Far from being victims, women’s networks have led the way in campaigning for peace and justice

While rhetoric on enhancing women’s rights and participation in fragile states is pervasive, de-facto implementation remains slow.

Pray the Devil back to Hell. Movie Poster 2008
Pray the Devil back to Hell. Movie Poster 2008

In 2011, the American Journal of Public Health estimated that 48 women are raped every hour in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Some experts have even suggested that the figure is much higher considering the number of unreported cases. Sadly, rape as a weapon of war is not exceptional in the Congo; rather it is pervasive in many fragile states. According to the Journal of Peace Research, roughly 75 per cent of all Liberian women were raped during the civil war. In the case of Bosnia, experts believe that between 20,000 to 50,000 were affected. In view of these shockingly high numbers, women are often portrayed as helpless and despairing victims. Strikingly, this often overlooks an important point.

Far more than victims

In politically suppressed and patriarchal societies, women risk speaking up and advocating their rights. In West Africa, for example, women cultivate peace, foster social cohesion and help rebuild war-torn societies. The war in Liberia serves as a case in point, when thousands of female protesters sang relentlessly until peace was finally negotiated. Other non-violent weapons included the threat to put a curse on the warring parties and a sex strike. Three years later, in 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became president of the country and the first female elected head of state in Africa.

Likewise, in neighbouring Sierra Leone, the peacebuilding process has been shaped by various civilian initiatives brought to life and led by women: the Fifty/Fifty Group or the Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace are just a couple of examples. Their target is for women to take up 30 per cent of the seats in Parliament after the elections in November this year. Furthermore, the ambition is to raise this number to 50 per cent in five years’ time.

Regionally, organisations such as the West African NGO network, WIPNET (Women in Peacebuilding Programme) provide training and strengthen the capacities of local movements. Since 2004, about 400 women’s organisations have benefited from their work.

Globally, women campaign for equal and full participation in efforts to create and maintain international peace and security. For instance, the NGOWG (NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security), located next to the United Nations Secretariat in New York City, is comprised of 17 international non-governmental organisations. Their focus is on conflict-affected countries on the Security Council’s agenda. In each country, local groups identify women’s needs and concerns on the ground, which are then formulated into a common agenda at headquarter level.

Despite all these positive achievements and initiatives from diverse civilian spheres at the political and juridical levels, women are still often excluded from negotiations and crucial events. According to a UN report, in 24 major peace processes between 1992 and 2010, only 2.5 per cent of the signatories, 3.2 per cent of the mediators, 5.5 per cent of witnesses and 7.6 per cent of negotiators were women. Likewise, the OECD reports that only 20 per cent of aid allocated for peace and security in fragile states integrates a gender equality dimension. Yet, DFID’s operational plan (2011-2015) of the Policy Division for Governance and Fragile States holds that the “discrimination and lack of opportunities faced by girls and women requires a specific focus.”

These facts are even more disappointing considering the numerous instruments created in past decades by the international community to advance women’s rights in fragile states. In 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) followed by the Declaration on the Participation of Women in Promoting International Peace and Cooperation in 1981. Four world conferences on women were organised—in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995). The latter led to the introduction of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and successive Security Council resolutions, starting with resolution 1325 in 2000 for women’s participation in all aspects of peacekeeping, peacemaking and peacebuilding.  Resolution 1325 subsequently led to four more between 2008-2010*.  There have also been several reports from the Secretary General, workshops and high-level stakeholder meetings on women, peace and security.

While rhetoric on enhancing women’s rights and participation in fragile states is pervasive, de-facto implementation remains slow.

Challenges

Sarah Taylor, Executive Coordinator of the NGOWG highlighted the difficulty of obtaining funds for the schemes of women’s rights activists as one of the reasons why action on women’s rights is so sluggish. More financial and political resources are needed for early warning systems to monitor and report rights violations. Even if funds are made available, more long-term commitment is required, as things simply do not change overnight. In addition, many women’s rights activists work in remote and dangerous areas. Funding their activities involves certain risks, which many donors are not willing to take.

Likewise, many fragile states experience serious shortcomings in laws and practices to protect women’s rights. Weak local justice systems and impunity for perpetuators are common in post-conflict societies.

