-dollar Silicon Valley company modeled after the successful ride-pooling in Zimbabwe. Or consider Ushahidi, a popular crowd-mapping tool used during domestic disasters — created in Nairobi.

Facebook powers more than a billion people’s social media identities but the Government of India built the world’s largest biometric identity system for more than 1.2 billion people in a fraction of the time. One of the most successful mobile money companies, M-pesa, was not founded in America, but in Kenya. Analog versions of Deliveroo, Postmates and Munchery were implemented decades ago in countries such as India and Nicaragua.

Ultimately, by bringing the Peace Corps into the 21st century, we can empower communities across the globe to take advantage of emerging technologies that can positively impact their lives.

6169534812_55f030b7bd_o

Digital Peace Corps (beta)

Peace Corps Director Hessler-Radelet has made dramatic improvements at the agency, including significant structural changes that make it easier to apply to serve as a volunteer — reducing the application process from several days to less than an hour. The Peace Corps has also expanded its digital footprint and improved its outreach, recruiting and marketing, resulting in a 100 percent increase in applications over the last two years.

The agency’s Director of Innovation, Patrick Choquette, has formed strategic partnerships with software firms, such as Duolingo, a language training software company. The Peace Corps has also been leveraging local knowledge to crowdsource invaluable geographic information that can be incredibly helpful in the wake of disasters.

Building on these successes, the next director has the opportunity to make the Peace Corps an important player in spreading the benefits of emerging technologies — enabling this historic agency to have as much impact in the 21st century as it had in the 20th. The wave of technology change is only growing. Whether it lifts or further isolates many parts of the world is being decided now.

The next Peace Corps director could help shape this future in the following ways:

Staff Up

  • Establish a Tech Corps – Similar to the Obama Administration’s recruitment of tech talent after the Healthcare.gov meltdown, the Peace Corps should recruit 80 technical volunteers — 10 for each region of the world where volunteers serve — building open-source tools other regional volunteers can leverage.
  • Launch Open Source Software Competition – The Peace Corps should host an annual contest to identify the Top 10 open-source projects, built by members of the Tech Corps, and give winners financial and developer support to deploy their tools worldwide.
  • Partner with USAID and Local NGOs – The United States Agency for International Development is building technical solutions — from mobile money to blockchain — that will need practical and technical assistance on the ground. Tech Corps and other volunteers could help train locals to run and maintain the technology being implemented.

Train Up

  • Expand TechHire globally – My last assignment at the White House was creating TechHire, which brings together businesses, coding boot camps and local governments to help those without a college degree learn to code and fill more than half a million vacant tech jobs. The Peace Corps, in collaboration with USAID, could expand TechHire globally — supporting the development of coding boot camps around the world.
  • Build makerspaces – Work with local organizations to establish and build out makerspaces to teach locals about invaluable technologies such as 3-D printing, robotics and solar power.
  • Put artisans online – Teach local artisans how to sell their goods on sites such as Etsy, eBay and Shopify, or show them how to successfully crowd-fund to acquire working capital needed for business growth.

Partner Up

  • Form partnerships with S. tech companies – Many of these tech companies have not only developed some of the world’s most innovative software and hardware but have also expressed lofty goals to make a difference in the world. The Peace Corps should work with companies like Twilio or telecoms, for example, to donate text messages for use by local healthcare clinics and others, similar to ChatSalud.
  • Launch E-book Drives – Partner with Amazon, Kobo and other major e-book merchants to allow consumers to donate e-books to students abroad exploiting the proliferation of smartphones that have dramatically lowered barriers to accessing e-book content.
  • Establish a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Innovation Fund – The top social entrepreneurs and accelerator programs — such as Echoing Green, Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network and Skoll Foundation, among many others — could host an annual event to review applications to fund the best ideas from volunteers on the verge of returning, giving them a path to stay in their local countries to make even greater impacts.

Finding common ground with someone whose policy goals you may strongly disagree with is incredibly challenging. But this isn’t about any one of us or the president-elect. This is about coming together as Americans, with the Peace Corps and the National Peace Corps Association, to help evenly distribute our future to the people who need it most — the communities Peace Corps Volunteers are uniquely trained to serve.

This post was written in my personal capacity and does not reflect the views of MIT or my colleagues.

This is just a starter list for ways Peace Corps Volunteers could leverage the latest tech tools to help the people serve throughout the world. Feel free to share additional ideas: brian@forde.com

More TechCrunch

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

3 hours ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

2 days ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

2 days ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more