11/11/2013 10:51 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The New Peace Corps: Fighting Malaria, Saving Lives

In the village of Dindefelo, in remote southeastern Senegal, malaria has long been the biggest killer of children. One of my most vivid images from my service there as a Peace Corps volunteer was of a little girl, Mariama, brought into the health clinic burning with fever. Too far-gone to be saved, she shuddered and her eyes rolled back. She was carefully wrapped in a small white sheet before being laid to rest in the community graveyard.

When I arrived back in Senegal as Peace Corps country director in 2007, two decades after serving as a volunteer, I looked at the development challenges facing the West African nation, wanting to understand how those issues matched up against the ways that Peace Corps volunteers could meaningfully contribute their skills and energies.

The largest cause of child mortality had not changed since I had worked in Senegal in the late 1980s; malaria was still the biggest killer of kids in Senegal and most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. What had changed, though, was how Peace Corps volunteers could help combat the disease. In recent years, new technologies for malaria prevention, testing and treatment made it more possible than ever to prevent sickness and deaths. And the success of all of these approaches depends heavily upon the sort of capacity development and behavior change and communication work that Peace Corps volunteers, as trusted partners in their communities, can do so well.

Long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets can prevent mosquitoes from biting sleeping children, but only if they are distributed to every family and consistently used and repaired. New and inexpensive rapid diagnostic tests can cheaply tell if a fever is malaria or not. But that's only useful information if you get tested soon after falling ill. Medicine to treat malaria is highly effective, curing almost all malaria cases, but only if the treatment is given in time.

Working with partners to promote access to and effective use of each of these technologies, Peace Corps volunteers are helping save lives across the continent. Volunteers have fought malaria since the early days of Peace Corps, but only recently have access to these new malaria tools and the explosion of information technologies allowed Peace Corps to scale up its malaria control efforts and be part of a global team that is dramatically cutting deaths from this disease.

A half century after its founding, Peace Corps is playing a more important role than ever in meeting global development challenges by embracing the characteristics of successful volunteers: flexibility and nimbleness in the face of changing conditions.

The world is a different place than when President John F. Kennedy empowered Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps' first director, to build a brave new agency for global good:
● A new generation of Americans, the Millennials born in the 1980s and 1990s, arrived with different skills and expectations than their predecessors.
● Technology has revolutionized communications and learning, affecting public health, agriculture, education and business.
● The developing world has advanced, requiring changes in how we contribute.

To thrive in this environment, the Peace Corps is transforming itself. The "New Peace Corps" incorporates reforms to improve focus, efficiency and effectiveness. The approach redefines the Peace Corps development niche, taking advantage of this new generation of volunteers and technology. Millennials are tech savvy and want frequent communication and feedback. They have grown up working in teams. They're goal-oriented and seek a sense of accomplishment and recognition. Millennial volunteers are drawn to projects that tackle big challenges, like helping to end malaria.

These volunteers are entering their service just as a technology revolution is exploding in the developing world. Cell phone proliferation in some countries in Africa now surpasses parts of the United States, and Internet access is growing exponentially. In the New Peace Corps, mobile devices offer access to free, ubiquitous technology tools.

Teamwork is replacing the traditional notion of the lone volunteer. Increasingly, volunteers are collaborating to pursue audacious goals and teaming with partners, such as international non-governmental organizations and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to work for important change. The Peace Corps' Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative, launched in 2011, is a model for this fresh approach. Growing out of our experience in Senegal, we have rapidly built a team across 23 countries in sub-Saharan Africa to fight malaria. The program uses Skype to beam in world experts for training seminars, Google Drive for knowledge collaboration, and Facebook to build virtual communities of learning and expertise.

More than 3,000 Peace Corps volunteers across Africa are engaged in this campaign at little incremental cost. They aren't working alone, but are collaborating with the president's Malaria Initiative and others, providing the unique Peace Corps value to a global fight: community engagement and education at the grassroots level. They are leveraging the core competitive advantage of Peace Corps in international development: volunteers' deep understanding and connection with their host community. Peace Corps volunteers are now part of a team that has helped reduce malaria deaths by one-third in recent years.

Last week, Peace Corps Volunteers Pat and Anne Linn, who have been leading innovative new approaches to community based malaria prevention and treatment, were present at the death of four-year-old Koumba, the daughter of their friend in a village in southeastern Senegal. Koumba's family had bed nets, but she was still infected. The clinic had medicine, but the family waited too long to bring her in; her breath stopped just like baby Mariama's a quarter century ago.

Volunteers in the New Peace Corps will work with their partners and communities across Africa to stomp out malaria until no more children like Koumba and Mariama needlessly die.