In Sierra Leone, elections are not the whole story

Lakka, Sierra Leone. While the African country’s road to democracy is paved with challenges, the real test is whether Sierra Leoneans will hold elected leaders to account. Photo by: Eduardo Fonseca Arraes

This Saturday, Sierra Leone will elect a new president, parliament and local leaders. The hope is that these Nov. 17 elections — the third since the civil war ended in 2002 — will consolidate peace. But elections alone, critical as they are, will not be enough to get Sierra Leone on track.

For that, Sierra Leone needs engaged citizens who will hold the new government to account. Alie Forna is a great example.

I met Alie on my first trip to Sierra Leone in 1990. He had just launched a local nongovernmental organization called the Association for Rural Development, dedicated to finding local solutions to development problems. I had committed to volunteer with ARD for a year. Alie and I shared a small office, often without electricity, and talked about Sierra Leone’s poverty and disenfranchised people, and his determination that ARD would make a dent in these huge challenges.

Alie had high hopes for his country, but he has had to fight hard to sustain those hopes in the two decades since 1991, when civil war broke out, sparked by rebel incursions from Liberia and an attempt to overthrow then-president Joseph Momoh. The war tore apart communities and upended the social order. Thousands fled their homes to escape the violence that ultimately left more than 50,000 dead and countless others scarred physically and psychologically. In a country where elders were revered, child soldiers suddenly found new authority fueled by weapons, drugs, and brainwashing.

The upheaval turned Sierra Leone into a fragile state. This concept of “fragility” has become increasingly important to international donors in recent years. Their response to fragility has typically been some form of state-building assistance. But just as the upcoming election is a necessary but not sufficient condition for peace in Sierra Leone, so state-building assistance is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient for enduring development.

The U.K. Department for International Development is one agency that understands the need for a broader conception of state-building that includes state-citizen relationships. In Sierra Leone and elsewhere, DFID funds long-term programs that strengthen these bonds and nurture the ability of citizens to raise their voices and hold government to account.

Recent research by the World Bank supports this view and recasts fragility as more than an index of state capacity. The report, “Societal Dynamics and Fragility: Engaging Societies in Responding to Fragile Situations,” finds that fragility has as much to do with the health of relationships in a society, especially those fundamental relationships too often undermined by perceptions of injustice across groups.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Sierra Leone, where bonds of trust and accountability have been broken for at least 20 years. One way to strengthen people’s trust in the government is to improve their access to security and justice, and to enhance the quality of the service they receive. Important to this effort is work at the grass-roots level with civil society organizations that are advocates for change and for legal empowerment. Unless the newly elected leaders in Sierra Leone address widespread perceptions of injustice, Sierra Leone will not develop in ways that benefit its people. And changing people’s perceptions of justice and security is as important as strengthening the formal and nonformal institutions that provide these services.

Positive change is sorely needed. Currently, Sierra Leone falls near the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index, ranking 180th out of 187 in 2011. Progress has been minimal since 1990, the first year the report was issued.

To break this pattern Sierra Leone must change the relationship between citizens and the state. Elected leaders committed to breaking the bonds of patronage and corruption would help. But citizens working outside official office, often at the community level where the needs are acute, will ultimately make the difference — by creating the conditions in which Sierra Leoneans come to demand accountability of their government.

Alie Forna is one such leader. Over the years, ARD has evolved from a grass-roots development group into the leading microfinance organization in Sierra Leone. ARD makes loans to people who would not normally have access to formal banking systems. It has more than 15,000 active clients — 70 percent of them women — and has disbursed more than $1.9 million in loans ranging from $100 to $1,600.

While one can debate the impact of a single microfinance program, the true achievement of ARD lies in its contributions to social cohesion. By fostering trust and collaboration in the course of thousands of transactions, Alie and ARD have laid foundations on which a more stable and prosperous Sierra Leone could find its feet.

“Access to loans for purposes of investing in productive and profitable income-generating activities has not only improved livelihoods but has made it possible for ordinary people to be more actively engaged in the democratic process without fear or favor,” Alie said. “After all, they are now less dependent on the political class for their survival.”

More than 9,000 monitors will oversee Sierra Leone’s election. Many of these are national observers supported by international teams from the European Union, as well as smaller delegations such as those fielded by the Carter Center and a delegation led by former President of Zambia Rupia Banda.

The real test of Sierra Leone’s democracy, however, is not whether Sierra Leone can freely elect its leaders but whether Sierra Leoneans will hold those leaders to account. Active citizens like Alie Forna are the key to making that happen.

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About the author

  • Ann hudock

    Ann Hudock

    Dr. Ann Hudock is senior vice president for strategy and growth at Counterpart International. Bringing more than 25 years of international development experience, Dr. Hudock leads efforts to grow Counterpart’s global program portfolio by cultivating new funders and building on the organization’s body of work with new approaches to promote civic participation and government accountability.

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