History of the Peace Corps in Botswana
The Peace Corps entered the Republic of Botswana, formally known as Bechuanaland, in December 1966, only two months after the country gained independence from the United Kingdom. Botswana’s emergence as an independent nation heightened the need for a skilled labor force. This need provided a unique opportunity for the Peace Corps, which initiated a program aimed at helping the Batswana strengthen their ability to tackle their multiple development challenges. Over the next 31 years, more than 2,100 Peace Corps Volunteers served in Botswana. From 1966 to 1997, Peace Corps projects contributed to nearly every sector of Botswana’s development plan. Volunteers worked in education, health, the environment, urban planning, and economics. The largest group of Volunteers served as teachers in secondary schools. Volunteers filled significant gaps in the labor force and, in many cases, made singular contributions to the development of Botswana. There are scores of leading figures in Botswana who have a Peace Corps connection, be it as a co-worker, teacher, or friend.
Since its independence in 1966, Botswana has gone from one of the world’s poorest countries to one of the few developing nations to reach middle-income status. The country’s per capita income has grown rapidly. Life expectancy at birth increased from 48 years to over 60 years. Formal sector employment grew from 14,000 jobs to 120,000. Moreover, the nation’s infrastructure, including roads, power generation, schools, health facilities, and housing, increased dramatically.
Partly because of Botswana’s remarkable economic transition, the Peace Corps decided to withdraw from the country in 1997. It was with mixed emotions that the Peace Corps closed one of its earliest and most prolific programs. Peace Corps returned to Botswana in 2003 at the request of President Festus Mogae. His request was borne out of a stark recognition that AIDS is poised to erode the prodigious steady development advances realized in Botswana since independence.
History and Future of Peace Corps Programming in Botswana
Botswana continues to enjoy steady economic growth, mostly as a result of smart management of the country’s natural resources—particularly diamonds. At the same time, the country has not escaped the devastating effects of the AIDS pandemic. Like many countries in southern Africa, Botswana stands to be hard hit by the social and economic impact of AIDS. According to UNAIDS, Botswana’s HIV infection rate is one of the highest in the world. As the epidemic moves from silent and unseen to highly manifest in a large portion of the population, communities find themselves ill-equipped to deal with its deplorable effects. The government estimates that between 2000 and 2015, as many as 36,000 Batswana will die from the disease annually. The vast majority of these will be young people in the prime of life, who will also leave behind a generation of orphans. Botswana will be one of the few countries in the world with a negative population growth.
Botswana has some powerful allies in the fight against AIDS. The government, under the leadership of President Mogae, has publicly acknowledged the crisis and has signaled a commitment to action through a national strategic AIDS plan.
The President, having committed his two terms in office to dealing with the impact of HIV/AIDS, heads the National AIDS Council. The government has mobilized resources, both internally and externally, in a fashion heretofore unprecedented in confronting any national disaster. Botswana consistently makes the news as one of the few countries willing to provide free antiretroviral drugs to pregnant women and to those infected with HIV. An increasing awareness of the need for multisector care and prevention strategies is leading to innovative partnerships with both civil society organizations and the business community.
A sobering reality is the drop in Botswana’s ranking in the UNDP Human Development Index (from 71st place in 1996 to 131st in 2003. A Peace Corps assessment team visited and concluded that the reintroduction of Peace Corps would be beneficial. This new Peace Corps project was launched in June 2003; the partnership is devoted specifically to Peace Corps’ supporting and enhancing the Government of Botswana’s efforts to respond to HIV/AIDS and its impacts.
At the insistence of the National AIDS Coordinating Agency (NACA), Peace Corps/Botswana began its AIDS program with a capacity-building project.
Volunteers were recruited and partnered with newly hired district AIDS coordinators (DACs). DACs, new to their positions and new to the world of program planning, implementation, and monitoring/evaluation, are based in district and sub-district offices. They are charged with ensuring that HIV/AIDS programming is mainstreamed into every substantial government development project. In addition, they mobilize both the government and community responses to HIV/AIDS in every community in Botswana.