Advancing women’s rights is therefore not a movement lacking ideas, initiative or instruments; women are able to take matters into their own hands. Nevertheless, they still often remain excluded from important peacebuilding processes.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE

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*The imperative of resolution 1325 fed into four subsequent resolutions, namely, 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1889 (2009) and 1960 (2010)

Virtually Constructing Awareness Campaigns – Restrictions of ‘Viral’ Global Public Discourse #Kony2012

If a global civilian discourse and consequently public sphere ought to exist – it is very exclusionary in its nature.

Stop Kony 2012 Poster. Invisible Children
Stop Kony 2012 Poster. Invisible Children

“When the farthest corner of the globe has been conquered technologically and can be exploited economically; when any incident you like, in any place you like, at any time you like, becomes accessible as fast as you like; when you can simultaneously “experience” an assassination attempt against a king in France and a symphony concert in Tokyo; when time is nothing but speed, instantaneity, and simultaneity, and time as history has vanished from all Dasein [Being] of all peoples; when a boxer counts as the great man of a people; when the tallies of millions at mass meetings are a triumph; then, yes then, there still looms like a specter over all this uproar the question: what for?—where to?—and what then?”  (Heidegger)

The majority of large INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisations) regularly update their online communities on developmental work and pressing needs on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Most prominently, Invisible Children urged millions of people to take part in a global awareness campaign in order to chase one of the most notorious criminals worldwide: Joseph Kony. Reactions to the film have differed enormously. The UK-based INGO, PeaceDirect criticised the campaign as out of context and without any local ownership. For Justice in Conflict author, Mark Kersten, the film does not offer an accurate portrayal of the actual conflict in Uganda as the problem is far more complicated than simply stopping Joseph Kony (for more details see also CTV News interview). On 12 March, the Guardian published a graph by Charlie Morton called ‘Phony 2012’, revealing that in 2011 about US $ 1.7 million was spent on Invisible Children staff and only 1 % of all funds raised will in fact directly reach the Ugandan people. Yet, according to Luis Moreno Ocampo (the International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor), the media crusade had ‘mobilised the world’ and Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie has called for ‘Ugandan warlord’s arrest’. The question is: Can a viral video change the world?

Hence, the focus of this blog post is not about the ethics, politics or strategies of the Kony2012 campaign as such which has already been discussed by so many others. Rather, it will deal with whether more attention should be paid to the exclusionary nature of awareness campaigns in cyberspace. Put simply, can we truly “mobilise the world” for a particular cause – virtually – through social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube? In a Habermasian lens – does such a thing as a “global” public sphere even exist? Notably, Habermas’ accounts of the public sphere are a reflection of societies in western liberal mass-welfare democracies. Bluntly transferring his notions to a global level will certainly result in some conceptual flaws. In a quick experiment to explore the usefulness of the term at global level, one can more or less argue that a global public sphere emerges out of dialogue, discourse and exchange – the same is true of cyberspace. Global public discourse then acquires a transformative or emanicpatory nature parallel to, and in concert with, global state structures. Access to such a global and virtual public sphere would, in principle, be open to all citizens in that populace (in re-interpretation of Habermas account):

“(…) act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicise their opinions freely. When the public is large, this kind of communication requires certain means of dissemination and influence; today, newspapers and periodicals, radio and television are the media of the public sphere. (1989, 231)”

More than 20 years later, his definition has gained a completely new dimension through advanced media technologies and social media platforms. The Internet has become a medium which is assumed to be non-exclusionary, egalitarian and democratic.

But is this really the case for campaigns such as Kony 2012? Beyond the excitement of pursuing international criminal justice through mass-civilian advocacy, one crucial question stands out at the fringes of this endeavour: How are these virtual campaigns absorbed domestically in countries such as the Democratic Republic of  Congo, Central African Republic, Southern Sudan or Uganda (all areas in which Kony has operated or operates)? How can their voices be heard – virtually?

Many studies and academic literature have focused on the issue of “aid absorption capacity” in LDCs (Least Developed Countries). Strikingly, not much attention is paid to how the influence of communication and information technologies is in fact absorbed and internalised in countries ranked at the bottom of the Human Development Index (HDI). In other words, how does the Kony 2012 movement and the numerous online initiatives and campaigns run by numerous INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisations) affect domestic public discourse in the LDCs in question? Who among the broader population in these countries has access to social media platforms such as Facebook and can make use of advanced media and communication technology and thus launch his or her own campaign?

