Rwanda Volunteer Network is a volunteer network involving organizations and individuals specialized in the promotion of volunteerism across Rwanda. It was founded in 2014 by individuals and organizations who saw the need for a volunteer advocacy network in the country.
Its mission is to promote volunteerism by training, consulting and placing volunteers in all sectors of life: they train young people through volunteering in all sectors so that they can acquire skills. Retired people also contribute by sharing their skills.
Archimede Sekamana is the Executive Director of Rwanda Volunteer Network.
Here, in Africa in general, and not only in Rwanda, we're still struggling in terms of policies. For instance, in Rwanda we have a national volunteer policy, but it is in contradiction with labour policies. When you give someone a contract as a volunteer, the labour policy says that you cannot do it for more than 6 months if you don't give him/her a full contract as a staff member. We therefore continue to advocate that these policies take these differences into account and harmonize them so that they do not conflict with the organization that uses volunteers or with organization like ours.
For our countries in Africa (because we share between countries through 4 networks), the main challenge is always the financial incentives for this kind of pro bono. We need to understand the concept of pro bono and how people use it. For instance, if you contact a company and show them how they can do it in formal way, which can give them more impact, the main reason they will want to do it is for the publicity it brings to their projects. If I contact a telecommunication company to set up a regular program that has a great impact on the community, they will prefer to use their possible social funds to promote their products. Most companies set up programs lasting an hour or a week when they have a new product to take advantage of it and promote their projects, which has less impact on the community.
The concept itself of pro bono and how people understand it is also a challenge, it's associated with the legal sector. When you tell them to expand the concept of pro bono with engineers, doctors or other skills, it's difficult. It's something we still have defend. In Nairobi, at a meeting on pro bono in 2018, we discussed the same issue with African colleagues, and it's up to us to promote this concept so that it has an impact on the community.
We are trying to advocate to the government to use their funds to set up a volunteer management system. They don't give us funds, but they lend us their staff. The government has its priorities, so sometimes there are conflicts with the priorities of the community.
Regarding organizations willing to use pro bono services, these are mainly corporate companies. Registration here for non-profit organization is tough. It's not just about having a good legal status, a name and knowing what you’re going to do. Conversely, registration for a commercial company is easy, in one hour it can be done, you get a certificate. But registration for a non-profit organization can take 5 to 6 years without being obtained. You need to have an office, a running program, where your funds go, where you get money, and then they come to visit you to see if you have an impact on the community. That means you have to start working without a certificate, but nobody can fund you, and at any time the government can tell you that because you don't have a certificate, they don't recognize you.
But the government doesn't do it in a negative way, for them it's a way of doing business to be a non-profit organization. When you want to be a non-profit organization, but you need to start working, you register your organization as a public social enterprise. So it's somehow a non-profit, but registered as a business. As a social enterprise, all the profits go to the community. Once you’ve done that for 3 years, for example, depending on the resources you have, you can apply to become a non-profit and get a certificate.
Registration for a non-profit organization can take 5 to 6 years without being obtained. You need to have an office, a running program, where your funds go, where you get money, and then they come to visit you to see if you have an impact on the community. That means you have to start working without a certificate, but nobody can fund you, and at any time the government can tell you that because you don't have a certificate, they don't recognize you.
For companies that want to do pro bono work, government laws and regulations don't give them a tax exemption, which makes this kind of activity more difficult. Even non-profit organizations are not exempt and have to pay taxes. It's everywhere in Africa, we're advocating for a policy of exoneration for non-profit organizations and for the companies who wants to do more pro bono activities.
Secondly, facilitate the registration: give people provisional registration and evaluate them for 2 or 3 years, and then give them final registration.
Also, for financial support, people struggle to get funds so maybe ask our government to do something.
Regarding our activity, for example we carry out activities in the agricultural sector with agronomists from international organizations who can teach local community organizations. It can be a Marathon, in the short term, to learn farming techniques, create compost, etc.
We also have an IT program because they are well-financed companies. Some of these companies help the network in marketing strategy, social media, launching platforms, how to use them... Some of the advisors also show them how to make a documentary for fundraising.
As regards the education sector, it is still struggling with funding problems. So we have what we call youth development programmes and we encourage young people to volunteer in different sectors of life according to the demand, because they may lack skills in certain areas. Currently, we have 17 active volunteers across the country in the education sector for the youth development program.
We also have programmes with financial skills who teach groups of beneficiaries and teach them how to manage their income, how to save, how to manage their economy.
We don't have a lot of activities because we were founded in 2006 and were only operational in 2014. So we want to focus on a few activities in order to have a great expertise in these areas. We focus on pro bono activities for education, agriculture, and IT sector.
But we have different things from our programs because we have requests from those who want help in developing their organization, those who want advices, so we can help them with documentation, finding offices, lawyers to give advice free of charge.... In the environmental sector, we can have a request to teach or help with organic waste Management for example, so we have that alongside our volunteer program.
