Tuesday, 24 March 2009

What the credit crunch should mean for development

George Freeman, 22, former street child in Freetown, is a  social entrepeneur running  projects that get street children into school and micro-finance, youth-led employment programmes (see video).  

My "Comment is Free" story got onto the Guardian website.

I've had a story there before but this time I got more comments and more anger about why Africa hasn't developed despite 50 years of aid.

It's a good question. What makes Sierra Leone so interesting is that it's the test case of whether aid works. All the sexy development ideas from budget support to gender mainstreaming are being implemented and if the international community can't help the people of Sierra Leone get back on their feet then it's time to call it a day and say: "hey guys, this development thing, yeah, um we don't have a clue what we're doing, let's go home".

Is it a lack of money, or understanding, or good people and ideas? Are the problems simply too great? Are donors doing the wrong thing with the right people? Are they doing the right things but badly because they don't understand the context and are not working with the right people? Maybe it's just too complicated and to fix it needs much more money and time. No one knows. 

But it's our money that's being spent and development practitioners need to be able to explain what they're doing and what is changing and what isn't. The reality is complex. Good and bad things are happening and the good things need to be communicated better. Saying "aid works" was fine in 2005 but not in 2009. 

Those who are doing work that is creating change should be celebrated, people like George Freeman. They need to be helped to explain to the world what they're doing, why it's working, how they see the future development of their country and the role aid plays in that vision. The problem is George can't afford a laptop, which is why his website's out of date. He needs help from people in the West who chuck away laptops to build his business.

There needs to be more honesty about the bits that aren't working and explanation of why they're not working. Either those bits are abandoned or it's explained that "this is important for long-term development and in 10 years time we'll see real differences because of x,y and z". 

The anger in the comments on my piece calling for more help for Sierra Leone is well-founded. Much of what I've seen in Africa has made me really angry too. It's our money. Good intentions aren't enough. Especially in a credit crunch. The fact that despite this in 2009 Comic Relief raised record amounts is amazing. 

2005 was meant to Make Poverty History. Why didn't it happen? Is aid a waste of time? To counter the idea that aid is useless there needs to be more information and evidence of how aid helps. That evidence exists but the UK's view of Africa is still shaped by the famines of the early 1970s. 

The cliches of what Africa is like are not the daily realities of the average African in 2009. The development community needs to use the opportunities presented by new media to show that things are changing. Yes Darfur and Congo are awful but that is not all of Africa. From Freetown to Maseru to Ouagadougou millions of ordinary people are working hard to feed and educate their kids and keep their families healthy and in a decent house. The problems they face, along with their politicians and business people, are the same as those in the West. It's just they're a lot poorer and that makes life difficult in ways we can't begin to imagine.
When things go wrong everyone looks for someone to blame. Bankers are a fair target and should lose their bonuses. Poor people are not and should not lose aid intended for them. But the development community needs to get better at explaining what's going on and now is the time to become more serious about how the additional money that's come since Gleneagles has helped and why there needs to be more of it in the future. The credit crunch means people don't trust experts any more whether they're financial, political or developmental. We want to understand where our money is going and why and if we can do that we're still happy to give (as Comic Relief showed). People need to know about George Freeman and the millions of Africans like him.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Freetown to London via Dakar

Leaving Freetown was better than arriving. It was a sunny afternoon, I took a speedboat and the green hills that frame the city glowed below a clear sky and blue ocean: the combination of colours that makes up Sierra Leone's flag.

I'd really enjoyed being a journalist in Sierra Leone, see above, and going from villages to Government Ministries and hanging out in bars, prisons and boxing gyms in between. Although full of ideas for the next month's planned motorbike trip returning to Dakar was harder than expected. I didn't have a job or anywhere to live so had to pack up my room and figure out which of my friend's sofas I would crash on.

And then yesterday afternoon I was told there was a mix-up with my flight and I have to fly home this evening.