In a short assessment, one major indicator is certainly the illiteracy rate within LDCs. Citing a UNESCO fact sheet from 2011, “In 2009, the global adult literacy rate was 83.7%, compared to 89.3% for youth. The region of South and West Asia is home to more than half of the world’s illiterate population (51.8%). In total, 21.4% of all illiterate adults live in sub-Saharan Africa.” Notably, adult literacy rates were below 50% in the following sub-Saharan countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone. According to the HDI 2011, in countries in which the LRA (Lords Resistance Army) operates or operated, the literacy rate of both sexes above 15 years of age is:

  • Central African Republic: 55.2 %
  • Democratic Republic of Congo: 66.8 %
  • Southern Sudan: (not listed)
  • Uganda: 71.4 %

One could argue now that the Kony 2012 campaign is based on a film and the issue of illiteracy is only secondary. Still, taking Central African Republic as an example, 44.8 % of the population are not able to understand written information, google the video online or comment on it. In this regard, media absorption capacity in LDCs is also limited because of:

Language barriers: Especially in rural areas where not everyone is fluent or fully understands English (or in the case of other campaigns/countries, French or other western languages).

Restricted access to computers and costs: Access to a computer or other advanced media communication tools are still a privilege in all LDCs. For example, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the standard hourly rate to use the internet is about 5,000 Leones,  equivalent to USD 1.35. This is 15 cents more than the average person earns per day.

Thus, if a global civilian discourse and consequently public sphere ought to exist  – it is very exclusionary in its nature. As well-intended as many of these campaigns are, they take place in a “virtually” isolated global public debate from the very local civilian sphere.  The “what for” is only one out of so many other important aspects. More attention needs to be paid to the “where to” as marginalised civilian spheres should not be excluded from the global discourse and should also have a “viral” voice. However, what is even more essential is the “what then”…?

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE

Sources:

Habermas, Jürgen (1986): On society and politics – a reader, edit. by Seidman Martin, Beacon Press,Boston

Habermas, Jürgen (1996): Between Facts and Norms, Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, translated by William Rehg, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Heidegger, Martin (1959): Introduction to metaphysics, New Haven: Yale University Press

In the aftermath of the Fourth High Level Forum in Busan – Reflections on the Effectiveness of Aid

The devil lies in the detail and in the particular case of the HLF-4 the detail is in the word ‘effectiveness’.

© 2002 - 2015 Zapiro. https://www.zapiro.com/
© 2002 – 2015 Zapiro. https://www.zapiro.com/

‘Where has the aid money gone?’ – was the title of a Guardian DataBlog article released on January 12th 2012 which analyzed the re-construction efforts, costs and funding of conflict and earthquake shattered Haiti. The matter of concern is worrisome indeed as – echoing the Guardian: ‘figures released by the UN special envoy for Haiti show that only 53% of the nearly $4.5bn pledged for reconstruction projects in 2010 and 2011 has been delivered.’[1] Looking at the current funding status of latest appeals by all humanitarian organizations, the situation in Haiti seems even more devastating. According to the data collected by the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Financial Tracking System (FTS)[2], only 2% of all funds required in the near future are hitherto covered.[3] As of February 10, 2012, within OCHA’s FTS, Haiti is ranked as the third most underfunded country worldwide in terms of funding appeals and requirements by organization and ‘real’ commitments (not pledges) made.  Liberia leads the way (0% of all new appeals thus far funded) and is followed by Côte d’Ivoire (only 1% covered).

Strikingly, once aid money has finally reached a country or in fact the aid organization in question; practitioners and experts within and outside the development community are frequently complaining about how inefficiently and inadequately this money is then eventually spent. In her book ‘Dead Aid’, Dambisa Moyo famously highlighted that over the past fifty years more than US$ 2 trillion of foreign aid has been transferred from rich countries to poor – Africa being the biggest recipient with no major improvements thus far. Reasons why this financial aid hasn’t lead to ‘desired outcomes’ and has failed to fulfill any ‘benchmarked’ criteria, vary from corruption at all levels to lack of capacities, political will or bad timing – to name but a few. For some authors such as Linda Polman the aid industry per se is part of the problem. In her controversial books ‘The Crisis Caravan: What’s wrong with Humanitarian Aid?’ and ‘War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times’, Polman criticized how the vast industry of aid agencies and operations can in fact do more harm than good. The case of Sudan serves as one of her prime examples where the military regime benefits almost more from the aid in Darfur than the targeted beneficiaries themselves.

