Dante Pesce is bringing volunteer professional skills to bear on the development of poor rural communities in Chile. His privately funded program recruits university students and young Chilean professionals to volunteer to work for a year in local citizens' organizations, bringing hope and development to the areas in which they serve and creating a new volunteer ethic.
The New Idea
Dante Pesce believes that a privately sponsored, volunteer service corps can bring much-needed development knowledge and skills to Chile's poor, underdeveloped regions. He recruits university students and young professionals to volunteer to spend one year in implementing a concrete development project as part of a local citizens' organization team. Afterwards, the volunteers document the results of their work in theses, for which they receive university credit. Dante believes that private funding and precise understandings between the volunteer, the university and the local organization will avoid many of the problems that have plagued earlier volunteer-based initiatives. He also hopes and expects that a number of the volunteers will be inspired to continue in similar work, possibly in the same locations, either launching their own organizations or serving as staff members of existing citizen groups.
Dante also aims to build a volunteer ethic in Chile. By offering students a one-year opportunity to provide much-needed technical and creative assistance, to implement their projects in poor areas with the assistance and cooperation of local residents, and to analyze the results in university-accredited theses, Dante hopes to infect an important pool of talented and privileged young people with a passion for public service and a life-long commitment to careers in social change. Thus, beyond the quantifiable economic and social impact of the projects that the volunteers undertake, Dante expects his program to transform the volunteers in much the way that the U.S. Peace Corps and VISTA programs have changed the lives of so many of their participants. His intent and expectation is that the volunteer professionals engaged in his undertaking will emerge as proponents of social change, mobilizers of fellow citizens and effective advocates of public policies that promote local development.
A major barrier to the economic development of poor rural areas is the lack of sufficient professional and managerial talent. Chile's wealthy urban regions have abundant pools of such talent, but the private sector, government and existing social programs rarely succeed in channeling adequate supplies of skilled professionals to poor regions. The problem is particularly evident in citizen organizations in such areas, where hopes and plans for much-needed development initiatives are often thwarted by the absence of the requisite professional, managerial and analytical skills.
Few well-educated, urban Chileans regard the underdevelopment of the country's poor, isolated regions as an important national problem or a significant factor in Chile's development trajectory, let alone as a promising locus for the application of their individual professional skills. Chile's best universities are located in its major industrial cities (Santiago and Valparaíso), and they rarely expose students to the realities outside the metropolis. Not surprisingly, therefore, few graduates from the top universities elect to pursue their professional careers working in areas with the particularly pressing needs for fresh ideas, creative solutions and human and financial capital.
Earlier attempts to establish volunteer programs in Chile and elsewhere in the Andean region have been impeded by varying combinations of political, organizational and financial problems. In several instances, over-reliance on government funding has made them vulnerable to the caprices of the political system. In addition, the development of sustainable, asset-building projects has often been thwarted by an insufficient duration of volunteer assignments and a lack of peer relationships with local citizen organizations and community leaders.
Dante's initiative is being implemented by his own nonprofit organization, which will provide overall program coordination, mentoring and supervision and raise the needed financial support from foundations, individuals and other private sources. He is forming a coordinating committee (under his chairmanship), which will be responsible for recruiting students, forming long-term agreements with national universities, locating recipient institutions in Chile's under-served regions and raising start-up funding for the program's administrative costs.
A key element of Dante's strategy is the use of formal contracts that outline the intended obligations and benefits of organizations and individuals taking part in the initiative. Participating universities must agree to promote the volunteer service program, to adapt their academic programs to facilitate student participation and to offer academic credit for "development" theses only when student volunteers have completed their year-long assignments. Organizations hosting volunteers must pledge to offer them appropriate assignments, to supervise their work and to cover related basic costs. And volunteers must commit themselves to working for a full year in an underdeveloped region of Chile, during which they will dedicate their full time and energies to their projects, and their remuneration will be limited to travel allowances, free meals and lodging, and small per diems.
Dante encourages active volunteers to develop longer-term projects and to consider extending their terms of service. The program's coordinating committee will help volunteers electing that option to develop a business plan for their extended projects and locate the requisite funding. Dante and his colleagues will encourage local citizen organizations, foundations and other funding sources to finance the longer-term salaries and other expenses associated with carefully planned nonprofit initiatives, and they will encourage local banks and micro-credit organizations to back for-profit ventures. The program has already attracted support from Ashoka Fellow Rodrigo Calcagni's micro- enterprise assistance initiative.
Dante is currently testing his strategy for a national volunteer program in the poor region of Illapel, where he mobilized young professionals to assist the development of small micro-enterprises and community development organizations. Since 1992, he has raised more than $500,000 to cover project managers' salaries and direct program costs. The projects that were launched in the early years of that venture are continuing today under local management, and Dante has expanded the Illapel pilot program to include eight volunteers from agronomy and economics faculties and a growing number of citizens' organizations. Lessons learned in Illapel, where Dante has played an important mentoring role, will be used in refining plans for the proposed national initiative.
Dante is thinking big. By the end of 1998, he expects to be selecting some 300 volunteers per year from fifteen national universities and placing them in 100 recipient institutions all across Chile. For the year 2000, he projects an annual budget of approximately $1,000,000, funded by contributions from overseas foundations and other nongovernmental sources. And by 2016, his plans call for the placement of some 1,800 professionals in Chile's poorest areas (an average of twelve professionals in each of 150 municipalities throughout the country), and, at that scale, he is confident that the program will result in both a significant contribution to community social organizational capacity and a major change in public attitudes and policies on social development issues.
Raised in an upper-middle-class family, and educated at top Chilean universities, Dante personifies the population segment that his volunteer service project seeks to target. As a university student, he was recognized by his teachers and peers as a leader with enormous creativity, moral commitment to the underprivileged and capacity to generate and carry out concrete initiatives.
Dante strongly believes that his university education obliges him to share the technical knowledge and analytical skills that he has acquired with less fortunate fellow citizens. A six-month experience as a volunteer in a Christian kibbutz in Mexico crystallized his intuitive sense of the importance of public service and the value that skilled professionals can add to local development initiatives. Upon returning to Chile, he moved to the poor region of Illapel to demonstrate, in an underdeveloped Chilean setting, that volunteer assistance, mobilized in a systematic and effectively coordinated national effort, can play a critically important role in stimulating successful social and economic development initiatives at the local level.