Gilly O’Sullivan is the ILCU Foundation’s Programme Lead for Sierra Leone. In May 2019, Gilly was seconded to Sierra Leone to work in the ILCUF office in Freetown.
With the onset of COVID-19 across the globe, Gilly returned home on 19 March, 3 days before the airport in Sierra Leone was shut down. Gilly is currently based in Dublin and she continues to provide support to the local team in Freetown – although over 7,000 miles away from Dublin, the time difference is only 1 hour. She hopes to return to Sierra Leone when it is safe to do so.
How has COVID-19 impacted on Sierra Leone?
Sierra Leone reported its first case of COVID-19 on 31 March 2020. In the weeks following, in an attempt to curb the outbreak, the government introduced short two-day lockdowns, a prolonged inter-district lockdown, closed schools, introduced restrictions on mass gatherings, and closed the international airport. These restrictions had a huge impact on the economy of Sierra Leone, and it soon became clear that lockdown approaches as taken in Europe are unsuitable for countries such as Sierra Leone. With the majority of Sierra Leoneans working in the informal economy, the concept of working from home is not an option, and going to work is a matter of survival. Hand washing is very challenging as many houses have no running tap or water. Social distancing in urban areas including at markets, in public transport, and within housing communities is impossible. Confirmed positive cases remain low and we have not seen a dramatic rise in cases that were anticipated. Despite these positive trends, like we are sure to see in Ireland, the impact of COVID-19 in Sierra Leone will be long-lasting. For many countries including Sierra Leone, COVID-19 will continue to have a significant impact on the economy, education, food security and poverty levels.
What are the challenges of providing support remotely to the team in Freetown?
I’ve been providing remote support to the team for the past nine months. Working remotely from Dublin has certainly been a challenge as my colleagues continue to work from Freetown. It is certainly easier to communicate and collaborate in person and poor internet connectivity (especially during the rainy season) results in some delays getting in-touch with colleagues and often some patchy Skype conversations! Certainly, being in the office and on the ground in-country gives you a better opportunity to adapt quickly to unforeseen challenges, monitor on-going activities and ultimately see the positive results from the support that is provided.
Are project activities on-going during the pandemic?
During the onset of the pandemic, we had to adapt our work significantly in light of the inter-district lockdown which resulted in staff being unable to get to all credit unions in the country. However, since then, project activities have returned to normal across many areas. For now, our biggest constraints relate to international travel restrictions and holding safe and socially distanced meetings and trainings sessions for credit unions. ILCUF is very lucky to have a selection of excellent Irish and African based credit union experts who can assist the growing credit union movement in Sierra Leone. With current travel restrictions, ILCUF have now explored the use of locally-based expertise and used remote support where possible. A small number of socially distanced meetings and trainings sessions have taken place, but we cannot reach the same numbers as we did pre-COVID.
Despite these changes, I must say that it has presented the team and me with an opportunity to step back, evaluate our work and consider alternatives that perhaps would not have been considered otherwise. For example, we have used new technologies to conduct our work and worked in new ways to achieve our goals. The team continue to provide great support to the credit unions on a day-to-day basis.
What are the credit unions doing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19?
From the outset of the pandemic, it was clear to see how credit unions could play a valuable role in helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Credit unions are locally based organisations and credit union Boards and Committees are made up of trusted leaders within the community who have an ability to share critical information with their community members. This places credit unions in a unique position to assist in the pandemic.
NACCUA, the credit union apex body, together with ILCUF, with thanks from Irish donations, responded to the pandemic by distributing sanitation kits to all credit unions in Sierra Leone. Each credit union was provided with cleaning materials to keep their staff and members safe from the spread of the virus. In addition, information posters, WhatsApp images and radio programmes were used to inform credit union members and their communities about the virus. Credit unions distributed handmade reusable face masks made by local tailors to their members.
How are the credit unions doing in general in Sierra Leone?
Certainly, at the beginning of the pandemic, we had concerns that credit union operations would be halted, as in other countries some credit unions were forced to close or reduce operations. Thankfully this never happened and credit unions were still able to operate as normal throughout the pandemic. ILCUF and NaCCUA stayed in constant contact with the regulator for credit unions to ensure that members could continue to have access to their savings and other credit union services. Given the importance of financial services during the pandemic, this was of critical importance.
At the onset of the pandemic, credit unions noted an increase in delinquency. This is something we also typically see during the rainy season, which runs from May to August, so it is perhaps difficult to untangle the two from each other. Thankfully over recent months, we have seen delinquency rates decrease. We hope that this will continue to drop in the coming months ahead.
Lastly, how have you found working and living in Sierra Leone?
A few years ago, I never thought that I was be living in Sierra Leone, a country I knew little about at the time. Although moving to any country can be daunting in some cases, I’m happy to say the transition from living in Ireland to Sierra Leone was made a lot easier with the help of my colleagues and friends there – I was particularly fortunate to know some of my colleagues based in Freetown before moving. From a work perspective, I have found it much easier to do my job while based in Sierra Leone. It gave me a better understanding of the realities on-the-ground including the challenges faced by the credit union movement. Sierra Leoneans I have met generally have been very welcoming. In addition, as Sierra Leone is a priority country for the Irish government, there are many Irish NGO workers based in Sierra Leone, so it is nice to meet up with some Irish friends over a cup of Barry’s tea with someone who brought them over from their last trip home!
The Foundation’s work in Sierra Leone is co-funded by Irish Credit Unions and Irish Aid. The current project is focused on supporting the development of credit unions to build financial inclusion and resilience in urban and rural communities.