Other experts shifted their focus to the question of how aid money could be actually better allocated. For many, the concept of microcredits or direct cash transfers has become more and more convincing in that it shows the potential to reduce poverty in a straightforward and sustainable manner.  Put simply and in Joseph Hanlon word’s (and also the title of his book): Just give money to the poor.

Effectiveness of aid hence depends largely on the where, how, why, when and how much. This tricky interplay of increasing funds in a financially unstable world while simultaneously tackling all the implementation problems, shaped the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness from 29 November – 1 December 2011 held in Busan, Korea (also known as HLF-4). About 3000 delegates met to discuss the progress on implementing the principles of the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. The list of thematic sessions was long, particularly focusing on:

  • Ownership and Accountability
  • Country Systems
  • Aid Fragmentation
  • Aid Predictability
  • Results
  • Capacity Development
  • Rights-based approaches
  • Fragility and Conflict
  • South-South and Triangular Cooperation
  • Private Sector

Notably, for the first time Africa (representatives from the AU and NEPAD) presented a consensus and position on its Development Effectiveness agenda – certainly an important and crucial step forward.[4] Yet, only time will show whether the Busan talks will have an impact in improving the quality and delivery of aid beyond numerous briefing papers, key documents, summary reports and speeches. In fact, none of these declarations or high-level reports are de-jure or de-facto binding. Talking about change is one thing, really walking down the road is another. Further, issues which weren’t on the official agenda at the HLF-4 include: how to effectively minimize corruption (at all levels, thus also within aid organizations), how to avoid aid-dependency and ensure exit strategies (to truly foster local and sustainable ownership of the process), and, how to culturally sensitize approaches towards development (not aid).

In short, the devil lies in the detail and in the particular case of the HLF-4 the detail is in the word ‘effectiveness’. The Oxford Dictionary defines the term as ‘the degree to which something is successful in producing a desired result’. The crunch question is now – what is a desired result and for whom? In 2000/01, the World Bank published a fascinating book trilogy called ‘Voices of the Poor’. In its study, the Bank interviewed in total 60,000 poor women and men in over 50 countries worldwide to gather their views on how to eradicate poverty and improve their lives.  What this study successfully accomplished was to compile an extensive account on how poverty and aid is perceived and experienced by the very people it affects. Unfortunately not many follow-up studies have been undertaken since then.

Thus, despite ongoing studies, debates and efforts on how to improve and tackle the major challenges of the aid industry – progress is slow. After all, there is one aspect even the biggest chunk of aid money can’t buy: consistent and coherent political will combined with a more culturally and ethically sensitive approach towards development at global, regional and local levels. In the attempt to measure success and failure and consequently effectiveness, aid has become a depersonalized set of indicators. In other words, when debating and writing about aid effectiveness we all run the risks to sometimes forget for whom the aid so urgently is needed for.

This article was originally published by: LSE IDEAS

References:

Hanlon, Joseph, et.al. (2010): Just give money to the poor: the development revolution from the global south, Kumarian Press, U.S.

Moyo, Dsambia (2009): Dead Aid, Why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York

NEPAD’s (2.12.2011): ‘Busan keeps promise on Africa’s Development Effectiveness’, http://www.nepad.org/crosscuttingissues/news/2592/busan-keeps-promise-africa’s-development-effectiveness, last visit 6 February 2012

OCHA – FTS: Tracking Global Humanitarian Aid Flows, see: http://fts.unocha.org/, last visit 3 February 2012

Polman, Linda (2010): The Crisis Caravan: What’s wrong with humanitarian Aid?, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC, New York

Polman, Linda (2010): War Games: The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times, Penguin Group, London

The Guardian, DataBlog (12.01.2012): Haiti Earthquake: Where has the aid money gone? See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/datablog/2012/jan/12/haiti-earthquake-aid-money-data, last visit 3 February 2012

World Bank (2000/01): Voices to the Poor, Oxford University Press, see also: http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTPOVERTY/0,,contentMDK:20612393~menuPK:336998~pagePK:148956~piPK:216618~theSitePK:336992~isCURL:Y,00.html, last visit 4 February 2012

[1] See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/datablog/2012/jan/12/haiti-earthquake-aid-money-data, last visit 4 February 2012

[2] The FTS is a global, real-time database which records all reported international humanitarian aid(including that for NGOs and the Red Cross / Red Crescent Movement, bilateral aid, in-kind aid, and private donations).

