Thursday, February 7, 2008

What is this counterpart thing you speak of?

The answer to this question isn't quite as simple as one might expect. According to the Oxford American Dictionary:

counterpart |ˈkountərˌpärt| |ˌkaʊn(t)ərˈpɑrt| |ˌkaʊntəpɑːt|


1 a person or thing holding a position or performing a function that corresponds to that of another person or thing in another place : the minister held talks with his French counterpart.

2 Law one of two or more copies of a legal document.
So that is clear as mud.
Before I joined the Peace Corps, I read many PC blogs. The impression I got from the blogs was that a counterpart was an in-country national (which is what the PC calls people who live in the country you are in) who was chosen by the PC for the volunteer to work hand-in-hand with during their service. This person would either have the same position as you (i.e. another teacher at the school), work in the same project as you (i.e. another member of the organization you were working for or the government ministry you were involved with), or be your supervisor at the in-country organization. The counterpart would teach you all you needed to know in order to do your job (not just job-specific tasks and logistics, but also how to work effectively inside the culture) and you would teach them all you had to offer about the topic you were assigned to and help them develop sustainable change and projects.
Things are not quite as cut and dry as that.
First of all, you are not assigned a counterpart. The counterpart relationship is something you must develop along the way. For some, it may be obvious who their counterpart will be (for me, right now, I assume it is my head of department in computer studies). For others, it may take time to determine who in the community is the person you will be working with most closely (this in particular for Village-Based Development volunteers, who have no specific assigned task). There is also no limit to a single counterpart.
The idea behind having a counterpart is relatively similar to my original idea though — someone who can help you navigate through the organization and the culture of the country and who you can help to develop new skills, projects, etc.
During training we were given two essays written by PCV on the concept of counterpart. R. Adams's paper, What is a "Counterpart?" offers a PC-specific definition:
"The term "counterpart," a term at the very core of Peace Corps' philosophy of human resource development, or capacity building, is one of the most misused and maligned terms in our Agency's vocabulary…
In Peace Corps terms, I offer the following description of a "counterpart." While at times a counterpart may be a specific, "assigned" individual, it is more likely that:
'Counterparts are those people who work with Volunteers and jointly learn through experience how to do something new within the local cultural context with enough competence and confidence to transfer their learning (in terms of knowledge, skills, and attitude) to others.'"
I was having a conversation with my neighbor, the director of the school board I work for, and he asked me how I found my counterparts. At first I was a little taken back. I realized that I hadn't solidified in my mind who my counterpart was. I hadn't been at the school long enough to see who I would be able to work most closely with or what sorts of projects would present themselves as most appropriate for the school. I assumed he meant the head of my department and I said as much. As it turned out, he also meant the business studies teacher who would be teaching computer classes as well.
There are other volunteers whose counterparts, in the most basic sense, are teachers who can go overseas for further education while the volunteer fills their role at the school. In fact, that used to be a specific PC program in Sāmoa. It could be said that I am doing that as well, as one of the computer teachers is now attending university to get a degree in computer studies. However, I would argue that these volunteers also find other counterparts at their school to work with during their two years of service.
The idea of counterpart is integral to the Peace Corps. Host country nationals and volunteers alike are aware of the concept and my have similar or vastly difference ideas of what a counterpart is and how the volunteer and counterpart should interact.
— Sara


Joe Atkinson said...

Holy Crap, you're in Samoa ...

We got your Christmas card this morning (actually, yesterday afternoon, but yesterday is a long story that involves a trip to the emergency room and a lot of steroids - and the good news is, Erin is now fine!). So now, I've killed the first 30 minutes of my work day looking at pictures and reading blogs ... and there's still so much more to read! Yay, lunch hour!

Anyway, it's good to see that you guys are doing well, and I'm excited to continue reading about it. We're still in Evansville; Erin is teaching at the Signature School (where kids frequently spend lectures coloring in Ariel's scales), and I'm working as the Director of News Services for the University of Evansville. Turns out working from home all the time gets a bit boring; eventually, you start talking to the walls, then they start talking back to you - and then it's time to start sending out resumes.

Anyway, thanks for the card and the links - you now have at least one more regular blog reader (or one more person stalking you through your blog - it really depends on your perspective ...)

Say hey to Cale for us, and drop a line if you get a chance!!!

jesse elizabeth hunter said...

Good to know, about the counterpart situations. Reading these blogs has caused me to expect a lot of unknowns and lot of DIY. I imagine there will be lots of issues like this that we'll be blogging home about.

Thanks again! ~Jesse