So the motorbike trip's on hold. I've got another flight from Dakar to Paris booked for 14th June meaning I will have to find an over-land route back to Dakar. The motorbike, though a beauty, wouldn't start this evening and on reflection it might not be a bad to buy one in the UK that actually works before setting out into the Sahara on my own at the hottest time of the year.

It's a weird one though. I want to come back to Dakar and have more adventures but if there's a flight, tonight, and a seat with your name on it, you just have to get on the flight. No matter how counter-intuitive it feels and no matter how much you might miss people who are still here.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

War in Sierra Leone

This is a Nigerian tank that broke down in a village with no electricity near the border with Liberia in the jungley area where the Sierra Leonean civil war kicked off in 1991. The Nigerians were here leading ECOMOG - the West African Peace Keeping Force - except there was no peace to keep because there was a massive war.
The Nigerians had tanks and jets but out here in the bush that wasn't very helpful because the rebels just hung out in the forests with machine guns and machetes. For years they periodically raided, pillaged and raped their way through villages and towns. The rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) split into factions, Government soldiers joined the rebels becoming 'sobels' (the West Side Boys were 'sobels'), civil defence forces (CDF) sprung up all over the place fighting everyone and then split and the Nigerians didn't know how to win a guerilla war. It was completely pointless because a lot of the time the rebels didn't have a strategy beyond "kill the enemy". The commanders were interested in controlling mining areas but the whole thing was just a mess. The Government couldn't sort it out because it was broke, corrupt and totally unprepared after 30 years of inept leadership since independence to deal with a rebel insurgency.
Through all of it the ordinary people suffered most. No one knew who was spying for who or who was on which side because there were so many factions and villages swapped hands with bewildering regularity as no one was strong enough to win. Attacks whether RUF, sobels, CDF or bandits would take everyone's food, kill, sometimes eat, or mutilate anyone who didn't run away fast enough. If you were a girl you'd be raped and maybe taken along as a possession and if you were a boy you'd be made to fight for them. Once you'd joined you'd start off as a porter carrying supplies for days through the jungle. The rebels had no vehicles. You might have been made to kill your family and while you pondered that as someone not yet in your teens you'd be given cocaine, herion, cannabis and speed. You might not be able to lift a machine gun but if it was set up for you you could kill just as many people as the next man.

Malnutrition rates in Sierra Leone are horrendous. It's hard to understand why in a country that is green and fertile. Lack of protein is a problem and in a week travelling the bush I saw very few animals. After 11 years of war there were no goats, sheep or cows left here. They'd eaten them all along with the wildlife (monkeys etc). People who say giving people goats is a bad idea haven't been here.
Eventually the international community realised that Sierra Leone had been allowed to descend into chaos and brought in a UN mission to support the Nigerians. A surprise SAS attack on the West Side Boys killed the movement because after 10 years everyone wanted peace and the international community's message was clear: we will kill you if you try to carry on.

The civil war made no sense and killed tens of thousands people. It traumatised the nation and is still talked about and visible everywhere. Ruined buildings abound. Mohammed, the boy who tried to find me an internet cafe in Bo (Sierra Leone's second city - imagine Birmingham with no lights) had fled his village aged 3. He toldme his mother had lifted him up and run with him into the forest where they'd hid for 2 days with no food not knowing where to go because rebels could be anywhere. His grandmother wasn't able to run fast. They found her body outside their hut.

The war was started by a group of nasty guys with small penis syndrome who wanted to lead a revolution and Gadaffi gave them money to do it. The war spread because people, especially the young, were frustrated, angry and felt they had nothing to lose. Rebuilding Sierra Leone is expensive, slow and difficult. Progress is being made but no one knows if it's enough. The country remains obscenely poor. Every Sierra Leonean I've met says there will never be another war. Donors are less certain. They say there's a window of about 5-7 years. If sufficient progress isn't made the ingredients that led to the previous war will still be there, threatening all the good things that have happened in recent years.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Kailahun - International Women's Day

I'm in danger of becoming a bearded feminist. My week in rural Sierra Leone has taught me that buzzwords which mean nothing in Brussels (capacity building, gender mainstreaming, sensitisation) really make a difference to development in villages where most are illiterate, women's lives relentlessly hard and nothing will change unless those cut off from the outside world are better linked up. The article below was absorbed into an IRIN piece: http://wwwl.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=83393

Read on and see which article you think's better.