[3] Data as of 10 February 2012.

[4] For more details see NEPAD’s press release: ‘Busan keeps promise on Africa’s Development Effectiveness’, http://www.nepad.org/crosscuttingissues/news/2592/busan-keeps-promise-africa’s-development-effectiveness, last visit 6 February 2012

Barefoot Soldiers for Social Justice, Food Security and Peace (Sierra Leone)

Peace is food, you cannot have peace when you are hungry.

War Widows. Photo: OPARD SL 2011
War Widows. Photo: OPARD SL 2011

It took me two attempts until I finally reached Yoni Chiefdom also known as Mile 91, which is 2 and a half hours car drive away from Freetown. Rainy season was just about to start in early July 2011 and my poor knowledge of local travel connections taught me the unforgettable lesson that it is certainly cheaper, but not advisable, to travel outside Freetown by motorbike – despite the ongoing road constructions.

When I at last reach Mile 91, a well-spoken, middle-aged man receives me: Mr. Ahmed Muckson Sessay, Director of OPARD-SL (Organization for Peace, Reconciliation and Development – Sierra Leone).  That I had to reschedule our interview three times does not prevent him from welcoming me warmheartedly.

OPARD-SL started off as a voluntary organization in 1999 initiated by local farmers to help promote peace during the decade long vicious civil war in Sierra Leone. The need to do so was very pressing indeed: Between 1994 and 2000 the rebels attacked Mile 91 in total 19 times and soon the region (in particular the nearby town Masiaka) became a strategic junction which (in BBC’s correspondent Mark Doyle’s words) ‘changed hands between the various armed factions countless times.’

Given that a few community members knew some of the rebels, OPARD-SL was able to initiate early talks with the RUF (Revolutionary United Front). Later, the organization would also serve as a mediator amongst all warring parties. ‘We were barefoot soldiers trying to negotiate peace’ – said Mr. Muckson Sessay.

While talking about the current work of his organization, he ensures that I get a copy of a letter dating back to 10 January 2001, written by UNAMSILs (United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone) then Commanding Officer Colonel Khushal Thakur. Although an official document, Colonel Thakur addresses Mr. Muckson Sessay amicably and in handwritten script as My dear Bro. Muckson – a subtle indication of the unique interpersonal ties that are only built in situations of the highest distress and emergency.

In his letter, Colonel Thakur then expresses his sincere gratitude for Mr. Muckson Sessay’s: ‘[…] active mediation and indulgence [which] reinvigorated and revitalized the sagging relationship between the RUF and UNAMSIL. This subsequently facilitated in strengthening the ties and retrieval of UN equipment captured by RUF in May 2000.’

The colonel’s letter is an example of the probably darkest hours in the history of UNAMSIL when the RUF broke the Lomé deal and, amongst other incidents, took around 500 UN peacekeepers hostage. The events could not have been more embarrassing – instead of the UN disarming the rebels, the rebels disarmed the UN. This was eventually resolved through a massive international intervention (most notably the British backing and reinforcing of UNAMSIL troops). But, this often leaves one major aspect overlooked: Pacifying Sierra Leone was preceded and constantly influenced by a series of civil society initiatives. Mile 91, is just one out of many examples where ordinary Sierra Leonean’s proved their courage and their restless convictions for peace.

According to Mr. Muckson Sessay, OPARD-SL’s efforts during and after the conflict were never really acknowledged in official peace ceremonies.  What reminds of OPARD-SL’s endeavors, however, is UNAMSIL’s letter in Muckson Sessay’s office and a peace monument an hour and half hours motorbike ride away from the village.

What has happened to Mile 91 and thus OPARD-SL ten years after the conflict?

For Mr. Muckson Sessay peacebuilding and development processes are intertwined and cannot be separated from each other. In the past few years OPARD-SL’s focus shifted (in a nutshell) to food security, environmental protection, organic farming, economic empowerment of women and youth, education for the underprivileged, water sanitation and health care. In the long road from destruction to reconstruction OPARD-SL received inter alia funds from the U.S., Canada or the UNPBF (United Nations Peacebuilding Fund). Yet, in 2011 the organization is unsure how to further sustain itself. He wishes that his community had the faculties to create better incentives to keep the youth in town but also increase their interest in farming.

