Q&A with Augustine Allieu, National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Liberia
GENERAL INFORMATION AND CONTEXT
Please share some general and contextual information about Liberia and the situation for children in particular?
My name is Augustine Allieu. I am from Sierra Leone. I am the National Director of SOS Children’s Villages Liberia. I started working with SOS Children’s Villages Liberia about a year and ten months ago. Liberia is a country that has a very interesting past. In the last 40 years or so, Liberia has experienced a coup, two civil wars and epidemics. The most recent one being the Ebola outbreak of 2014 that claimed so many lives. We are still, today, seeing the ripple effects of the impact.
The country possesses rich natural resources. It has one of the region’s richest deposits of iron ore, as well as diamonds and a rich forest region. It rains for about half of the year. Even when it does not rain during the other half of the year, you still have a lot of groundwater to support crops. Liberia is a country that has a very rich history as well. It is one of the oldest republics in the region. It is the first country in Africa to have had a female president. Actually, it has many firsts to its credit.
The conflicts the country has been through have taken a toll on the well-being and living conditions of people, particularly children. It has led to a weakening of most institutions providing social services. Health and education institutions are just not providing as much as they should to support the population.
Over 60 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar per day. Quality health institutions to support the population are limited. In addition, education quality is suffering because of the lack of qualified teachers, but also a lack of a good curriculum that speaks to the current realities of the day. In addition, it is just a lack of infrastructure, good infrastructure. Some areas have too many schools, and then other areas have none. In some cases, children have to travel long distances to go to school. These are just a series of factors that are having a negative impact on children in Liberia.
What would you say is unique about the approach of SOS Children’s Villages Liberia?
Focus on alternative care and particularly family-like care is perhaps one of the unique selling points of SOS Children’s Villages in Liberia. The second unique selling point is our commitment and a very close relationship that we nurture with the child. For instance, in the last year alone, we have admitted very young children into SOS family care, and these children could potentially be with their SOS families until they finish high school. We will then support them through university or higher education as well, and then we will support them to make sure that they are job-ready. They will eventually get a job and become self-reliant. Moreover, even when they leave our care, the family relationship with siblings continues. That in-depth relationship is something I have not seen in any other organisations that I have worked with.
Do you believe that SOS Children’s Villages Liberia is doing enough at a community level to strengthen families who are faced with the contexts you describe above?
I believe member associations like SOS Children’s Villages Liberia need to do a bit more to raise local resources in order to do a bit more in communities, because within these communities we have many children that fall in our direct target group, meaning in need of family care because they have lost parents. Obviously not all of them can join an SOS family.
But there are those who are at risk of losing parental care. We need to be there for these children, both directly and indirectly. Indirectly we need to collaborate with other organisations to advocate for the enactment or implementation of policies that directly lead to the improvement of the living conditions of these children, so they can reach their full potential. Directly we also need to work more closely with families. Liberia, being a country that has gone through a lot of conflicts and crisis, has for a long time been about supporting displaced families in and around Monrovia in our family strengthening work. Originally, this was a direct hand-out, giving them food and things like that. However, as we moved away from the conflicts our focus really became about strengthening families.
First, it is about empowering the communities, then the communities empower families, and then families are able to support the children who are at risk in these families. We have gradually done away with the direct hand-out approach, and eighteen months ago, we introduced income-generating activities to caregivers in order to begin to put them on the path of sustainability and self-reliance. What we need to do a bit more is to strengthen the communities. We need to work more closely with community structures like child welfare committees so that they can better protect children from abuse and advocate for justice.
Could you guide us through the activities in SOS family strengthening?
One of the things we are currently working on is trying to increase our reach, but also to diversify our services in the field. Right now, we are limited to skills training with the caregivers, cash payments to vocational tuition and medical support. We are working with caregivers by introducing income-generating activities with cash from the village loan and savings associations (VSLA).
What we are looking to do now is focus on empowering communities first, and then the community will be in a position to support the families and then the families will be able to support the children. We need to ensure that caregivers are provided with more opportunities, whether skills or business. Of course, with technical guidance from our community-based organisation partners or a consultant, they will be taught how to decide which business to pursue, how to start a business, how to invest, how to save money with the bank, etc. Progressively, if their businesses do well, we must link them with bigger lending institutions so that they are able to do a bit more.
Unemployment is a reality in Liberia and for SOS care leavers it is no different. What does SOS do to keep track of these young people and their employability?
There are two elements to this question: You have those young people that are currently in our care and those who have left our care. In either case, they are all family. Youth employment in Liberia is a big issue. The employment rate is very low and is a consequence of several things. For one, the structures in place for providing employment are weak. The government or public sector does not hire many people; it is more about investors and partners. Secondly, the issue is preparedness. Over the years, many young people have been affected by the country’s conflicts and crises, foregoing education or missing opportunities to get a job or the skills necessary to acquire a job. All of these come into play to explain the very low employment levels across the country.
Young people that go through SOS care have the opportunity to go to school, acquire the skills and then we help them to find jobs. However, finding a job has not been very successful in the last decade because we see a huge number of young people that left our care do not have employment. However, this is changing. We have developed a results-based framework for youth empowerment, which was inspired by the SOS global theory of change on youth empowerment.
So now, prospects for young people in our care to find a job are improving. I was working quite recently with the team on a potential opportunity with USAID here in Liberia on job creation. Over fifty percent of our youth are able to get internships and get jobs eventually. We just concluded our mid-term planning and strategic review and we want to ensure that by 2030, 100% of all care leavers have a job.
Written by: SEBASTIEN TAYLOR, Correspondent- IOR-WCAF, SOS Children’s Villages International