Peace Corps takes aim – Former volunteer in charge

Mark L. Schneider, who was sworn in as the 15th director of the Peace Corps earlier this year, says information technology and AIDS prevention in Africa will be two of the agency’s priorities during his tenure, the Washington Post reports.

The digital divide is deepening socioeconomic divisions, Schneider says, but he also believes the Peace Corps has the power to help change that.

“Today’s volunteers use computers the way I use a ballpoint pen,” the former Peace Corps volunteer told the Post, “and when they arrive in their countries, they automatically know more about computers than 99 percent of the population.

They can help build the bridge over the information divide.”

One volunteer, for example, created a Web page to sell the textiles of a Mayan women’s cooperative in Guatemala.

As technology becomes more central to the Peace Corps’ mission, Schneider plans to ask the computer industry for the hardware and software donations that will make projects work.

With infection rates of up to 25 percent of the population ages 15 to 49 in some African countries, Schneider characterizes the epidemic as a humanitarian crisis that has also become a development crisis.

He plans to address that crisis by training every volunteer in Africa as an AIDS prevention educator, and he plans to appeal to former volunteers to return to Africa for two- to six-months stints to fight the disease.

“In Uganda and Senegal,” he told the Post, national leaders from the president on down in two countres have made AIDS education their top priority, and in those countries the rate of spread has been controlled.  It’s clear that it’s do-able.”

Schneider takes over an agency that is expanding.  Congress, where the Corps enjoys bipartisan support, has just approved plans to increase the number of Peace Corps volunteers from 7,000 to 10,000.  The Peace Corps operates in 77 countries.

Schneider grew up in Walnut Creek, Calif., where he became interested in Latin America.  After working briefly as a journalist, he and his wife signed up for the Peace Corps in 1966.

After two years in El Salvador, he returned to the U.S., and a short time later joined the staff of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.  He focused on human rights abuses in Chile. Years later he was awarded the Bernardo O’Higgins medal for his work from the democratic, civilian government.

Schneider later joined the human rights division at the State Department under President Jimmy Carter.  When Ronald Reagan entered the White House, Schneider moved to the Pan American Health Organization as a senior policy advisor.  During Clinton’s administration he has handled Latin American and Caribbean issues at AID.

Schneider considers his own volunteer years to have been formative, and is looking forward to sharing his vision both with Peace Corps volunteers and with the people they help.

“It’s the positive sense of an ability to influence events, and the ability to communicate that to people who have never felt they could change their lives,” he told the Post.

“My two years in El Salvador were really my graduate education. I saw that there are things you can do to help people change their situations.”

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