Peace Corps recruits taking Western expertise into Eastern Europe

March 08, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

TIRANA, Albania -- The battalions of U.S. Peace Corps recruits invading Eastern Europe these days are armed with a new kind of weaponry to combat poverty, backwardness and disease.

In the place of the hoes and shovels that jeans-clad aid workers carried in the 1960s, today's button-down volunteer deployed to the post-Communist frontier is more likely equipped with an interest-rate calculator or a laptop computer.

Peace Corps volunteers are helping budding entrepreneurs in Poland set up everything from bed-and-breakfast inns to mutual funds. They are training industrial managers in Hungary in the science of waste management, and teaching schoolchildren in the ravaged region between the Baltic and Adriatic seas the value of environmental protection.

Many of the more than 500 volunteers assigned to Central Europe and the Balkans are engaged in traditional Peace Corps activities, such as teaching English and giving advice on nutrition.

But the force long associated with rural development has had to tailor its approach in the newly liberated region, where social ills are more often the result of misplaced priorities than lack of development.

"There is definitely a difference in emphasis in Eastern Europe from our previous direction, with the emphasis here being on programs that assist small-enterprise development," said Mike Honegger, a career Peace Corps official setting up language and business programs for Albania from a chilly cubbyhole at the U.S. Embassy here.

"This is new for us, beyond anything the Peace Corps has done before," he said of the economic activities he first introduced in Poland.

"We're not just doing basket-weaving co-ops and making blankets."

Albania, the last Eastern European state to abandon hard-line communism, will be getting 25 Peace Corps English teachers this spring and an equal number of business advisers a few months later who will expand on the pioneering economic

projects that began a year ago in Poland.

Ted Kontek, head of business programs in Warsaw, said Poland now has 230 volunteers at work, making it the largest Peace Corps operation in the world.

Among the 54 recruits assigned to business development, the average age is 43, and most have their M.B.A. and at least five years of experience in the private sector, Mr. Kontek said.

"A lot of them are successful, midcareer professionals re-evaluating their situations and deciding they want to give something back to the world," Mr. Kontek said of the brokers and bankers who make up his staff.

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