We Help Villagers Help Themselves
Interview with Sonja Vucic, facilitator at Nabuur.com
About nabuur.com: The concept of NABUUR provides a refreshing and innovative twist to traditional volunteering: without leaving their homes, and relying solely on technology (the inter-net) and their resources (time, skills, contacts, etc.), a volunteer is able to connect online with a local community around the world and play an instrumental part in finding solutions for the community’s challenges.
One of the appealing draws for new and existing volunteers is the level of interaction they have with the communities they are assisting. While in other volunteering organizations, communication bridging volunteers and projects is encouraged, with NABUUR, direct and frequent communication (be it via emails, telephone calls, online chats or SMS) between all players involved is a must for a project to stay on track and achieve the results the local community sets out for itself.
While at times certain difficulties present themselves, such as internet connectivity issues in the communities, it’s inspiring to see the online teams – often led by a facilitator who, along with the local representative, oversees the big picture – pull together to meet the goals outlined for the project. It isn’t called the Global Neighbor Network for nothing!
we-mag: What is your background Sonja?
Sonja: I am from Bosnia and Herzegovina. I studied economics in my home country and as student I volunteered as a peer educator, teaching in secondary schools about HIV/AIDS and other STDs. I also helped to organize an English Club for the youth to improve their skills in English language.
After graduation I moved to Sweden where I earned my master degree in business administration. While studying there I searched for an opportunity to volunteer online, and found Nabuur. I immediately fell in love with it. It was amazing what results many villages had achieved by that time, and that convinced me that for making a difference in someone’s life it’s not necessary to go to the field to volunteer. Now I’m back home in Bosnia, working at a bank in finance department and I spend a good deal of my free time volunteering at Nabuur. It became addictive.
we-mag: What are you doing at nabuur.com?
Sonja: I facilitate a village in democratic Republic of Congo, Walungu. The community has returned to their homes after a long war, and is trying to re-establish their lives. They are coping with numerous problems such as malnutrition, poverty, lack of safe drinking water in the village, low level of education etc. As traditional pastoralists they would like to breed livestock as a source of milk and meat, to fight poverty and malnutrition. They want to improve domestic goat breed by crossbreeding it with a good dairy breed.
we-mag: What is your role within the project?
Sonja: Nabuur really puts its hands on the projects. Our main focus is not to raise funds and provide people with money; Nabuur is trying to go to the roots of the main problem: the lack of knowledge. Amongst many other things, we are helping them with knowledge transfer – getting the info, suggesting new techniques in agriculture, finding trainings etc.
As a facilitator I have to organize and lead the work of the neighbours (volunteers). I also do a lot of work myself. There are many diverse tasks a facilitator has to do – communicating with many people using different online communication tools; chatting with local representatives about different aspects of the project; recruiting neighbours with specific skills for certain tasks; discussing the project with the neighbours including analysis, ideas for solutions, strategy and formulating the project; breaking the project into tasks, delegating them and/or helping with them; organizing the village’s webpage; organizing information to make the neigh-bors’ work easier, and so on …
The job of neighbours is to get as much information as possible about the situation in the village, and then to analyze it and discuss to find the best way to help with solving the problem/formulate the project. At the beginning the community wanted to start with a cow project, which would have been very risky and with not much prospect to be successful. After we had a long discussion we concluded that the goats would be better for the beginning and that cows could be introduced at a later stage after the local community proves their committment and gets more skills.
We also had a discussion about the best way for the project to be funded. The neighbours share their expertise and ideas and the community makes the final decision. That way we all act as a team-working together towards the best solution.
And all this is mostly a virtual collaboration, meaning everybody sits at a different place in the world in front of some computer and they are all working on the same project!
we-mag: How did the project start and how does it go on?
Sonja: The project is starting small with 2 goats, a shed and the training for the community. It will start growing from there, the people will be learning by doing and more and more people will get involved with time.
The community is getting involved in many activities such as planting the seed with new techniques they didn’t know about before, organizing and bringing decisions about the project, building the sheds for the goats with the help of online and local volunteers … they are learning new things and will learn more soon when the goats arrive and they have the training.
we-mag: How do you work together with the local com?
Sonja: The work of local representatives and their feedback are crucial. Their open- ness, hard work and communication skills are important success factors. The local representative is the bridge between the local community and the online volunteers; they give us insight not only into the situation in the village, but also into their culture and their way of living.
I myself come from a developing and war destroyed country, but still for me it is sometimes difficult to imagine the conditions the community lives in. Often very basic things like clean water are missing, or their standard of education is so low that they don’t know about basic hygiene practices … Not to mention constant fear of war or systematic rape their women are exposed to.
It makes me feel thankful for all I have in my life which millions of people in the world don’t have.
When I started working with Guillaume, our local representative in Congo, it was a real challenge to gain his trust. I showed him that I really care for him and his community and that I was willing to invest enough time to help. After we gained mutual trust it was much easier to focus on important aspects of the project. Now we talk about other problems too and try to figure out how to support the people in many different ways, not only directly linked to the goat project. For example, we are now discussing the problem with cholera they have during rain season. We are getting material to help educate the community about causes of cholera and its prevention and we are discussing possibilities for purifying water.
For a project to be successful it is of utmost importance that the local community has the initiative; they have to be the ones who are driving and running the project. Neighbors are there to help them with knowledge and other resources that they otherwise couldn’t access. So the neighbors and the community get connected via Nabuur and form a team that works together to help the community achieve sustainability – to get empowered by taking their destiny in their own hands.
we-mag: What convinces you that THIS is the right thing to do?
Sonja: The results the team has already achieved, the progress we’ve made the and potential I can see.
This work makes me feel useful; I feel I can make a contribution somewhere where it is needed and where it is appreciated. It is such a reward to see that a bit of your time invested in a right way can make a difference for someone less fortunate.
Another thing is that I make beautiful friendships with people around the world. Though we come from different cultures, we all have one thing in common – we are volunteers and we are focused to make a difference. And that mutual interest makes us really connected, though most of us never met in person.
Besides, I feel I’m developing some important skills and knowledge in many areas, such as agriculture, project management and people skills most of all. Working with people with so diverse cultural backgrounds, motivating and leading them is really challenging and fulfilling.
we-mag: What makes nabuur.com different from the way classic development aid is working?
Sonja: I think that unlike a classic aid, we on nabuur get a much closer, personal contact with the community, even though we are not physicaly present, and we are able to identify many other ways to support a community, to pay attention to their specific needs. Also, it is more about know-ledge transfer than about fundraising. We constantly search for concepts they can apply and improve their lives little by little.
The best thing about nabuur is that the communities are encouraged to take over the ownership of the project and get empowered, so that they don’t rely on the aid anymore, but on themselves.