“Today on International Women’s Day we are organising activities to turn ideas promoting women into action,” Nyawo Claude, of the Kailahun Totorma Women’s Network (KTWN) told IRIN. Kailahun is the poorest region in Sierra Leone, ranked by UNDP as the world’s poorest country. It was here in the forested, forgotten borderlands with Liberia that the country’s bloody civil war started in the early 1990s. With a road that is practically impassable for the 6 months of the rainy season and a population still recovering from 11 years of war the problems faced by organisations like KTWN are considerable.

But Claude, the KTWN, district council and international NGOs including Oxfam, Save the Children, Plan International and the IRC are determined. On March 8th they organised a full day of activities, chaired by Mamie Momoh the district council’s gender focal point. Cultural performances were interspersed with skits on violence against women in schools and in the home with an agenda of discussions and workshops led by the women’s groups. Saturday saw 50 young people gather in the local community centre for a workshop on teenage pregnancy and HIV/AIDS. Marion Kabba is 17 and came along “because there are only 7 girls in my science class and 5 of them have babies. They try to keep up with their studies but it’s very difficult. They leave the babies at home when they come to school but find it hard to concentrate, especially if the baby’s is sick and they have been awake through the night”.

Majo Lamine is the district HIV/AIDS councillor and explains the need to integrate HIV/AIDS information into wider discussions. “There is still a great amount of stigmatisation around HIV/AIDS. Even the word for it in Mende inspires terror: ‘Bo da wutay’ (literally translated as “wipe out the family”). A few years ago a local man returned from Freetown with HIV and committed suicide because his family rejected him. They believed he would ‘wipe out the family’”.

Attitudes are slowly beginning to change. The Global Fund, working through district health officials, provides free HIV testing and Anti-Retro Virals. Lamine explains, “there is no AIDS epidemic here like we see in Southern Africa. HIV rates are about the same as they are in Europe: around 1.5%. However, the ingredients for catastrophe are present: low literacy and education rates, particularly of girls, combined with a lack of information and discussion of these issues. Providing the services is only one half of the equation. The other half is for the communities themselves to proactively take the lead in ensuring that young people understand what AIDS is, how you get it and what can be done to prevent it”.

Workshops, street theatre, peer-to-peer education and discussions on community radio have been found to be the best way to get information out, particularly in rural areas where school attendance is especially low. Running through the heart of all these initiatives is the recognition of the importance of empowering women. In Kailahun “gender mainstreaming” really means something. Susan Vandy, a member of the KTWN, said, “strengthening our networks keeps up political momentum on women’s issues. 52% of Sierra Leoneans are women but in this region we only have 3 women on the district council. In the past these representatives were marginalized but because we are well organised and can mobilise our members we can keep the pressure up to take action! Our daughters must go to school, our health clinics must be improved and we must be financially strong and have the time to spare to vie for power both politically and within our communities”.

Sierra Leone has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world. Every year thousands of children die before reaching their fifth birthday due to a range of preventable diseases compounded by malnutrition and poor provision of services. Oxfam has supported KTWN to buy a rice-milling machine. This simple piece of equipment brings in revenue to support KTWN’s activities and frees up precious time for women in Kailahun to focus on more important activities than spending back-breaking hours pounding rice. For those unable to pay with cash rice is taken as in-kind payment. This rice is then sold back to the women at harvest-time prices during the lean season (just before harvest) when prices rocket.