Finally, they are the major link in the accumulation of information for the national monitoring and evaluation program. The Volunteers currently serving in the DAC program have proven invaluable to the government’s attempts to launch coordinated district- and village-level responses to HIV/AIDS. In addition to the transfer of skills and knowledge directly to their DAC counterparts, Volunteers have stimulated greater community involvement in HIV/ AIDS programs and activities. They have been critical to the establishment of the national monitoring and evaluation initiative. Additionally, Peace Corps Volunteers in the DAC program have helped local communities initiate local responses to the impact of AIDS.
Preliminary agreements with NACA included the recognition that Peace Corps has a history of effective implementation at the grassroots (or village) level—a historically underserved sector in Botswana. As a result, two new initiatives were added in June 2004. The first is a program designed to provide support for the government’s Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission program (PMTCT). Although the government has provided free PMTCT services since 1999, an evaluation had identified poor uptake in services as a critical obstacle to the success of the program. A pilot project was instituted in the villages of four health districts. Its aim was to promote community involvement in PMTCT through community mobilization. In partnership with the Ministry of Health and BOTUSA (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s program in Botswana), Peace Corps Volunteers were placed in villages throughout the pilot districts. Partnered with local clinics and local PMTCT counselors, Volunteers are currently engaged in a variety of activities designed to increase the uptake of PMTCT services and to build capacity in PMTCT service providers. Some activities include:
- Building village-based AIDS education and community awareness (through workshops, community meetings, one-on-one sessions, etc.);
- Forming and developing communitY support groups, both for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs) and for those affected by HIV/AIDS;
- Creating youth groups linked to HIV/AIDS education and programming;
- Building technical capacity in clinics (through systems creation, record keeping, training of trainers, and monitoring and evaluation activities);
- Transfering skills to counterparts, village leadership, and youth;
- Increasing client follow-up and introducing strategies to promote PMTCT regime adherence;
- Working with leadership structures (traditional, formal and informal) to identify and dismantle the causes of stigma and discrimination; and
- Developing a database to collect information on PMTCT for report writing
- Mobilizing and educating communities on HIV/AIDS
- Designing and implementing strategies to promote male involvement The second new program introduced in 2004 is housed in the Department of Social Services (Ministry of Local Government). Volunteers were allocated to provide support to home-based care and orphan care (HBC/OC) in communities hardest hit by AIDS. HBC/OC Volunteers are partnered with village-based government social workers. Their work is very similar to the work of PMTCT Volunteers. They also help improve village access to government benefits and services, specifically those for orphans and vulnerable people. Many HBC/OC Volunteers are helping to create programs that cater to the needs of the sick and orphaned. Student service-learning projects, community-sponsored day-care centers, and support groups for caregivers are just a few examples of how Volunteers are working to get communities mobilized against AIDS in their communities.
The AIDS pandemic strikes across all social strata in many Peace Corps countries. The loss of teachers has crippled education systems, while illness and disability drains family income and forces governments and donors to redirect limited resources from other priorities. The fear and uncertainty AIDS causes has led to increased domestic violence and stigmatizing of people living with HIV/AIDS, isolating them from friends and family and cutting them off from economic opportunities. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you will confront these issues on a very personal level. It is important to be aware of the high emotional toll that disease, death, and violence can have on Volunteers. As you strive to integrate into your community, you will develop relationships with local people who might die during your service. Because of the AIDS pandemic, some Volunteers will be regularly meeting with HIV-positive people and working with training staff, office staff, and host family members living with AIDS. Volunteers need to prepare themselves to embrace these relationships in a sensitive and positive manner. Likewise, malaria and malnutrition, motor vehicle accidents and other unintentional injuries, domestic violence and corporal punishment are problems a Volunteer may confront. You will need to anticipate these situations and utilize supportive resources available throughout your training and service to maintain your own emotional strength so that you can continue to be of service to your community.