Hi, my name is Joanna Penn and in May I finished my first year of the MPP course at HKS. Before coming to the Kennedy School I worked in UK politics and policy for four years, finishing up as a Policy Advisor to the Home Secretary. Looking for a new adventure, but also wanting to build on the skills I’d developed professionally, I then went to work for the Africa Governance Initiative in Sierra Leone and then Malawi. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair founded AGI after he left office and the organization is focused on supporting leaders in African governments close the gap between their vision for their countries and the capacity within the government to deliver it. It was my time with AGI that led to my summer internship, and the chance to catch up with old friends back in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Arriving in Freetown is like no other place in the world. You step off the plane to a blast of damp hot air that you soon discover never cools down, even in the middle of the night. But the real magic is at the end of a bumpy mini-bus journey to catch the ‘pelican’. Sierra Leone’s airport is in Lungi, separated from the capital, Freetown, by a several hour drive on a potholed road or 30 minutes by boat across the estuary. Most people opt for the later and thus get their first impression of Freetown speeding across the waves, often with the sun setting ahead of them, wondering if their luggage made it on the boat too.
After returning to Sierra Leone after two years away, there were real signs of progress. The mountain road that connects the western side of Freetown to the rest of the peninsula and the rest of the country beyond had been transformed. Freetown’s first four-star hotel opened recently, and hosted America’s Second Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, during my stay. But despite this progress, Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries in the world— ranked 177 out of 187 countries globally on the U.N.’s Human Development Index. It struggles to provide basic necessities to its small but growing population: access to electricity, water and sanitation, basic healthcare, and education.
It was education that was the focus of my internship. Most children in Sierra Leone reach grade 4 unable to recognize all 26 letters of the alphabet, let alone read independently. At grade 9, 75% of students taking their Basic Education Certificate fail maths. Sierra Leone has significant prospects for economic growth in the coming years. Estimated real GDP growth was 16% in 2013 and is expected to stay in double digits in future years. But if children are not receiving a high quality education, Sierra Leone’s next generation will not be well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities such growth will bring.
The Rising Academy Network aims to change that. It is a new social enterprise seeking to become a leading provider of affordable, high-quality education in low-income countries in Africa, starting in Sierra Leone. This September, Rising Academies aims to open its first school and my role for the summer was to support the CEO to make that happen. Working for an organization at such an early stage meant that I got to turn my hand to an incredibly diverse set of tasks; from registering the school with the government, to recruiting teachers, refurbishing the school buildings, to marketing the school and engaging the local community. There was never a dull moment and the speed at which we were getting things done meant that my time flew by.
I definitely drew on some of my first year classes as I made my way through my internship: classroom negotiation simulations helped me barter with the chairman of the motor-cycle taxi drivers on how much we would pay them to ride around Freetown with fluorescent jackets on that advertise the school; and I thought about the lessons from our management class about the importance of creating a strong vision and purpose for the organization to unite around as we recruited new staff and started to become a small team. On the other hand, economics, statistics and econometrics felt like another world compared to holding a community meeting with the local chiefs and parents! My internship also left me with plenty of ideas about what I would like to study next year, including some really practical skills around budgeting and business planning.
But the thing that I’ve found in my first year at the Kennedy School is that it is about more than just the specific knowledge or skills you acquire, but the frame of mind and way of thinking that you bring to a problem. It teaches you to be structured and analytical, so regardless of the issue or area, whether it is familiar or not, you can take it on. Most importantly, being thrown together with a group of very clever people from around the world teaches you not to be intimidated, it teaches you to work with others and have the confidence to take on the next big challenge.
Organizing my summer was not completely straightforward. My first internship in Cincinnati fell through. Although Ohio seems a long way from Sierra Leone, I still managed to achieve what I had set out to do with my summer: to get closer to the people and communities that I had worked in politics in order to support, to work for a new organization, at the start of its journey to better understand the stresses and rewards of striking out on your own, and to work on a project where my presence made a difference. The great thing about working for a startup organization is there is definitely more work than people at the beginning!
Luckily for me, despite my first internship falling through, the Center for Public Leadership was still able to support my internship through a Dubin Summer Fellowship Grant, without which I may not have been able to travel to Sierra Leone. I think the best part of my time with Rising Academies was when we promoted our first employee to be Academy Manager. The pride he took in his work, and how much his promotion meant to him, made me realize how important the work of the Rising Academy Network is, not just to raise the standards of education in Sierra Leone, but providing jobs and opportunities to the next generation of young leaders in the country.
2014 Summer Series Links
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