Thursday, June 15, 2006

What I did in the Peace Corps

This is my official "Description of Service" report from the Peace Corps...


Description of Peace Corps Service for Vishnu

Vishnu was chosen to serve as a Municipal Development Volunteer in December of 2003. Vishnu arrived in El Salvador on June 7, 2004 to begin 10 weeks of intensive training at the Peace Corps Training Center in San Vicente, El Salvador. The training focused on conducting needs assessments (20 hours), project design and management (60 hours), democracy building strategies (20 hours), Salvadoran history and governance (40 hours), language (130 hours), cultural adaptation(20 hours), and health issues (10 hours). Vishnu lived with a Salvadoran family in a small town throughout the training process and upon successful graduation was assigned to live and work with the Mayors office in Santiago de la Frontera, Santa Ana, El Salvador.

When Vishnu arrived in Santiago de la Frontera on August 20, 2004, an election had just occurred in which a new administration which had no prior experience in politics had just come into power. As a result, the new administrationwas in great need of assistance in both of the two focuses of the Municipal Development program: promoting citizen participation within the government and modernizing/increasing the efficiency of municipal services.

Citizen Participation For approximately the first ten months of service, Vishnu worked with ADESCOS (associations for community development) throughout the municipality. All of the ADESCOS that were fully functional during the old administration had become defunct when the new administration took office. Thus, before Vishnu could bring the people of the municipality back into contact with the Mayors office, he had to rebuild their associations.

For approximately 8 months, Vishnu traveled to six communities within the municipality in order to find people interested in leading the associations, who he then worked with to search for members. After finding and meeting with groups of community members (at least 25 members for each meeting in order to qualify for the legal benefits of being an association), he began working with them to write and ratify the constitution of their associations and elect their governing board (president, VP, etc.).

After each association ratified their constitution, Vishnu then set up appointments between their governing boards and the mayor, who was required to swear in the board and approve their constitution. The final step in this process was submitting the constitution and a certificate of the mayors approval of each association to the judicial branch of the central government, which would then (if nothing in each constitution was found to be in contravention of national law) give the ADESCO official sanction. At that point, each ADESCO hadthe power to open bank accounts, own property, and have a formal say in the workings of the mayors office.

Needless to say, each of the six association moved at its own pace through this process. About eight months into Vishnus service, a government project with the Agricultural Ministry began in Santiago, and part of this project was the legalization and strengthening of the very ADESCOS with which Vishnu had been working. For about two months, Vishnu worked alongside these engineers in order to bring them up to date on what he had already accomplished in each community and what was left to be done. After orienting these engineers, Vishnu decided that he could begin to address other needs of the municipalityin addition to maintaining contact with the engineers and providing support whenever necessary.

Municipal strengthening The majority of Vishnus time and effort was put into improving the functioning of the Mayors office and helping it to achieve its own objectives. The primary concern of the Mayor was the lack of funds that the office possessed to implement its priorities.

In order to address this problem, Vishnu first conducted a cost analysis of the office. By browsing through the offices books, Vishnu worked with the Treasurer in order to get a better sense of where the Mayors office money was being spent, how it was coming in, and what could feasibly be changed in order to spend more efficiently and increase revenues.

On the spending side, Vishnu found that there were two main areas in which costs could be cut relatively easily: phone bills and gasoline consumption. Many employees were using the office phone to make personal calls to cell phones, a practice which is enormously expensive in El Salvador. In addition, the office was paying a fee to theor telephone provider for an internet service which was grossly underutilized. After prohibiting the use of personal phone calls and canceling the Internet service, the office cut its phone bill by about 25%. Similarly, the offices vehicles were being used unnecessarily for travel not related to businesses, and curbing these uses led to a similar drop in the amount being spent on gasoline.

On the revenue side, Vishnu found that a large number of people were extremely behind on the payment of their taxes, many businesses were not registered and thus did not pay taxes, and many people were not being charged the full extent of what they owed in taxes when they did in fact pay them.

After meeting with the city council and presenting these problems, a multi-faceted approach was agreed upon: 1) reminders were to be sent to all citizens of the municipality who had not paid their taxes in more than three months, 2) an effort was to be made to register all businesses that were not yet registered, and 3) an impartial system was to be devised that would allow the secretary of the office to charge all citizens the full amount of what they owed in taxes.

Vishnu spearheaded the implementation of these proposed solutions. Working with the secretary, he sent out notices to people who had not paid their taxes and traveled throughout the municipality to register businesses. In addition, he created an Excel document that could be used by the secretary to calculate the full amount of taxes owed by each citizen, and this along with thereceipts kept by the Mayors office would help ensure that each was contributing that which was owed.

These efforts of the Mayors office bore much fruit. Upon receiving notification, over half of the people who owed back taxes paid, and their taxes werecalculated on the computer to ensure propriety. In addition, over twenty new small businesses were registered and thus began to pay their taxes.

In response to interest expressed by the Mayor and employees of the office, Vishnu engaged in two other main projects: 1) the creation of an ordinance protecting the environment and 2) the digitization of birth records from 1938-1960.

At the suggestion of an NGO, the Mayor became interested in implementing an ordinance that would protect the environment. This ordinance was intended to regulate deforestation, the disposal of hazardous wastes, and the construction of new properties, among other things. To begin formulating this ordinance, Vishnu obtained a copy of a similar ordinance used by another municipality and then met with local leaders in health, education, and law enforcement in order to change it to fit the specific needs of Santiago de la Frontera. After modifying the document, Vishnu met with a representative of the central government to make sure that none of the provisions in the ordinance were in conflict with national law. After meeting again with local leaders to ensure that the changes were in accordance with their desires, the ordinance went to the city council for final approval. Since therewas an election approaching, however, the mayor decided that final approval of the ordinance would have to wait to a more politically propitious time for its implementation.

After seeing the computerized version of tax calculation, the office employee became interested in digitizing a large number of birth records that were in danger of deterioration beyond reprieve. In addition, the employee was anxious to put the birth records on a computer so that it would require about a quarter of the time that it normally took for her to provide them to citizens. Vishnu worked with this employee to create a format for the digitization of birth records and then digitized approximately 5000 birth records that were in danger of being lost.

Vishnu completed his Peace Corps service on May 17, 2006

Pursuant to section 5(f) of the Peace Corps Act, 22 US.C. & 2504(f), as amended, any former Volunteer employed by the United States Government following his/her Peace Corps Service credited for purposes of Government Service.

This is to certify in accordance with Executive Order No. 11103 of April 10, 1963, that Vishnu served satisfactorily as a Peace Corps Volunteer. His service ended on May 17, 2004 and is therefore eligible to be appointed as a career conditional employee in the competitive civil service on a noncompetitive basis. This benefit under Executive Order Entitlement extends for a period of one year, except that employing agency may extend the period for up to three years for a volunteer who enters military service, pursues studies at a recognized institution of higher learning or engages in other activities which in the view of the appointing authority warrants extension of the period.

Michael Wise Bryan Dwyer
Country Director Program Manager
Peace Corps El Salvador Peace Corps El Salvador


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