The Collective Sierra Leone is a capacity building organisation that provides a range of opportunities for those who want to build experience in Sierra Leone. These include a range of three month volunteering opportunities run all year round with partner organisations in the country, including research, microfinance and advocacy; a five day leadership programme and a leadership development internship that has been designed for those who will be applying to, or been accepted onto, the UK’s TeachFirst Programe. We spoke to the founder Charlie Habershon about the programmes and about volunteering in the developing world in general.
Charlie – why Sierra Leone? I first visited Sierra Leone in 2006 and returned in 2009 with my girlfriend to help set up the ethical fashion label NearFar, a social enterprise she still runs. On both visits I was struck by the country’s huge potential. With outstanding natural beauty and a rich source of natural minerals the country has the foundations for a bright future. However, poverty and unemployment still remain major challenges. Sierra Leone still ranks 180 of 187 on the UNDP development index with 77% of Sierra Leone’s living in poverty and 62.79% living on less than $1.25 a day (UNDP Multidimensional Poverty Index 2011).
Misconception is one of the largest barriers for its development. But travel to Sierra Leone and you will see a country that is peaceful and very much open for business. I became determined to spread this message to as many people as possible.
After graduating from Nottingham University, I was accepted on to the Teach First programme. For two years I taught History and Economics in inner-city London in what was both a challenging and extremely rewarding experience. During the programme, I worked with graduates and professionals with a desire to create positive change in eradicating educational disadvantage. With extensive support we were able to use our enthusiasm and skills to have a genuine impact in the classroom. I began to think about how I could do the same for individuals and organisations in Sierra Leone, to help reduce the skills gap left by 10 years of war
It was with this thought that I decided to set up The Collective–Sierra Leone, a capacity building organisation with the mission to provide individuals and organisations with the tools to create positive change. To do this, we place and support innovative graduates and professionals from around the world in challenging projects. You can read more about my thoughts on Sierra Leone in the Huffington Post.
As you are aware there are now lots of organisations facilitating developing country experience. What is your take on the debate around ‘Voluntourism’. This is a term that I always try to avoid. ‘Voluntourism’ can have a very negative effect on local communities and projects. It can distort markets, create misconceptions and lead to a feeling of reliance on outside help. When the Collective was set up, we were fed up with companies charging huge fees and merely acting as brokers. Instead, we work to provide a mutually beneficial experience that ensures that both organisations and volunteers are able to develop. We will never place a volunteer in a role if we think it is denying nationals job opportunities. All our roles have clear job descriptions so we are matching volunteer skills with the needs of our partner organisations to ensure that the greatest impact is made in country. I do, however, believe that tourism and volunteering can work together as long as the latter takes precedence. One of our aims is to create positive stories about Sierra Leone and to bring more people into the country. We always encourage our volunteers to travel and see the country’s sites. Every new visitor to the country helps break the misconceptions surrounding the country and means more people will hear positive stories about it. This could lead to increased tourism into the country and perhaps future investment.
If the programmes are for people looking to get experience how do you respond when people accuse volunteering organisations of sending inexperienced people to take on roles that they aren’t qualified to do? In our opinion, Sierra Leone’s biggest challenge is its human and organisational capacity. All our partner organisation, who work in micro-finance, enterprise and education, are doing amazing work in-country, but need high levels of expertise to improve the efficiency of what they do. A huge number of talented individuals with the potential to drive the country forward missed out on an education because of the war. We are working to bridge that gap. With our thorough support and coaching, interns work closely with our partners to implement sustainable systems that will continue to operate well after their departure while providing leadership development training along the way. This might mean supporting an organisation to set up simple monitoring systems or working with staff to develop work plans. For our 3 and 6 month programmes we only take on graduates and professionals who pass our stringent application process. We recruit graduates and professionals who have experience in the working world and understand how organisations run. We then help them transfer those skills into a new environment. I don’t believe you need a masters or a PHD to have a positive impact in Sierra Leone. In fact, I think bringing individuals from different sectors and backgrounds helps to give a new perspective on the issues we see here. The key is that they have the support and mentoring to transfer those skills. Of the 16 volunteers that we had last year, four went on to work for Teach First and six are now working in the charity/international development sector.
Do your partner organisations get a cut of the fees the volunteers pay or is their benefit in form of the work they contribute? We do not give any money to our partner organisations. Our mission is to build the capacity of organisations and individuals so that they can better access the funding that is available. Organisations should take on a volunteer because they need their skills not because they are an additional revenue stream. If that was the case we would find organisations taking on volunteers for the wrong reasons and their real value, in the skills they bring, would be lost. This is why, for the few placements that do require one, we are able to charge a very low fee to cover the costs of accommodation, transport, training and mentoring. We are a not-for-profit social enterprise, so unlike many ‘voluntourism’ companies, we are not driven by the desire to generate profit for shareholders, but instead by our desire to make a positive change here in Sierra Leone.
What skills or formal qualifications are needed for people to work with the Salone microfinance partnership or the organisation that has introduced football leagues for example. Some of the roles that are advertised – ‘Development Officer’ and ‘Researcher’ sound quite demanding. Yes, they are challenging. I get a lot of applications from people who have volunteered before and were disappointed with the experience as they felt they were not utilised and challenged. We require graduates who show drive and potential (often candidates who have been accepted on to the Teach First Programme) and professionals who have experience in the work place that we believe can be transferred. The work can be tough, but that is why we have a team in-country to mentor volunteers through the process.
The summer internship opportunity is designed to provide an experience for those who are either deferring a Teach First offer or to help those who want to apply to Teach First. Do you have any formal links to Teach First? As I mentioned in response to the first question, I am a Teach First Ambassador and was influenced heavily by my time on the programme. Teach First have been very supportive of the project, providing office space and interns in the summers I am back in the UK. I have worked closely with their Graduate Recruitment team and we both felt that our ‘Developing Future Leaders’ one-month internship would help students gain the skills that are required to be an effective leader in the classroom while supporting our mission in Sierra Leone. On the internship we will support the volunteers to ensure they are building the necessary competencies required for the programme.
Read my other blog posts about working abroad