And the winner is… or the tale of how difficult it is for a young professional from Sierra Leone to attend World Water Week

We were very happy to announce Benson Kandeh’s nomination as the winner of the RWSN@WWW competition last month. However, we unfortunately received the news that Benson will be unable to attend the SIWI World Water Week conference, as he was denied a visa to travel to Sweden. This is a huge disappointment to him and to us.

We thought we should take this opportunity to highlight the hurdles that Benson, and other young professionals like him, have to overcome to attempt to attend a conference in Europe or North America. As development professionals, we should aim to cater and build capacity in-country in the water sector, and especially for young professionals. Conferences, workshops and training courses are crucial for building professionalism. Benson’s story highlights how difficult it is for a young professional from a fragile country, such as Sierra Leone, to attend the most important annual global conference in the water sector in development.

The issue is not only to do with the fact that he was not granted a visa – the difficulties for him to obtain this visa in the first place were prohibitively expensive and time consuming. The only place for Sierra Leone nationals to apply for a visa to Sweden are Nigeria and Morocco – and they have to apply in person. Benson had to travel more than 2,000 kilometres from Freetown to Lagos, and put his life on hold while waiting for a decision on his visa in a foreign country for almost two weeks. Admiringly, Benson managed to make the most of his trip by working on improving an unprotected well in the community where he was staying in Lagos.

The problem is not limited to the water sector: African academics and development professionals face arbitrary decision-making by immigration authorities. In the UK, the Royal African Society has compiled a number of disturbing findings about the barriers faced by African professionals. However, as development professionals, we have an obligation to ensure that we are building capacity in developing countries. This is why we are proud to have organised the RWSN Forum in low- and middle-incomes countries since its first handpump technology workshop in Kenya in 1992 and most recently in Côte d’Ivoire in 2016.

In the face of increasingly toxic political discourse on immigration, it is incumbent on all of us not to turn a blind eye, but communicate the benefits of international and intercultural exchange and cooperation and put pressure on over-zealous immigration authorities. In parallel, international development events should be organised where they are most needed and most accessible, to allow more water professionals like Benson to participate in international development conferences.

UPDATE! (from the RWSN Secretariat): We lodged an appeal against the decision to deny Benson his visa with the Swedish migration authorities. The Swedish embassy in Abuja overturned the ruling based on our appeal on 16th August, and this decision was upheld by the Swedish court. Benson should therefore be able to get his visa and attend World Water Week – so watch this space for updates from our winner!