A coalition of organisations is concerned with getting women elected. Kema Brima, KTWN’s treasurer, told IRIN, “I vote first for the woman, for womenhood, not for the political party. 17 women stood in the 2007 election, 8 as independents. Only 3 were elected which was a pity but as women all the candidates stood together and many were very close elections”.
The campaign is growing gradually in communities, campaigning has not been intensive. The women believe that gender roles are changing, women are getting more respect but it takes time. Gender-based violence is still a widespread problem and statistics on poverty, maternal mortality and girl education remain grim. Nyawo Claude remarked as she left, “until there is a decent road so we can get our goods to market this town will remain in poverty”.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Freetown is beautiful by the way

My last couple of posts have been about how grim life is in Freetown. It's also pretty stunning: San Francisco, mixed with Rio and a touch of Cape Town. It just can't begin to cope with the amount of people who live here. During the war people fleeing fighting inland came here for safety and when the war ended they stayed.
Downtown, around the Cotton Tree which is where the first free slaves sent here in the 1770s from America arrived, there are old colonial houses. It's a bit like Bridgetown, Barbados.
Up on the hills, where this photo was taken, is where the rich folks live with majestic views. And then dotted around in the hills and gullies it feels like a collection of jungley villages with huts clinging to hillsides with lives not so different from the countryside. Then at the bottom are the slums like Susan's Bay. There are other shanty towns alongside the rivers that flow through Freetown. Before the war no one lived there because these areas are flooded and under water for most of the rainy season. People have everything on stilts. For months of the year they literally live in several inches of deeply polluted water.

Meanwhile, in the far west end of the town there is Lumley Beach, slightly past its best but still lovely. Like Joanna. The UN's army headquarters is just to the left of where this photo was taken and was the only part of town to avoid fighting during the war. The UN compound's pretty empty now but it still feels like this peninsula is an oasis of calm in a tumultuous city.
It's a lovely place to stay although last night my waiter asked me if I wanted to spend the night with his sister as I looked like, "the kind of man who would not beat her". I've never seen as many prostitutes as there are here. It's really depressing.

This is the police station in Susan's Bay. It's built on top of rubbish and smells awful. The policeman Mohammed, standing on the left with the hat, travels 3 hours each way to get to work. "I wouldn't bring my family here", he says. "But I am a policeman and must go where I am told. The crime here is not so bad, despite the poverty of the area".

Walking around Susan's Bay I was amazed to see TVs and DVD players inside some of the little huts we walked past. It's weird: you have no toilet but you do have a TV. It shows people's priorities, and that even within a slum there are very different levels of poverty. It also suggests the difficulties inherent in moving out. Freetown's expensive. Food's expensive. Everything is expensive. It's perfectly possible to be able to save up or buy a telly on credit or second hand and still not be close to having the money to move to an area where every rainy season you don't get flooded


Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Swamp ass'n'slums in Freetown

Susan's Bay, downtown Freetown.

It stinks. Rubbish, shit and massive rats prowl about as people go about the everyday business of surviving. Slums appear in the bits of land where no one wants to live - in the case of Susan's and nearby Kroo Bay this is because they're where everything from the hills of Freetown drains into the ocean. It's cheap though and near the city centre markets. People can't afford to commute so need to be near where the action is. The little girls in their blue school uniforms are comparatively lucky. At least they go to proper schools. Local ones aren't so well organised. Officially the land is still owned by the Government so if they started building proper schools it would mean that the people officially live there which the State doesn't want to happen. It's a similar problem to Bombay, Nairobi and other slums but the contrast between life down here and life a couple of miles up the hill is stark.

Impromtu school in Susan's Bay

Pigs snuffling in deeply polluted water. Malaria, bacterial infections, and a range of nasty ailments are rife in Susan's Bay and difficult to control because there are hardly any proper toilets. Oxfam has installed some, working with community youth groups, but there's all the waste flowing down from the town above too. It needs a proper, coordinated response and local NGOs are pressuring the authorities to act. No sign of much happening as yet.

