Elvina Quaison is a Research and Engagement Officer at the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD). AFFORD’s mission is to positively impact local African development through diaspora development partnerships and job creation.
Based in London, England, Elvina Quaison manages Diaspora Emergency Action and Coordination (DEMAC), a partnership project in the United Kingdom focused on the Sierra Leonean diaspora. The partnership is with the Berghof Foundation in Germany, which is focused on the Syrian diaspora and the Danish Refugee Council, which is focused on the Somali diaspora.
This area of expertise aligns with Elvina’s experience of working with diaspora groups for over fifteen years as a project manager, advocate, researcher and entrepreneur. Elvina has shared her knowledge globally at conferences and by facilitating workshops. She provides expert advice to charitable organizations and the private sector on the role and partnership potential of diaspora communities.
Elvina tells us how her passion for understanding and exploring identity, particularly second generation African diaspora identity, has driven her career.
I studied Social Policy and Sociology at the University of Essex and then went on to do an MA in Diaspora and Refugee Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
My studies have been an influence on my career and personal interest choices, and extremely useful in my work. My education provided an academic foundation that has been built upon and strengthened by my work experiences, from volunteering to working in places that were a challenge at the beginning but enabled valuable growth.
MY FIRST JOB
My career path has been pretty steady. After university I was temping and I was lucky enough to get a temp job at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). I say lucky, but I had chosen a temp agency that focused on development organizations as that was the career path I had in mind. At ODI I was able to get a position and worked there until I went to gain work experience, and life experience, in Ghana.
My links with ODI helped me get a job in Ghana and I lived there for over a year. On my return to the UK I worked for a series of African development organizations, one of which was AFFORD. I left AFFORD to work in Ghana for three and a half years doing marketing for a property development company. On my return I resumed a position at AFFORD and I’m enjoying my role.
MY FIRST BIG CAREER BREAK
My temping job at ODI was my first big break as the development sector is very competitive. My temp position as a receptionist, which was for a week, turned into a research assistant role over the course of 8 months. It gave me the experience I needed to build my CV in the development sector. Those contacts also helped to get me a job in Ghana. Choosing to move to Ghana was invaluable. My qualifications and experience made me an attractive recruit in Ghana, doing in a few months what would take me years to do in the UK.
MY TYPICAL WORKING DAY
My average day starts with checking and following up on email. After that it can vary, from writing up reports or articles to meetings with those we are working with, wanting to work with or partnering with AFFORD. My work often includes participating at events to raise awareness of the work we are doing and the outcomes of our findings both locally and internationally. Part of the reason why my work stays interesting to me is that no two days are ever the same.
I’m about to start phase two of a project I manage which is focused on the diaspora and the role they play in responding to crisis in their home countries. The diaspora we’re focusing on for this phase are from Nigeria, Somalia and Syria. It is a partnership project spanning three countries – the UK, Denmark and Germany. In phase one I was focused on Sierra Leone and actually travelled there to carry out research the week before Sierra Leone was declared Ebola free. My family were both proud of me but not so impressed with my timing for the trip!
My passion for connecting people to Africa, to assist in Africa’s development, inspires and motivates me. But what keeps me going is seeing the work of the people I engage with, the work they are doing, the impact they are having. This drives me.
I get inspiration from so many sources from my family and sisters to iconic people like Oprah Winfrey, Kwame Nkrumah, Michelle Obama and to be honest, on a daily basis. People I interact with, who without knowing it, provide inspiration, learning, ideas and motivation to understand.
It’s good to have icons to look up to, and even perhaps aspire to be in your own way. But truly it’s the everyday people who are doing amazing things on a small but meaningful level that inspire me. My best friend, Edith Kpodo, is caring for her son – my godson – who has sickle cell. She is also studying, starting a new business and just ran a Give Blood campaign to encourage more donations from the black community. Her drive has definitely been a catalyst for me. It’s made me rethink “what more I can do?” People like this inspire me.
BEST CAREER ADVICE
The best advice I received was to stop thinking so much about what I want to do, and just get on and do it. You will always find the reasons why you can’t or shouldn’t do a thing, so acknowledge that those challenges may be there, give a little time to how you may overcome them and then do the thing anyway. Send off that application after getting advice and support on how to make your experience fit. Take that role even though it scares the socks off you and push yourself forward because you will always surprise yourself. You will definitely learn something no matter the outcome.
MY BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENT
The one foremost in my mind was the opportunity to speak at the United Nations World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey. Standing on a platform where I had just watched Forest Whitaker, world leaders and UN General Secretary speak was surreal and very meaningful to me. It was one of those “I really can’t believe I’m here” moments.
My goals are to push forward with some of the initiatives that I have burning in my mind. I want to build on my work and experiences to increase the impact the diaspora can have, and does have, on sustainable growth within Africa.
MY ADVICE FOR ANYONE WHO WANTS TO WORK IN DEVELOPMENT
Really think about what you want to achieve by pursuing a career in development. With the knowledge I have now I would say do not study development but rather focus on the problem you would like to help address. Then dig deeper, and then go deeper still until you get to the real problem and the solution. There are so many routes to bring you to development and expose you to greater knowledge in areas that will be of use to you.
I received this advice early in my career from Frances Williams, one of my inspirations. She said Africa should be looked at as a place in need of regeneration. When we do regeneration of an area we look at infrastructure needs, such as roads, electricity, water, housing, health capacity and so on. Then the next step is responding to each need with experts, professionals in their fields and getting the job done to a timeline with deadlines. This approach is what will be most beneficial, in my opinion. It will generate real progress in the development field as well as an increase in professionals and experts on the ground in Africa, in various important fields which are so necessary for African countries.
I LOVE WHAT I DO BECAUSE…
I feel like I’m making a contribution to people’s lives and on the continent as well as to the African diaspora. The work we are doing helps people develop and bring to fruition their own plans and goals, as well as connect the diaspora meaningfully with their home countries. When I get to visit a project, or take our beneficiaries to spaces that give them a platform to speak and inform, this demonstrates why I’m doing what I’m doing, and why I love it.
Interview by Octavia Goredema @OctaviaGoredema