UK has decided Sierra Leonean lives 'matter less,' NGO leader says

A girl walks past a shack with a painted Union Jack in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo by: Katrina Manson / Reuters

U.K. politicians ordering cuts to the aid budget have decided that lives in Sierra Leone “matter less,” according to a co-founder of a leading Sierra Leonean NGO.

Chernor Bah, co-CEO at Purposeful, a charity focused on the rights of women and girls, launched a scathing attack on the aid cuts and warned that the British government’s reputation would take a “significant dent” in Sierra Leone.

Projects supporting girls in the West African country have already closed, which will cause “real impact on real lives,” according to Bah. “I don’t think there’s any way we can sugarcoat that. Lives are going to be affected in very significant ways.”

Bah’s comments were made during a Devex Newsmaker event, to be streamed online Monday, March 29. U.K. aid has funded Purposeful to deliver sexual health and empowerment programs for teenage girls in the country.

“These cuts will put a significant dent on that reputation of the British government because more and more people are aware … [of] the bitter nature of these cuts..”

— Chernor Bah, co-CEO, Purposeful

Aid funding to Sierra Leone is minor compared with the wealth of U.K. businesses working in the country, particularly in the extractives sector, Bah said. The cuts affect “lifesaving work providing girls access to education, health, social capital,” he added. “These are political decisions that are being made by politicians … who do not understand the impact of these [cuts], have never been in these rooms, these communities.”

The aid cuts are “entirely on the politicians” — rather than Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office officials — “who decide that these lives, these people in communities we work, they matter less,” Bah said. “So for us and organizations like us, it’s affecting — significantly — our work.”

The cuts hit Purposeful’s work “particularly hard” because “even in normal times, access to resources for girls, for women, are extremely constrained,” Bah said. Despite receiving what he described as “essentially pocket change,” the organization has to “go through countless hoops to even be part of these conversations,” he added.

Bah warned that despite the “good brand” of the U.K. government in Sierra Leone and a “strong connection” between the two governments, the aid cuts would likely harm their relationship.

“I think these cuts will put a significant dent on that reputation of the British government because more and more people are aware, getting an understanding [of] the bitter nature of these cuts,” Bah said.

The U.K. government announced in November that it would not be meeting the legally enshrined aid-spending target of 0.7% of gross national income, and it has not yet specified criteria for when full spending will resume. The decision has left a £4.5 billion funding gap on short notice, causing widespread disruption to development projects.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.