A Discussion with Craig Badger, Peace Corps Guatemala
October 29, 2015
Background: In nearly 25 years with the U.S. Peace Corps in Guatemala, Craig Badger has seen dramatic changes in security, politics, and religious affiliation there. Mr. Badger, now the director of programming and training for Peace Corps in Guatemala, met with Carlos Martínez Ruiz on October 29, 2015 in Santa Lucía Milpas Altas, Sacatepéquez to discuss his work and perspectives on how religious dynamics are evolving in Guatemala. He outlines the history of the Peace Corps program in Guatemala, from an initial focus in the Pacific coastal areas and the eastern part of the country during the period of the civil war to their current work among predominantly Maya populations in the western highlands in the areas of health, education, and the environment. He gives a quite detailed description of Peace Corps programs. Witnessing the dramatic change in civic participation that led to the reconfiguration in the political landscape in 2015, Mr. Badger is optimistic about prospects for development and civic engagement in Guatemala’s immediate future.
Can you speak about your background and your role with the Peace Corps in Guatemala?
I came to Guatemala, from Minnesota, as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1990; back then I was working with environmental projects. When I finished my volunteer service in 1994, I became a trainer for the organization here in Guatemala but eventually started working on training for Peace Corps in El Salvador. I moved back to Guatemala in 2004 and became the training director. Since 2011 I have been working as the director of programming and training.
Why did you come to Guatemala? Was it an assignment from Peace Corps or did you have an interest in the country?
I definitely was interested in Guatemala. I had a small connection; I was sponsoring a child in Guatemala through a faith-based organization in the U.S. While I was volunteering for the Peace Corps, I had the opportunity in 1990 to go and visit the child I was sponsoring. By that time I had already seen extreme poverty and need in the country. When I joined Peace Corps (at that time you signed to become a volunteer and then they invited you to a project and to a country) I was invited to come to Guatemala with an environmental management project, and I accepted.
So you were here for two years as a volunteer?
I actually extended my time and did about 4 years of service; I was on the Pacific coast in the department of Escuintla. After that I went back to the U.S. for a short period of time, working a few short term contracts for Peace Corps training but was based out of the U.S. I would come back and forth between the U.S. and Guatemala. In 1995 I came back to Guatemala, and I have been down here ever since.
How does Escuintla differ from other parts of Guatemala?
Every region is unique. The south coast is less populated. There are few cities and towns, and it is mostly dedicated to agricultural production, but on a large scale. People have little opportunity to have the small plot of land that is part of the tradition. We were on the coast, so a lot of people were using the resources of the ocean for their livelihood.
Can you tell me about the history of Peace Corps in Guatemala?
There was a government-to-government agreement signed in 1962. We started bringing volunteers in 1963, and we have had a continuous presence here since. We are working in a variety of different projects. Peace Corps has evolved a lot over its 50 plus years of history.
Initially we just had volunteers working in community development, going out to the communities and seeing what they could do. Over time, they started focusing in more specific projects. Those projects cover anything from agriculture to youth to sports to environment to small businesses. It really is quite a range. Right now we only have three specific projects for our volunteers.
The first is a Maternal-Child Health project, working in health centers with the Ministry of Health. We are working with the health educators and with some of the local health technicians. We also have a Healthy Schools project, working with the Ministry of Education and the health community in specific municipalities. We support a national initiative to have healthy schools all over Guatemala. We do a lot of coordination with the teachers, the principals, and different health actors in the municipality. We also have a Youth in Development project where we partner with the Ministry of Education, but also the Ministry of Health. For that project we work at the middle-school level. We are working with life skills for students but also training teachers to better tackle some of the life skills needs, such as decision-making, leadership, reproductive health issues, and HIV awareness.
We have a cross-cutting food security initiative, funded partially by USAID through Feed the Future (FTF). We are teaching all of our volunteers about nutrition basics and asking them to find a way to work with the families and schools in their communities to better improve nutrition, such as doing their own gardening and accessing more nutritious foods in the market.