We also organize every year what we've called a Weekly pro bono activities where organizations can connect with people who have the skills that they need.
And we are part of Good Deeds Day, a worldwide Movement that aims to encourage individuals to not only volunteer in a formal way but also perform an act of kindness or share their skills. This can be done through a platform with a weekly or monthly online discussion with people who may need skills or expertise. It can also be a simple visit to an organization to support them, it's a program to encourage individuals to share their expertise.
We partner with a university and a high school with which we organize what we call youth camps. They get together and exchange about their lives. I didn't consider this to be pro bono with the use of skills because we do it with young people and it also depends on the resources we have. It's for 3 to 5 days, sometimes we invite colleagues from other countries like Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania or we send young people to train there, especially in Tanzania where there is a regular programme.
They pledge to do something on the days they’re together. We call on people to share their life experience and how they have achieved their goals. We have a partnership with a television station, a program that is on every Sunday. A person who has a successful life shares with the young people in the studio and they can ask questions for 30 minutes.
In the youth development programme, we accompany young university graduates who have not yet found a job, for example in agricultural sciences or IT, to help them put into practice what they have learned and use their skills. We are also in contact with CoopAfrica programme, which works with the youth in the country. Recently, a program has been put in place to show that engineers, medical students, agronomists, etc. have a role to play for the country.
This coronavirus pandemic is teaching young people how everyone can contribute to the world. How can our skills bring peace? This is what we need to share.
What touched me recently was a programme with young people in North-Western province of Rwanda. With a company, we organized what they call peace games. These games allow for the sharing of skills with young people living with disabilities but also bring together young people who do not have disabilities to share their experiences and talents. A public administration institution in this region also participates to exchange with these young people.
Thanks to this program we discovered a young blind man who sings very well, now he is a famous singer. It's a talent scouting program. We identify talent in young people. Once their talent has been detected, they try to improve it; it can be artistic talent but also more technical skills like IT skills. Mentors who have the same skills try to push them to improve.
The public administration here has many volunteers. We have community health workers; those volunteers work in the health sector to monitor the health situation of the population in the region. The health structures have been recognized by the UN as the best solution to the public health sector in the world.
You need to understand how public administration is structured. You have the embryonic public entity of 10 housing units, you have the villages, the sectors, the districts, the province... Across all these public institutions, we have local leaders who do volunteer days. In electoral matters, we have few staff on the electoral committees. In the polling stations, young people do volunteers days. Volunteerism and pro bono are something I consider indispensable, not only in Rwanda but also in Africa. Without volunteers, the government cannot survive. We should pay all those who help them.
To serve these communities, we have community police volunteers and mediators (like community judges who resolve conflicts). Community policing are volunteers who work closely with the police, but they are civilians. They make sure that what is done is not against the law. If it is against the law, they inform the police. They are trained by the police on what is a crime. When they go back to the community, they can tell the community that for this crime, the punishment is this or that, they educate people about the law.
Recently, young people were introduced to a platform where people can report incidents and where young people help the government get information quickly.
Volunteerism and pro bono are something I consider indispensable, not only in Rwanda but also in Africa. Without volunteers, the government cannot survive.
Right now (in April), we are on lockdown for two months. We are allowed to go on missions with volunteers to help with food supplies and to provide assistance. We're organizing ourselves thanks to a Facebook page, among other things. Yesterday, I looked at it and three people volunteered to walk between stores to raised awareness about social distances.
There is also a social society platform where you can help people. You can ask for assistance and you can volunteer, organizations can help. The government opened a hotline too which is free, that's how people help each other. People here have basic needs like getting food. We encourage organizations and volunteers to continue through the online platform.
IAVE (International Association for Volunteer Effort) organizes online conferences that we share with our network so they can see how they can respond.
When we joined the pro bono networks, we weren't many at the beginning, but it was important for us. The expansion of the concept in Africa showed us other possibilities since most of us thought it might be reserved for lawyers. So it helps us to make our case. By being part of networks, you learn skills. It shows us different ways of volunteering. For example, we can do Pro Bono marathons, Pro Bono weeks, with a good organization we can create new partnerships. When we saw what others are doing, for example in India, it inspired us, you benefit from what they do best and you bring it to your countries.
We don't have many members in our organizations, at least not as many as in other continents, so it is enriching to share with Europe, Asia or America. I also understood how we could promote the network in Africa. Networks help us to defend our programs with companies and to defend it with the government to show that it can be very structuring and bring an impact to the community. Some networks, after they succeed to share their expertise, are starting to look at how they can support weaker members so that they can build their capacity. This is how we can grow up.
We also participate in international conferences such as IVCO (annual conference of the International Forum for Volunteering) which brings together all volunteer organizations. We need to improve pro bono in Africa especially in terms of coordination because we can do a lot, but we don't see it.
We need to improve the global volunteer network so that there is more visibility and impact.
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