Why do so few engineers get involved in developing regions where there are such aching needs for expertise?

It was 2:00 am on Friday, October 14th, 1960. Ten thousand students were waiting in front of the student union building at the university in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As the weary candidate climbed the steps, the audience began chanting his name.

John F. Kennedy had just flown in from New York, straight from his third television debate with Nixon. He spoke straight to the students, off the cuff, but it was “the longest short speech” he’d ever given. Long indeed: it launched the Peace Corps in five sentences:

I want to express my thanks to you, as a graduate of the Michigan of the East, Harvard University. I come here tonight delighted to have the opportunity to say one or two words about this campaign ...

How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.

The audience went wild. But why did Kennedy pick that moment, in the middle of the night on a college campus in the middle of the country, to launch the idea of the Peace Corps? Nobody knows for sure, but the effect was electric. Sargent Shriver (Kennedy’s campaign manager) said it was “like spontaneous combustion.” The vision was that by learning to serve, a new generation would learn to lead, and would return from the field empowered. They would return as stronger people, better not just from learning how to apply their talents, but by having learned much more about themselves and their place in the greater world. “There is not enough money in all America to relieve the misery of the underdeveloped world in a giant and endless soup kitchen,” Kennedy later declared. “But there is enough know-how and knowledgeable people to help those nations help themselves.”

When Congress Was Progress

The series of events that followed was awe-inspiring.

After his inauguration — the next day, in fact — Kennedy asked Sargent Shriver (then 44) to form a Task Force “to report how the Peace Corps should be organized, and then to organize it.” Shriver and team got a suite at the Mayflower Hotel and started working the phones. Kennedy called asking about progress, and Shriver said they didn’t have a name for the new agency yet. Less than two weeks, and Kennedy wanted to know what was taking so long!

Kennedy gave Shriver a report written by Max Millikan, director of MIT’s Center for International Studies, which advocated a cautious approach, placing a few hundred people in the first few years. (MIT isn’t always an eager beaver). That wasn’t what the Task Force proposed. What they proposed required many thousands of volunteers in the first year and a half.

Feb 24: Less than a month after inauguration, Shriver gave his report (A Towering Task) to Kennedy.

March 1: Kennedy issued the executive order establishing the Peace Corps.

July: more than 5000 applied.

August: the inaugural 51 volunteers met Kennedy at the White House Rose Garden. And when they landed in Accra, Ghana, a few days later and stepped onto the tarmac, those volunteers formed a chorus and sang the Ghanaian national anthem in Twi, the local language, for ministers and officials. It had a powerful effect.

September: racing to keep up Congress approved legislation formally creating the Peace Corps.

And that was before email.

Signs of a Groundswell

The movement was launched. By July, 1963 there were 7,300 volunteers in over 40 countries. By 1966: more than 15,000 in about 60 countries. And that, alas, was the Peace Corps at its peak. In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, and with the pall of war in Vietnam, the movement shrank. President Clinton acted to “expand” the Peace Corps — to 10,000. Expand it back to 1965 levels.

To me, the most interesting datum of all is this: of the Peace Corps volunteers today, most of whom have masters level training, the vast majority have backgrounds in business, education, health care, and some in ecology. A thin slice of the pie, about 4%, is described as: “other.” And in that sliver is where you’d find scientists and technologists. It’s a hugely disappointing minority.


There are rays of hope.

One fledgling approach that directly addresses the “4% problem,” is the Geekcorps (www.geekcorps.org) launched by Ethan Zuckerman, who co-founded the successful web service company, Tripod. Their mission is to give the world’s poorest people access to the internet by sending “swat” teams of technologists into the field to work with local communities to build the infrastructure needed to bootstrap local businesses. With an interesting echo of the Peace Corps, they, too began in Ghana. In fact, that’s where the idea came to Zuckerman, who met Peace Corps volunteers there in 1993, many of whom had technological skills but could not apply them in the face of more immediate assignemtns. But Zuckerman found the transition from web service to world community service to be a natural segue — as others will (see “dot.com loss is Peace Corps gain” in the New York Times.)

Geekcorps volunteers spend four months on the ground in developing nations, working to help partner businesses on a technical level. People attract people in all great enterprises, and this corps of people and backers is largely drawn from the new pool of successful “technocrats,” accomplished techies who are applying their sharp skills in challenging places. Example: one Geekcorps volunteer went on to become a vocal advocate within Accenture for corporate involvement in international developmental efforts. Getting a taste of reality in Ghana translated into boundless energy and fresh leadership for Accenture — and that energy keeps companies thriving, too.

