Wednesday, April 2, 2008


so my last entry had a somewhat tangential comment on the recently privatized Cameroonian electric utility, SONEL. who bought it just a few months before i (an american peace corps volunteer) first started interacting with it at post? an american firm, of course. AES Corporation... “one of the world’s largest power companies... in 28 countries on 5 continents.”

i bring all this up b/c i think there are some interesting parallels (and perpendiculars, if you will) b/w AES’ presence in cameroon and the presense of american peace corps volunteers. not the least of which is an american expatriate living off a government stipend (me!) paying a majority american utility company (AES-SONEL = 56/44% partnership b/w AES and the Cameroonian govt.) for his electricity bills in central africa.

don’t read too much into this and other connections i’ll be making. my intention isn’t to unravel a conspiracy or grand plot for global corporate hegemony... just to offer some context for what it was that i and my other peace corps volunteer mates were embarking upon, in terms of both the scope and scale of our work as “agents of sustainable development.”

in that regard, it’s interesting to note that AES has a corporate social responsibility program (see here for AES’s CSR work) with a focus on things like community development, environment and HIV/AIDS... all the same issues i would be working on! par example, see the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) summary to the IFC project that helped finance a new power plant in Limbe, Southwest Province. there's a mention in there of environmental and social management plans and programs.

my fellow volunteers and i often found ourselves discussing the scale at which we were “doing development.” what we thought of as small, of course... often just one person in a town or village. especially as it compared to bigger, more technical organizations that we saw and/or interacted with in Cameroon: USAID and GTZ come to mind... but also other volunteer organizations like the British VSO and the German DED. not to mention the likes of the UN, World Bank and IFC.

AES is by no means a “development organization,” but it’s interesting to compare the size and scope of their CSR-related work to that of a peace corps volunteers. an apples to oranges comparison, no doubt. but peace corps isn't really a small organization (some PC stats)... it’s more like an upside down pyramid–many upside down pyramids, that hit the ground where one volunteer is stationed. in my case, this pyramid started with the $265 million budget approved by congress and the president to the US Peace Corps in 2001... and ended in a small town called Wum.

i won’t say much beyond that now... but this theme will come up again, especially as some of my fellow volunteers and i begin to discuss the merits and demerits of different approaches to sustainable develolpment. peace corps’ included. and especially as i start to interact with the peace corps administration (both in yaounde and washington, DC) more towards the end of my service. with that in mind, i'll end this post with a word or two on hindsight...

hindsight is 20/20, right? and in rereading, researching and posting my journal entries to this blog (and the web-based medium is certainly essential in this) i’ve started to see and make some of these interesting connections, in hindsight, that i either overlooked or simply couldn’t have seen while in cameroon. examples include the fact that renowned cameroonian author Mongo Beti passed away about a month after i first started reading his novels...

again, don’t read too much into such things. just interesting connections and a way to locate what i was up to within a more global context. there are also the points that i brought up above with AES-SONEL and, ultimately, the fact that i helped bring the motorcycle i fell off of (the same motorcycle that appears in the picture above my profile on this blog) to wum in the first place. stay tuned for more on that! :)


  1. QUESTION for any cameroon PCVs or RPCVs reading this...

    i can't recall who technically ended up footing the bill for our housing and utilities. we paid for them from our living allowance, sure. but was there an agreement b/w the cameroonian government and peace corps to offer volunteer housing in-kind? that’s something i remember hearing about in country, but can’t corroborate.

  2. I wasn’t going to de-lurk because I hate to interrupt a good storyteller, but I am ever-so-curious as to how you’ll pick up this theme again despite your gentle protestations not to read too much into it. I wasn’t expecting it as I thought the central theme of this story would be related to 9-11 as the journal entries creep up on that date. You had an earlier entry about the article Too Many Innocents Abroad, which reminded me of the speech To Hell with Good Intentions by anarchist Catholic priest Ivan Illich ( A couple friends of mine did Peace Corps and in hearing bits of their stories, I often wondered what they really got out of it and how helpful PCVs really are to the people of the countries they’re in. I appreciate your willingness to share your story. BTW, I came across your blog via the Green Muslims in the District blog while researching Islamic Ecology. Darn internet, makes it too easy to get distracted. :)

  3. greetings ellen!

    thanks for de-lurking and for "interrupting"... though it's no interruption, at all. i'm actually looking for all kinds of feedback on the blog entries and the themes running through them.

    your question about this particular theme is a good one. in some ways, i'm not really sure where it'll end up going. but i know it's something that i thought a lot about while in cameroon (and since). and so it's something i knew i'd be exploring through my journals.

    i should point out that i do see the blog as being about much more than 9/11... that's pivotal, but there's much more to it. and, at the core, both the 9/11 and international development themes are all about diversity, plurality and our need to recognize and respect other ways of seeing, doing and being... to say nothing of learning from those ways.

    i have read illich before... "deschooling society." but not "to hell with good intentions." so thanks for sending that! i'm really looking forward to reading it. i have a lot of respect for illich and his insight.

    about PCVs... you bring up 2 great questions: what they get out of the experience and how helpful they are in return. i'm trying to answer these myself. i think the blog will begin to answer the first question (what i got). as for the second (what i gave)... it's hard to say. on good days, i know the answer to this question. on others, i question it.

    so i guess that's why i'm doing this... see the very first post on the blog: why dis? (especially the part on presence).

    many thanks!

    peace :)

    p.s. on islamic ecology... feel free to email me ( if you have any questions on green muslims or the subject more generally.

  4. What I think I remember about housing is that it was Cameroon's job to provide it. Whether it was paid for by the Ministry of Education or the local school, I don't remember. I believe the amount of our rent was added to our monthly stipend...

  5. thanks adam! that sounds right. do you remember about utilities, though? who paid for those?

    peace :)