Monday, 2 March 2009

At 5am the entrance to Paddy’s is clogged with 4x4s trying to park inside its heavily defended compound. It’s noisy, confusing and I want to go home but have been told it's dangerous to walk even though it’s only 5 minutes. ‘Tyson’, the former Olympic boxer who now makes a living as J’s bodyguard slips silently from the back of the truck. Minutes later we’re parked up, whisked through the queue and entrance without paying and sipping cold Stars in an open bar with palm trees.

J is my age but 5 years in the diamond business have made him look older. I ask about the impact of the credit crunch on Sierra Leone. That’s the reason I’m here after all. He laughs, “there’s no impact. We all work in dollars and the dollar’s stayed strong. Sure diamond prices have nose-dived but gold’s still doing OK so now we mine less diamonds and more gold. The diamond business is messed up anyway because of the way it’s controlled by De Beers sitting on huge reserves. Normal economics don’t apply”.

We’re surrounded by beautiful women who find us hilarious and dance enthusiastically. “Which ones are prostitutes”, I ask. “They all are, one way or another. If they stroke your palm when you shake hands that means they’re going to need to be paid”.

Tyson returns. “Where did you go?” I ask. “I was seeing to business” he replies.

J had spotted me on my own in a club near my hotel, “you’ve not been here long have you mate”, he said.
“No, it’s my first night out”.
“Well stick with me and you’ll be alright. You won’t get any hassle”.

I didn’t.

At this point D my Sierra Leonean friend reappeared. I introduced them and D said, “I work on the fair mines campaign. You should give more help to the communities”. D and J start to argue in Creo. The thrust of J’s argument is that they’ve built schools and facilities but that they’ve been mismanaged.

D tried to stand in the recent elections but was not selected. “They won’t give youth a chance. They say they want to help us but they don’t do anything”, according to D. “I want to help my community develop but the obstacles to getting involved in politics are high. I don’t want to be co-opted by the system but I want to make a difference”.

“How old are you?” J asks.
“41”, D replies.
He doesn’t look much more than 20 but is in his mid-thirties. J laughs.

H arrives. He’s Sierra Leonean but spent 23 years working for the NHS in Camberwell. He’s pessimistic about the future of his country: “we need a strong leader. It’s tribalism that is the problem. We don’t work together”. He blames D’s people in the south for not backing national unity but he also praises Shaka Stevens’ Government (a northerner like him who was in great part responsible for driving this country into the ground).

D is moving to Holland. “I hope to come back and stand for election again” he says.

Earlier over dinner with aid workers in Freetown’s only sushi restaurant high on the hill station the British founded it was obvious that Sierra Leone isn’t a posting many relish. Even those who like it rarely last more than a couple of years. K has been here for a year and a half, “it’s difficult, you get cynical. See that hillside over there? When the rest of Freetown has a power cut they don’t. It’s where the current and ex-Ministers all live”.

“I came here because I wanted to help but the difference outsiders can make isn’t that great. You learn to savour the small victories, the people you can help. I’m going home soon but I’m determined not to forget why I started doing this work. I may have become more realistic about what I can achieve and more aware of the difficulties of changing things but I’ve not forgotten my dreams”.

W works for another agency. “I like it here because if you have a good idea and your boss likes it and you can find funding for it you can do it. That doesn’t happen in other places”.

L is making a documentary about a child soldier at the end of the civil war who is looking for his sister. He worked for the UN and based the script on people he’s met here. "It's a hell of a story, this place is full of incredible stories".

For those brave enough to seek them out there are opportunities in Sierra Leone: in diamond mines, development and (possibly) filmmaking. There’s vibrancy, adventure, tragedy and beauty here.

R is a journalist, “people say they come here to help but really we are all only here for ourselves, to get our own ‘African experience’. At the end of the day we go home and have good stories to tell but if you’re serious about changing things it takes a long time. We only come for a couple of years”.

It’s easy to be cynical about eating sushi in the world’s poorest country but that doesn’t mean these people aren’t trying, or living and working in tough conditions in the field and surviving in Freetown. There is progress, not enough, but that’s because change is really difficult. A desire for adventure and new experience isn’t a bad thing, nor is trying to make a difference.