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Written By Kristin Wright, Assistant Director for Programs, DukeEngage

Before the pandemic, a new DukeEngage program aimed to partner with organizations and research sites in Paraguay to make recommendations regarding the electricity produced by Itaipu Binational Dam (Brazil-Paraguay) when current energy agreements expire.

When in-person programs were cancelled, Duke Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Environmental Science and Policy Christine Folch and her long-term partners in Paraguay pivoted to a virtual project focused on post-pandemic recovery. DukeEngage students Alex Hoffman, Austin Connors, Benjamin Chipman, Cecilia de la Guardia, Emma Dries, and Ryan Goodman, along with Swarthmore undergraduate Alicia Contrera and Paraguayan researcher Juan Carlos Duré Bañuelos, worked remotely for eight weeks to analyze COVID-19 impacts and responses throughout Latin America and develop proposals focused on social, political, and economic sustainability.

“Before the pandemic, we were planning on spending the summer in Paraguay where we would work with community leaders, activists, journalists, academics, and politicians to develop policy solutions that would enable Paraguay to make better use of its national resources in meeting the UN Sustainable Development goals for the country,” said rising Duke sophomore Alex Hoffman. “Our plans changed after COVID. Now, our focus has broadened to include public health concerns in both Paraguay and the region.”

Although students could not travel to Paraguay this summer, the program still encouraged cross-cultural relationships and connections with the community through technologies such as Zoom.

“When working remotely, it can be easy to focus on statistics that convey the shortcomings of a community. Without faces, names, stories, and experiences, it’s easy to get lost in the numbers,” said Cecilia de la Guardia, a rising Duke sophomore. “I’m so grateful to our director for making a big effort to connect us more to the community. Much of our research has been in the form of Zoom interviews with incredible Paraguayans in various disciplines and professions. Hearing their stories and putting faces to these statistics is an important part of centering our work on the community.”

The project wrapped up on July 23 with the unveiling of a report and website created by the DukeEngage team titled Paraguay Post-Pandemic: A Roadmap. The report outlines lessons from the crisis and makes specific and detailed recommendations about developing resiliency in digital infrastructure, education, health, and economy, such as building two $80M teaching hospitals in the under-served interior of the country, investing in hydrogen fuel cell manufacturing, and expanding the national credit union.

A map of Paraguay highlighting two regions (San Pedro in blue and Caazapa in red) that would benefit from additonal hospital capacity.

A presentation hosted jointly with Universidad Comunera, one of the group’s conversation/research partners, garnered over 1000 views, and was featured on the national news in Paraguay, with El Independiente reporting that “researchers offered a multidisciplinary look at the country’s recovery after the crisis caused by the pandemic, and show the way to a resilient and healthy economy…” and Ultima Hora highlighting the report’s focus on clean energy as a route to a resilient economy.

“This has been a tremendous experience for us as a team and it’s gratifying to see it already have traction in Paraguay,” Folch said.

A recording of the students’ full virtual presentation (in Spanish) is available for those interested in learning more.