13 December 1999
by Dobrica Sabic
The world of international relations was something that I always found appealing. I gave up on my initial desire to study physics and technology and pursued a B.A. and a Master degree in international politics. After working for a few years in the area of international affairs, I realized that although exciting, the world of international politics was not challenging enough for me. I wanted to do some "real stuff", not just talk about it. I left the government agency I was working for and, using my computer skills, I landed a new job working for an information and documentation centre. It did not take long for me to realize that a combination of multiple skills could be beneficial. I became Deputy Director of the Yugoslav Centre for Scientific and Technical Documentation. My main responsibilities included contacts with other world centres and the modernization of existing work methodologies and the technological base of the Centre.
It was almost by coincidence that I learned about a UNESCO project and a UNV opening in Sierra Leone (West Africa). Equipped with a number of years of experience and another Masters degree in Library and Information Science, I applied for that job and to my great surprise was the one selected.
The challenge was great. I was to be in charge of a UNESCO/UNDP project whose aim was to establish a new Development Documentation Centre (DDC) in the Ministry of National Development and Economic Planning. However, making a decision to accept this challenge was not easy. I already had a very challenging and high-ranking job, my wife was happily employed, my daughter was only five, and I just renovated my apartment! On top of all that, my parents did not like the idea at all and none of my friends actually offered any support to me. However, after consultation with my wife, and after surviving a huge vaccine-cocktail, we decided to take the offer and jointly go to Sierra Leone.
It was a very tough decision, but one that I will never regret. It changed my life and the life of everybody around me in many ways. It gave us an opportunity to experience and learn things that we would not have learned otherwise. Life in a different country, on another continent, in a completely different culture, first hand experience of a system of different values, different living and working conditions are just some of the benefits gained from my two-year long UNV assignment.
The UNV project was a great success. In less than two years a fully functional Development Documentation Centre (DDC) was established. A comprehensive set of development related documents was collected, organized and made available to the Ministry, to the Government and the people of Sierra Leone. Many UN consultants and experts, as well as other users benefited from its existence and the documentation that was collected. Very quickly the DDC gained great popularity and was praised for its excellent achievements, not only in organizing existing documentation, but also for promoting the use of information and documentation in improving general development efforts. It was officially inaugurated by Sierra Leone's First Vice President, and the UNDP Resident Representative was requested to establish similar centres in other Government ministries. The Ministries of Agriculture, Labour and Foreign Affairs were afterwards equipped with smaller documentation units.
My UNV assignment finished in 1987, but I continued working on a slightly revised second phase of the project, as a UNESCO expert in documentation for an additional year and a half. To my satisfaction, the DDC continued to function for a number of years after the project had been completed. Under the direction of a well trained Librarian (my project counterpart), the Centre continued to offer its information and documentation services for a number of years to come. Unfortunately the civil war that hit Sierra Leone closed many institutions including the DDC.
I left Africa at the end of 1988, worked for short while as a consultant for the World Bank, and then joined the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal. I am still with ICAO where I am in charge of its Library and Archives, as well as its Web services. It is a great job with many new professional challenges. It requires substantial technical skills, as well as flexibility and an understanding of the special conditions which prevail in today's international organizations.
My UNV job helped me a great deal to prepare for today's challenges. It put a totally different perspective on the work of the United Nations. It also reinforced my belief that the only way to learn about the world of development and the work that the UN system is doing is by actually taking part in some of its field activities and projects.
If you have a chance to become a UN volunteer, don't hesitate a moment. You will have a chance to make your own contribution to the world's development efforts. You will probably not change the world, but it will definitely change you.
By Dobrica Sabic, former UN Volunteer in Sierra Leone