Thursday, 23 February 2012

VSO Sector Conference 2012

Ok, maybe not the sexiest title of all my posts to date, but sometimes I think just say it like it is, and it was indeed the VSO Sector Conference 2012.

The conference is the annual event where all VSO volunteers Kenya and representatives from their partner organisations come together for a few days of networking, information sharing, and skills development.  There were about 80 of us all together over the few days, and it was a great time.

The event opened on the first night with Speed Introductions. It's like Speed Dating, but without the dating part.  Which probably is for the best.
The second day had a packed agenda.  In the morning we began by hearing three (tear-jerking) testimonials from beneficiaries of organisations which work in partnership with VSO.  There was Zachary, a blind young man in University, and Bernadeta, a Maasi widow who began a small local enterprise despite gender inequility in her community, and Evelyn, a Lou widow who fought for her rights to prevent being "inherited" (a practice by which the brother or father of the widow inherit the women into his household largely for sexual exploitation).  Because VSO doesn't send volunteers to directly deliver services, we are in most cases in offices working in capacity building functions and often don't get to hear these stories.  It was really very moving and powerful. 

This is Zachary, a beneficiary of an organisation working with VSO.  He shared his remarkable story with us.  Kenya is  not in anyway a friendly environment for people living with disabilities, and Zachary has overcome some significant challenges to become the first visually impaired or blind student at the University of Nairobi.
Bernadeta. A Masai widow who through a VSO volunteer was supported to set up a small jewellery business which has now grown tremendously serving 3 markets. Even though the VSO programme was around secure livelihoods, the programme has done a lot to support inclusion of women on all levels within that particular community.
After the testimonials, we had the opportunity to take part in a series of small workshops covering issues such as governance, environmental programmes, and gender equality.  The two workshops I attended were in Mainstreaming and Advocacy, which are actually related issues.  Advocacy is about bringing a voice to those who aren't heard (usually to make specific needs or issues known) and mainstreaming is about working to effect change in policies and programmes (social, economic and political) to improve the lives and situations of those who are marginalised.  The mainstreaming workshop focussed a lot on disability, as that is a key theme for VSO's work in Kenya, but I was able to consider work my organisation does which we don't always consider to be advocacy or mainstreaming.  

A workshop on Mainstreaming led by volunteers Dan and Ben.
We provide drop-in health and counselling centres for high risk HIV groups known as MARPS (most at risk populations).  In Kenya MARPS include sex workers, long distance truck drivers (known frequent clients of sex workers) and MSMs (men who have sex with men). We also provide economic empowerment support to these groups and work with local community leaders and businesses to share with them why our work with these groups is so important and how they can be involved in developing policies to ensuring open access to health facilities and small business start-ups. That's because prostitution and homosexuality are illegal in Kenya.  What I took away from both the workshops is that we need to do more to articulate and celebrate the work that we are already doing in these areas and develop a more thoughtful and coordinated approach to our advocacy and mainstreaming activity (trying to avoid mentioning developing an advocacy strategy - but there it is!)
And after a busy morning we stop for a good (and calorific!) Kenyan chai (tea) break.
In the afternoon the volunteers and partner organisations divided into groups for our specific sector workshops.  VSO currently works in three sectors in Kenya: Disability, Secure Livelihoods and Health (formerly HIV & AIDS), which is where my organisation sits. The workshop looked at the recent history of HIV&AIDS in Kenya and government policy on the issue.  In 1999 the then president declared that HIV&AIDS was a national disaster and it as an issue (both health and social) was brought under the Office of the President rather than being allocated within one of the two health departments.  As this was a verbal declaration it was never actually put into formal written legislation, however the National AIDS Control Council (NACC) was set up to coordinate efforts.  Until this year more than 90% of HIV&AIDS funding in Kenya comes from international sources, with more than half coming from USAID.  (Nearly 98% of my organisation's funding comes from US government sources - CDC, FHI, Walter Reed).

In 1999 the HIV prevalence rate in Kenya was near 15% and today it is near 6% - a tremendous result in less than 15 years.  So why so many concerned faces??  Because organisations, such as mine, have built themselves to fight the long fight against HIV&AIDS and find themselves now in a situation where AIDS is decreasing as a priority area and funding is quickly evaporating.  NACC will likely be absorbed into one of the health ministries, no longer a national disaster, and USAID announced a couple weeks ago that AIDS funding in Kenya will decrease by 44% in 2013.  HIV&AIDS will find itself alongside other health issues such as TB and cancer which also have significant socio-economic factors, and government policy and resources will start to focus on meeting a range of complex health issues in large regions of the country.

My neighbours, Andrea and Harvey.
So, what's to be done?  VSO's example is to start early and move away from exclusive HIV&AIDS focus to encompass wider health issues.  As well, it will be important for organisations to form partnerships and consortia with other organisations who offer different geographic coverage as future funding will likely require full country coverage.  It's a changing time in Kenya and for organisations such as mine, which actually spotted this coming a year or two ago and started to move then to offer more holistic services to those infected and affected by HIV.  I will be carrying the conversation forward so we begin to identify long term partners, brining us neatly onto the next picture...

On the final morning of the conference there was a World Cafe exercise on funding.  A World Cafe is where there are a number of tables each on a slightly different discussion topic around a room and delegates move between the tables to contribute to a number of on-going discussions.  It a very effective and efficient way of gathering input from many people on many topics in a short amount of time.  Fundraising is a topic which comes up in everyone's placement - regardless of the job title - so this was a very welcome and pertinent activity.  There were 8 tables covering topics such as corporate donations, raising core funding, and alternative resource mobilisation.  I hosted the table on partnership and consortia fundraising. I really enjoyed the exercise and came away having learned a lot from the contribution of those participating.  I look forward to write up as well to see what I missed at the other tables.

My colleague Charles who came as the representative from my organisation.
After 2 days the conference was over and people started making their way back to the far reaches of the country from whence they came.  But not before a little boogie - what an appropriate way to end a conference!  It was great and I look forward to next year.

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