Are these initiatives designed in the headquarters in Washington, or are they in response to the needs of the country? How does Peace Corps decide where to focus?
It is a little bit of both because the country dictates what the country needs. But since this is a Feed the Future (FTF) country and USAID is working on projects here, USAID reached out to Peace Corps in Washington to see if we could have an agreement to work with them on FTF activities in Guatemala. It is a five-year agreement (we started the agreement in 2012). We support some of their activities, and they support some of ours.
Can you tell me more about the Feed the Future program?
It is a U.S. government initiative targeting malnutrition in a variety of countries throughout the world, and it is trying to pull in different actors mostly based within the U.S. government. FTF is trying to figure out which activities, actions, and policies can work for certain governments where there happens to be a lot of malnutrition. Guatemala was definitely targeted as one of those countries. There are a few more countries in this hemisphere but most of the others are in Africa and Asia.
Can you explain more about your Maternal-Child Health project?Also, since Guatemala has high teenage pregnancy rates, is this related to your project?
To a certain degree, it is related. What we’re mostly interested in for this project is to make every pregnancy, no matter the age, as healthy as possible. The Youth in Development project, on the other hand, is looking at reproductive health, decision-making, and family planning–mostly in terms of talking about what a healthy relationship looks like. This is particularly important as girls move into adolescence and young adulthood, so that they are making better decisions about their own lives. The Maternal-Child Health program tackles a little bit more the early pregnancies that happen. But also within our Healthy Schools project, we have youth promoter groups that talk about these same topics with younger students.
How would you describe the Healthy Schools project?
Healthy Schools is a project that we’ve been working on for quite some time—since the late 1990s. It started out simply to promote basic healthy practices within a school environment, and then also to promote the basic health infrastructure that a school needs. Recently, the Guatemalan government has made it a national priority to create a national Healthy Schools Commission to support both the practice of healthy habits and build the health infrastructure for both schools and communities. We are supporting that with a lot of different players, including the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, the Secretary of Food Security and Nutrition, plus non-governmental players. We have volunteers who are assigned to a school district and work with that district’s supervisor. They will decide on eight to 10 different schools to support. Then they meet with the teachers, principals, parents, and students to devise a diagnostic based on what the school needs and action plans to meet those needs. The role of the Peace Corps volunteer is to help the school and community move forward with those action plans, including conducting training of trainers, teaching health lessons, or helping that school come up with a proposal to get funding for initiatives such as additional hand washing stations or latrines or a rainwater catchment system or a new school kitchen. Basically whatever they can do to make that school healthier.
Do you focus on specific regions in Guatemala? And how do you negotiate cultural differences in the country?
The need for what we do is everywhere, in every department, but we go to areas where we can work successfully and safely. Right now we’re mostly focused on the Western Highlands with Maya populations.
Can you talk about how you’ve seen the cultural landscape change in Guatemala, especially the religious makeup of the population?
When I first went to my site in 1990, the evangelical churches were making substantial progress. They were the only real presence in my small village of 500 people. There was one little Catholic chapel that I never saw used the whole time I was there, but there were three Evangelical churches that were active almost every night. I think people became more and more interested in having an active religion. If they weren’t in a metropolitan area where Catholic services were offered more frequently, then the Evangelical churches were the only real option to participate. I tried to work a little bit with the Evangelical churches to get them to contribute to the betterment of the community, as is the church tradition in the U.S., but there wasn’t really a culture for that. At that time, the Evangelical churches just focused on the nightly service, which fulfilled a social and religious function, but there really wasn’t any community engagement.
Do you see now faith-based organizations reaching out more to provide services to the communities?
Yes I definitely see more of that. Before, during the war years—from the ‘70s to the ‘80s—there was a lot of hesitancy about providing any type of social support. Once the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, people began to see what it could be like to participate in a democracy, either in your church, in your workplace, or in your community at large. I have definitely seen more community outreach within the Catholic Church. They have taken a more proactive role outside of just providing the religious services, to include in their mission humanistic goals to pull the whole community forward when it comes to development.
