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New Ground For Peace Corps

Jan 14, 2013
Originally published on January 14, 2013 4:56 pm



I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the ladies of Delta Sigma Theta sorority just celebrated their 100th year. We'll find out just how and why an organization founded by 22 young women on a single college campus a century ago now has a presence around the world.

But, first, we want to talk about another opportunity for service around the world. The Peace Corps has given Americans a chance to volunteer in developing nations, teaching, farming and building infrastructure for more than 50 years. But now, that organization is mobilizing medical volunteers to help these countries create a healthier future. The project is called the Global Health Service Partnership. It's starting work in Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.

Joining us to talk about it is Carrie Hessler-Radelet. She is the acting director of the Peace Corps. And also with us, Dr. Vanessa Kerry. She is the founder and executive director of the Global Health Service Corps. That's the group that's partnering with the Peace Corps to create this initiative.

Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.



MARTIN: Dr. Kerry, I'm going to start with you because the Peace Corps has been active in Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi for some decades now and you've actually worked in these countries yourself as a policy and medical professional, but what's new about this initiative? What do you - what does this do that the other initiatives have not done?

KERRY: Well, we're very excited to partner with the Peace Corps. What's different about this program is that, for the first time, we're going to be systematically sending doctors and nurses abroad to be medical educators, to really help build and strengthen the teaching and education opportunities for students there, so I'll give an example. There's a classroom in Mali with over 2,000 students in it, a single teacher, a single blackboard, 100-degree heat and they're all sitting there because they want to learn, but there's not enough faculty, there's not enough classrooms to help really meet the needs of those students. But we know that, you know, we need the doctors and nurses there, so we're very excited to be able to help build out this program and to create leadership in nursing, leadership in medicine to create a pipeline of doctors and nurses for years to come.

MARTIN: Carrie Hessler-Radelet, does this signal that the Peace Corps is going to shift its focus mainly to health education or education in the health area?

HESSLER-RADELET: No. We serve in six sectors, but this program will focus exclusively on health system strengthening through medical education.

MARTIN: How is this different from Doctors Without Borders? That's a group that a lot of people may know.

HESSLER-RADELET: Sure. Doctors Without Borders works in emergency settings, so they deliver primary health care services to populations that are in severe need and they do tremendous work. But Peace Corps' mission is to build capacity by working shoulder-to-shoulder with our communities.

MARTIN: Now, the doctors or medical personnel have been part of the Peace Corps' efforts in the past, as I understand it, and I'm thinking of, for example, Jimmy Carter's mother...


MARTIN: ...Lillian Carter, who was a nurse who worked overseas in that capacity. And what's different about this is that this is now systematic? Is this that, in every location, the intention is to have a medical health component?

HESSLER-RADELET: Doctors and nurses have worked in the Peace Corps throughout our 50 year history, but primarily in the area of community health and this is our first organized and strategic program to place doctors and nurses in positions to build health system strengthening and we're going to begin with medical education. We may expand beyond that.

MARTIN: What are you noticing about the kinds of applicants you've seen so far?

HESSLER-RADELET: We have tremendous applicants. I mean, they have to be board certified and Vanessa can talk a little bit more about that, but they also - I think equally important are the characteristics, the interpersonal characteristics that they bring, so they have to be people who are interested in other cultures who really want to make a difference and are passionate about serving.

MARTIN: Dr. Kerry, go back a little bit and just tell us how you got this idea.

KERRY: The idea came from personal experience. I'm a physician. I work alongside a lot of doctors and nurses who are interested in serving abroad and didn't necessarily have the opportunity to do so. They carried debt, which meant that they couldn't volunteer in service because they needed to worry about paying off $150,000 worth of loans.

And I, equally, had worked in countries like Rwanda and Uganda, where I had seen very firsthand the degree of need and the need for medical and nursing education and professional opportunity and this seemed an opportunity to bring those two things together.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, you mentioned that the debt burden that a number of medical professionals in this country are carrying is one of the reasons that people don't go. So one of the incentives here, as I understand it, is that you can get a stipend toward your educational debts. Is that correct? Like, not a small one. Right? It's like $30,000?