The core challenge for small towns and villages is certainly the rural-urban migration flow.  In the UNHABITAT report ‘The State of African Cities 2010’ it is indicated that 38.40 percent of all Sierra Leoneans live in urban areas (most notably Freetown). UNHABITAT further estimates that by 2050 this figure will change to 62.44 percent.

Mr. Muckson Sessay is not alone when stressing that this trend undermines not only food security in rural areas but also leaves the old and aged without any care behind. The Sierra Leonean journalist Madieu Jalloh further holds: ‘(…) to say that agriculture is vital to Sierra Leone’s economic growth is an understatement’.

Ten years after the conflict and despite widespread support from the international community, Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries worldwide. Looking at UNICEF’s statistics, every fourth child under the age of 5 is underweight, in other words, 40% of all deaths amongst children in Sierra Leone are caused by malnutrition.

After my long conversation with Mr. Muckson Sessay I am rushing to my next interview with a local civil society organization called ‘Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace’ (WPJP, based in Bo). Without mentioning my Mile 91 impressions a WPJP staff member immediately refers to the problem of food shortage in rural areas and concludes: ‘Peace is food, you cannot have peace when you are hungry.’

This article was originally published by: LSE IDEAS

Voices to the Youth – ‘We can see the light but we are not working’ (Sierra Leone)

Youth in Freetown are bubbling over with hope for a better life.

S.L.F. Street Life Family. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2011
S.L.F. Street Life Family. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2011

Freetown – In the middle of a community near to Belairpark, only five minutes motorbike ride from the city centre, the daily challenges of poverty lead to the formation of a support organisation. In Freetown, necessity definitely begets ingenuity. A club called ‘Street Life Family’, in short S.L.F., uplifts young men who have lost almost everything except for their dignity, hope, and each other. ‘Together as One’ – is the motto of the club, which builds on mutual respect, unity and team spirit. S.L.F. was founded, in 2000, by Mr. Ahamedi Tijan Kabbah – also known as ‘Grandpa’ – under the initial name ‘Peacemakers’. Yet S.L.F. is not a political Grassroots Movement as such, but, an informal social support system for all of its members. Struggling with the consequences of the conflict and poverty himself, Mr. Kabbah simply reached out to the youth of the community with the message: ‘Let us be together’.  Eleven years later it is hard to estimate – even for S.L.F. members – how many people are de-facto part of the club in which members often come and go. The core of S.L.F. though, consists of about 50 young men who live either on the street or share a small room with a couple of other friends or members, sometimes at the compound or somewhere else in the nearby slums. Some of them have jobs, some are unemployed, some are artists or students and some simply describe themselves as ‘Jacks of all trades’. No matter how they generate their income, all S.L.F. members contribute at least a very small amount of their money to the club. Every evening one can find a big cast iron pot full of rice at the S.L.F. compound. In rotating shifts one member prepares the food for the entire club. For some it is the only meal they will have per day.  But that is only a small part of club life and initiatives. Taking the road uphill Belair Park to Mr. Kabbah’s house one can see a handful of young men working hard to build a road with only a few tools. Everyone in the community knows that the funds to build this particular road were already allocated and then misappropriated twice.  Now these young men undertake the job for free, earning nothing but the occasional tips from passing cars and motorbikes.

In 2007 and without any external support or funds thus far S.L.F. even created its own school called ‘Bomba Adult Education Center’. The idea came from Mr. Alusane S. Dumbya a local artist, play writer, poet, narrator and cartoonist. Lectures are held three times per week by Mr. Dumbya himself and other teachers. Everyone is welcome to join in – S.L.F. as well as non S.L.F. members. To their delight sometimes even workers from the streets of Freetown spontaneously come by and participate in classes. Lectures taught are about ‘general knowledge of all aspects’ according to Mr. Dumbya. One of his latest classes for instance focused on the ‘Lost Legends of Sierra Leone’. The key message of this particular class: Sierra Leone is not poor of natural, human and cultural resources, but, mismanaged.

