Guest Blog: How Peace Corps Volunteers in Senegal address gaps in health delivery systems

This post does not reflect the opinions of the US Government, the US Peace Corps or Peace Corps Senegal.

There is usually a general misunderstanding of what Peace Corps volunteers do or are capable of doing in field. This misunderstanding comes from families and friends of volunteers back home, the communities the volunteers serve, and sometimes, in the earlier stages of service, the volunteers themselves. How much impact can a volunteer make? How can the most impact be made during such a short service? What are the limits of a volunteer and how is their work truly sustainable?

While I can not speak on behalf of the entire Peace Corps (PC) community, I believe I can shed a light on how Peace Corps Senegal Health volunteers work to provide basic trainings and services to improve the health status of the communities they serve.

Currently PC Senegal health volunteers work in the areas of Malaria, Maternal and Child Health and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. Our development approach ensures that initiatives are sustainable, that they exhibit long term vision, that they are from the bottom-up and that they are participatory and inclusive. Along with guidance from PC leadership, volunteers use these guidelines to creatively impact their communities.

The PC Senegal health sector works to address 3 delays in health care:

  1. Delay in the decision to seek care
  2. Delay in reaching care
  3. Delay in receiving adequate available health care and correct diagnosis.

The first delay is addressed at the household level. When signs and symptoms of disease begin to manifest themselves, we ensure that people have the knowledge they need to seek the care that is required. The delay in reaching care is addressed through several initiatives that range from planting gardens, training more community health workers, working in supply chain to ensure the health structure has the medicine and equipment it should have, rallying up the community to contribute towards an ambulance, or building a health structure. The last delay can be addressed through a series of trainings for community health workers, working side by side with health processionals to ensure that tests are being administered and being administered correctly, and empowering the patient to ask questions about disease stages treatment and medication.

Baseline assessments, barrier analyses and volunteer reporting tools are beginning to show us where exactly the needs are and where the obstacles to the behavior change exist. A lot of work is focused on strengthening the capacity of community health workers, clinical staff and health structures as a whole. We come in with fresh eyes to identify ways health care can be done better and in many cases, solve complex with simple solutions. I like to think that we help people think outside of the box to identify their problems and solve them with as little help from the outside as possible.

But the work is not easy. In a process that begins with intensive language, cultural and technical training, PC Senegal Volunteers must learn how to integrate into their communities and develop meaningful relationships with potential work partners before their own projects may actual begin. Volunteers spend a good amount of time learning the lay of the land in their communities. What development groups have worked here in the past? What have they done? Who exactly did they help? Where did they succeed or fail? Was there a former volunteer at this site? What did they do? What relationships did they build? Who did they work with and who did the intentionally avoid? Then the research and programming questions begin. What does the community know about these heath issues? What does this community need?  What can I do to address the need? How I can do it with the least possible resources? How will I monitor it? How will it be sustainable? So when we finally figure out-with the help of community members- what project we want to implement, we design it, we justify to our community leaders and to our PC leaders. When necessary, we write grants, we rally the community behind the project, we implement, we monitor and we evaluate.

So what is it exactly that volunteers do? Well, we do not claim to change the world. This is not why we’re here. We will not eradicate malaria nor will we completely bring an end to the deaths of children under 5. But if we can reduce those incidences, if we can provide much needed trainings, if we can build a health structure that otherwise would not have existed, if we can get just 20 more moms to wash their hands when they’re supposed to, if we can improve sanitation practices, if we can get that many more mosquito nets out there, if we can prevent malnutrition in a handful of infants and children, if we can keep addressing these gaps that cripple health systems, then, we would have contributed to a much a larger picture of global health and we would have served.

taiwo adesinaTaiwo Adesina is a MPH candidate at Loma Linda University in southern California. She is also a Masters International student, completing the final part of her Masters in Global Health with Peace Corps Senegal. In Senegal, Taiwo works in the areas of Malaria, WASH, maternal and child health and nutrition-helping health structures and groups better address these issues through the use of community health workers. Her interests also include project design and management, grant writing, and M&E. She has working/living experience in Nigeria, Honduras, the Philippines, the Bahamas and Senegal. She blogs at travelgiveworklove.

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