KERRY: It's $30,000 for each year served, so Global Health Service Corps is a nonprofit that is reliant on private philanthropy to help meet our part of the partnership in this very unique public-private partnership. We're partially PEPFAR funded.

MARTIN: PEPFAR, which is...

KERRY: PEPFAR, which is the U.S. government's effort for HIV and global AIDS. We're proud to be partnering with the Peace Corps, but we do rely on our citizens, our colleagues and our compatriots to help us keep going. And the peace that we specifically bring through the philanthropy is loan repayment stipends for debt. People may - obviously, can carry huge educational debt, but as well, you might have debt from a mortgage. They're barriers to being able to serve. People want to represent this country. People want to participate in service and we're just trying to allow the engaged, the best, the brightest who really want to be a part of change to be able to do so.

MARTIN: I have to ask this question because anybody who serves overseas, generally, at some point, is asked this question. There are communities in the United States that are medically underserved. I don't think that's a secret. What do you say to people who argue that these skills are needed in this country? And there are a lot of areas in this country where people don't have the kind of access to health care that they need. What do you say to that?

KERRY: There are deep needs in this country and we are, by no means, you know, trying to say otherwise or to turn our back on that. What I will say is that people who engage in service abroad come back home more likely to practice in underserved specialties, more likely to serve in underserved areas, have a better sense of how to make money go further, how to give better care and have a better understanding of the social determinants of disease. So this is a program that I think is going to strengthen our country, both diplomatically, but here at home and my hope is that we'll be able to put people here, too.

MARTIN: Carrie Hessler-Radelet, I have to ask a similar question of you, which is - one of the problems in a number of countries is brain drain - is that there...


MARTIN: ...are trained professionals who, as soon as they get the qualifications or the training, leave to seek a better quality of life elsewhere.

HESSLER-RADELET: That's right.

MARTIN: Is there any expectation or requirement that the people who are trained by Peace Corps volunteers are not going to follow that same pattern and take that training with them out of the country?

HESSLER-RADELET: There's no particular bonding of that nature, but you can't blame people who want to seek opportunity. But one of the things that I think is most important about Peace Corps services - you meet the most inspiring people, people who are dedicated to their community who have stayed behind to serve their community, despite the fact that they had opportunity elsewhere.

MARTIN: Dr. Kerry, you wanted to add something to that?

KERRY: Please. We also - we know that people often leave because there's lack of professional development. When you survey and research and data has shown very skilled and intelligent, wonderful, you know, doctors and nurses are leaving their countries because they don't have the opportunity to practice their trade.

By sending these volunteers to these countries to partner with the in-country faculty and the doctors and nurses, we hope to expand professional development broadly, build site development and really strengthen the experience through this partnership so that people will want to stay and be able to stay.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Dr. Kerry, we want to mention that your father, a Massachusetts senator currently serving as a senator from Massachusetts, has been nominated for Secretary of State. I'm sure you're very proud of him. But I did want to ask. I'm just wondering if his experiences in some ways influenced your own work.

KERRY: My parents certainly did. And, you know, my father absolutely is a big reason that I do what I do. He took me to Vietnam when I was 14 and it was one of the most life changing experiences of my life because I saw, in a very personal and a very extraordinary way, the degree of opportunity and good fortune that I'd had growing up, and I saw a kind of abject poverty and really stark lack of resources and deep, deep need that haunted me.

And it became probably one of those pivotal - it was a pivotal moment in my life where I said, I've got to be a part of doing something about this. And I knew I wanted to go to medicine, was already one of those little kids who had that piece figured out, but global health became a part of my trajectory from that point on. And it's been an extraordinary gift to be able to work with the Peace Corps to help see this program really take off.

MARTIN: Dr. Vanessa Kerry is the executive director of the Global Health Service Corps. She was here with us in Washington, D.C., along with Carrie Hessler-Radelet, who is the acting director of the Peace Corps. Keep us posted on this initiative, if you will.

HESSLER-RADELET: Thank you. We will.

KERRY: Thank you. We hope you'll come visit with us when we go abroad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.