Sierra Leone – Amongst the international community the country is often referred to as a ‘success’ story in its process of recovery from a vicious civil war and a transition to peace.  People are indeed tired of fighting. Their frustration about slow development and the on-going and widespread corruption, however, remains. Almost ten years after the war people are still living by the day, in fact, 63% of the population has less than $ 1.25 as disposable income per day. Current life expectancy is estimated at 48.2 years, almost half of the population is illiterate, child mortality rates are high and every fifth women dies from preventable complications during birth or pregnancy.  Talking to people living in the slums of Freetown they say that they still feel that in part things are slowly changing to the better in the form of road construction and electricity. Nonetheless, the latter is often unreliable and their core concerns seem unresolved. While pointing to the flashing lights from residential areas in the hills surrounding Freetown Mr. Kabbah says: ‘We can see the lights but we are not working.’ Sierra Leone has one of the highest youth unemployment rates worldwide. It is estimated that approximately 60% – 70% of young people don’t have a job or any prospects for a regular and stable income, and consequently better life.  And even for those who manage to find employment, wages are so low that it hardly leads to any major improvement. Not surprisingly local labour units are weak – lacking capacity and rights.

How do young people cope with all these challenges, constant uncertainties and most of all powerlessness to change their own situation? One major source for encouragement and strength are certainly their clubs. There is hardly a young adult in Sierra Leone who does not belong to a specific club or group. The purpose of these clubs varies from dancing, making music to sports or any other social activities like contests or public events.  Some clubs are for leisure activities only, others, like S.L.F., are the only social support network they have. Interviewing youth from different clubs and backgrounds they all agree that clubs are a major contributor to sustaining the peace in the country, in so much that they bring unity amongst the youth. One S.L.F. member adds that ‘We [the club] have to be at peace with ourselves first in order to bring peace to the other communities’.  Yet, such a peaceful coexistence of all youth clubs in Freetown was not always the case.

A notable proportion of clubs in the city associate themselves with a specific movement. So, Central Freetown belongs to the ‘Blues’ (also known as CCC – Cent Cost Crips), West Freetown to the ‘Reds’ (also known as RFM – Red Flag Movement) and East Freetown to the ‘Blacks’ (also known as Kekeke or Black Leos). In terms of membership (thus number of local clubs affiliated to one movement) the CCC movement is the biggest one – followed by the RFM and then the Black Leos. Recently a new movement (yellow and black) emerged in the South-Eastern part of the town but the three other groups signal clearly that they still have to work on growing the number of members and gaining respect.  In the past gang fights or ‘beefing’ as they call it, occurred quite often. Presently all the movements are proud of having established a culture of discussion and declared a ‘cold war’ between all the parties involved. Negotiations were initiated in November 2010 by the CCCs together with the help of the Minster of Internal Affairs and Local Government Mr. Dauda Kamara. Each movement burned down their flags and granted the other group the right to spray their initials on the walls in the territory of the others. However, eight months later it seems that this peace process is built on a very shaky ground. Although Minister Kamara’s successful attempt in ‘gang fight mediation’ is highly appreciated amongst all groups, their daily frustrations persist. In a group interview with the head of the CCCs, a young men who calls himself ‘Gangster Number 1’ and about 30 other members it is made clear that the expectations of the Blues were not met.  From the moment they stopped the ‘beefing’ in the streets they felt left alone again. No further signal with regards to support or help for a better development of their ‘blue community’ has since reached them. More concretely, if they don’t see their lives transformed in the near future, they would not exclude that the ‘beefing’ might start again. On top, the CCCs are not alone with their dissatisfaction. A group of students who belong to the RFM equally state: ‘If things won’t change for the youth in next 2-3 years we’ll go mad.’ Opinions differ enormously whether a potential re-occurrence of gang fights might constitute a potential threat to the peace process of the country. For some local Civil Society Organisations, it is a phenomenon that can be found in any other big city around the world, for others it can have a destabilising impact which shouldn’t be underestimated at all.

The reality is that the youth in Freetown are bubbling over with hope for a better life. But if their situation remains unchanged it is only a question of time before fights re-occur. ‘Sometimes I think god just fools me’, said a young man belonging to the RFM. and S.L.F. grandfather Mr. Kabbah seems also very concerned. ‘I don’t want to see the youth to lose their head’ he says in reference to the challenges and frustrations they face. Considering their past and daily struggles it is absolutely impressive that the majority did not.

This article was originally published by: LSE IDEAS and Africa at LSE