The Earthwatch Institute (www.earthwatch.org) takes the complementary approach. Rather than recruit and mobilize a technology corps to engage in fieldwork, they recruit tourists. Earthwatch forges partnerships between scientists and the general public by placing tourists in the field to assist scientists on their expeditions. A traveller purchases a tour package — it might involve counting Koalas on islands off Australia, or tagging birds in Costa Rica, or working in a mother/child health program in rural India — and a portion of the fee goes to support the fieldwork. It is a brilliant model. Scientists get not just financial help, but hands-on helpers. The people who go get a crash course in field science, and have a micro Peace Corps experience. For them, the short trip often is the beginning of a long and meaningful life journey. Not only is this a sustainable model, but it inadvertently funds a significant volume of field science. It’s ecotourism that combines Peace Corps gusto with the cutting edge of science.

And the opportunity isn’t a one-way street. Armenia Nercessian de Oliveira was a UN official for 16 years. Working in hardship countries, she was struck by the beautiful handcrafted creations and what happened to them on their path to the world market. Bloomingdale’s would sell an African mask for $300 — a mask that you could have purchased for $15 in Africa, along with a much wider selection.

Enter Novica.com, founded by Nercessian, her daughter Milena and son-in-law Roberto Milk, which applies an Amazon-like approach to the world of beautiful handmade things. Internet technologies allow Novica to work with local offices in dozens of countries, organizing a vast online catalog of goods created by thousands of regional artists, goods that can be sold direct to consumers at prices far below the old “Bloomingdale’s level” and return a much greater profit to the regional artists. Through partnerships with HP and National Geographic, Novica not only does well by doing good, they do it in an exemplary way — in a way that betters the raw consumer culture by promoting a new kind of savvy eco-consumerism. And NOVICA profits because their networked approach eliminates legions of middlemen. This is a “good karma” company par excellence.

Each little gift, each product they ship, is, for the recipient, a key that opens a doorway to another part of the world: a tangible, evocative connection to a living artisan — a person with a name, face and life story, living in a faraway land. Novica’s business, if it succeeds, offers a sustainable path for local crafts and cultures. Like Earthwatch and the Geekcorps, theirs is a path that heightens public awareness, enriches communities, elevates tastes and deepens sensibilities. But for the internet glue (which many of us take for granted now) Novica might be regarded as an almost atechnical or even antitechnical enterprise. But there was a time when ballpoint pens were relatively high tech. It is important, and I would argue, critical as technology evolves, to be able to hold an ingenious handmade toy from Ghana in one hand, and some sort of beeping, blinking, battery powered, computer-infused technotoy in the other, and really ponder the differences — in order to come to grips with what sorts of artifacts we want to surround ourselves with, and why.

Outward Bound for Scientists

In my previous column, I argued how vital it is for scientists and technologists to get into the field, and be immersed in reality, up to their eyeballs in different ecologies, different cultures, different ways of thinking and doing. I reminded you that if Darwin hadn’t lucked into a berth on the HMS Beagle, he might well have wound up in divinity school, and ended up as Pastor Charles Darwin, creationist.

Well, the world is our laboratory now more than ever. We are connected with a fresh matrix of instant communication and easy travel. And the world is being transformed by burgeoning masses of people. Humans have changed the climate, reshaped the land, harnessed rivers and extinguished species. With biotools, we will profoundly reorder nature. Science gives us tools to change the world in incredible ways, and at a frightening pace, but it is also our compass for navigating the future.

The question is: who knows how to wield that compass?

The answer cannot come solely or naively from scientists who have lived their lives in a lab. It must come from a new generation of technologists who have an active, firsthand sense of the world — scientists who know what the spirit of service means, because they have served; engineers who have not just a textbook understanding of a problem, but who have had liberating, real experiences ranging from inner cities to outer wildernesses; inventors who know not only how to invent things, but how the processes of invention can help nourish a healthy, sustainable community.

Institutions are stirring. Harvard and the MIT Media Lab’s “Digital Nations” efforts are aimed at a broad set of next-gen technology projects with next-gen people in developing places. The G8 DOT Force and affiliated foundations like Markle have launched hundreds of millions of dollars worth of projects in these veins. Venture groups from SoftBank to the World Bank are actively spurring new economic activity in developing regions. Even in Washington (which is a pretty foreign place for many scientists), at Science Day recently, Newt Gingrich said “There are 537 elected officials... get 537 scientists to make friends with all of them. First-class scientists should leave the lab and talk to officials and to the public... Show up. You can have a huge impact.” There are positive movements.

But last year, just 5 MIT students joined the Peace Corps, and 2 from Caltech.