Has the Peace Corps worked with churches in any way?
Our job is to go into the communities and try to assess who are the development actors and what is being done, whether that’s an NGO, the government, other international actors, faith-based organizations, or churches. We work with anybody who is working towards bettering our different project indicators and goals, which are essentially the goals of the Guatemalan people.
I think one of the big roles that Peace Corps volunteers play in a community is that we are pretty impartial and can help coordinate between all the different actors. We have found that usually better service is provided if efforts are coordinated.
Since the highlands have a predominantly Maya population, can you talk about your interactions with this population?
There are a variety of different Maya groups that we work with, and we do work with some Ladino (mixed indigenous and European origin) communities also. It is a big challenge when volunteers have a huge population with which they cannot communicate. The volunteer may be fluent in Spanish but if you are stationed in a community that only speaks K'iche' language, you need support. We do have a Maya language program for volunteers, and we pay the teachers’ fees for that. They can also work with translators. They usually are placed at a municipal level where speaking only Spanish is usually fine. But in the rural communities that we are targeting for health messaging, oftentimes only some of the men speak Spanish. Therefore the messaging will need to be translated into the local language.
There are also a myriad of cultural factors and traditional beliefs that come into play, for example, for the maternal-child health projects. We rely on the health promoters from the Ministry of Health and help them to train educators, so that they know how to get health messaging across with totally illiterate audiences. The health messaging kits from the Ministry of Health are excellent, but we help the promoters use adult education and participatory techniques to develop lesson plans. We assign volunteers to the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Education, and sometimes to an NGO.
In what other ways have you seen the country change over the past 25 years?
There has been a lot of progress in Guatemala. The population has exploded; it’s much bigger now than when I first came during the war years. After the Peace Accords were signed in 1996, Guatemala started opening up and a lot of foreign investment came in. As a result, infrastructure was beefed up and multinational companies came in, as did international organizations that were interested in moving away from subsistence agriculture to export crops and to develop a cash economy. Agricultural exports have also grown.
It is really difficult in rural Guatemala, and in fact it has probably gotten harder to carry on the traditional lifestyle. Because there are more people now, it has become a challenge to find land that is near the family home to use for subsistence or export crop farming. I think that difficulty has encouraged a lot of emigration. But those sending back remittances have allowed people in these rural areas, that don’t have a lot of direct government support, to piece together a living.
In terms of infrastructure—telecommunications, access to Internet—all of that has really improved, but the population has grown a lot. It is a resource-rich country, but those resources have stayed in just a few hands, and that hasn’t changed a whole lot since way back when.
How do you see the current state of development work among the myriad organizations working in Guatemala?
It can be very compartmentalized at times. It's not necessarily a shared approach. All of the players are starting to recognize that it is critical that we work with the government on common goals to move the country forward. It has to start with the Guatemalan government in determining their goals, and they have been pretty good about doing that. Each of the ministries has its own strategy. The Ministry of Health is starting to understand the importance of preventative messaging, not just treatment through health services, but it has had a lot of challenges and hasn't always had the resources to focus on preventative services.
What is your view of where the country is headed, especially in light of recent demands for political change?
The recent political developments, the so-called Latin American spring, means a struggle for Guatemalans to begin to believe in their own government and their own voices. They want to see corruption diminish, a bigger tax base, more resources, and effective government programs; they want to actually feel that they are being served quite well by the government. Currently they feel the gap there. Because Guatemala is so diverse ethnically and geographically there are a lot of challenges to that. There is a big informal economy that makes it challenging too. The Guatemalan government could embrace its diversity and populate the government with people that can work with all these different populations so Guatemalans can feel like we’re all working together. It’s not perfect yet but I’m willing to contribute to this fascinating, beautiful, and rich country in so many ways. I’m always an optimist, and I see Guatemala getting to that point where people feel like they can participate.