Following a trip to Sierra Leone, Mwananchi communications officer Jessica Sinclair Taylor, blogs about a project working in the diamond district to help young people talk to their representatives about unemployment and accountability.
Kono, Sierra Leone: cut off from the rest of the country by mud roads, and still bearing visible scars from the ten year civil war which decimated the district, famous for its diamond mines and its political volatility, Kono is an embodiment of the extreme challenges faced by the country. Young people, a third of Sierra Leone’s population, are restless: they struggle to find work, and little of the mineral wealth that the district contributes to the national revenue seems to trickle down to Kono’s residents. A recent article on increasing drug and alcohol addiction among young Sierra Leoneans describes just one of the dangers of long term unemployment.
The Mwananchi Programme is working with local partners to try to find ways for youth to reach out to their representatives and be heard. Given that a large youth population and rich natural resource base are characteristics shared by many African countries, innovative approaches to ensuring that young people are able to build sustainable futures from their countries’ natural wealth are highly relevant.
While the district was generally peaceful during the elections last year, a few weeks after our visit protestors clashed with police over poor working conditions in the mines and high unemployment. We met nineteen year old Kumba, who said ‘it is a big struggle to get jobs,’ adding ‘but this is our land, there is nowhere else to go.’ The Chairman of the district Youth Commission, Ibrahim Fanday, said that young people feel marginalized and ignored by the chiefs and MPs who represent them: MPs are often absent from their constituencies for long periods, and local chiefs unresponsive to the needs and wishes of marginalized groups such as young people and women.
Working with local NGO, Democracy Sierra Leone, youth groups have started to work to make their voices heard. In 2012 they organised a meeting with fourteen local chiefs and 200 other stakeholders at which brought the chiefs face to face with their constituents and the issues they faced. Traditional leaders in Kono have influence with the mining companies, so getting their commitment to the project was key. The meeting helped address underlying inter-generational tensions between young people and the chiefs, who agreed to support the initiation of a basket fund, using contributions from mining companies to support skills training for young people. This won’t address the chronic insecurity which characterizes employments at the mines, but will hopefully begin to provide more options, as well as a starting point for cooperation between the traditional leaders and young people.
Acutely aware of the need for transparency in a system where corruption is an everyday fact of life, Ibrahim said that the basket fund would be monitored by representatives from each area of the district, who would be kept informed of how much money came into the fund and what it was to be used for. The project’s ambition is to offer skills training to 140 young people each year, improving their chances of gaining secure employment. It will also provide an ongoing link between young people and the chiefs channeling the funds, creating opportunities for dialogue and engagement in the long term.
Keeping up the momentum is no easy task, and the youth groups will continue to need support from DSL to follow up with their chiefs and attract support from their MPs. To prevent this progress from stagnating, DSL will support the youth groups to follow up with the chiefs on their commitment to the basket fund, use the Local Council Act to lobby on the council’s duties and to lobby Ministry of Labour to engage on the insecurity faced by mine workers in Kono.
The tactics of this project show the value in public meetings between marginalized groups and those in authority to create social pressure for inclusion and accountability: the public nature of the constituent meeting can be leveraged to keep the chiefs to their word. By bringing together a well organised local youth structure with a civil society group, the young people benefit from the greater knowledge of the workings of local governance. By involving the youth leaders at every stage of the meetings with chiefs and duty-bearers, meanwhile, DSL gains the credibility of real citizens’ views and wishes and ensures that the project aims are tailored to the young people’s wishes. Boundary partners, such as other civil society organisations in Freetown with closer access to Ministry officials, are important allies to put a top-down as well as bottom-up pressure on action in the district.
Watch Ibrahim talk about the project here:
The rules of the game are heavily stacked against young people in Kono - but, with help, they are finding ways to channel their frustration into constructive dialogue.
Next week, hear from one project in Malawi which is using recordings of citizens' views to encourage duty-bearers to engage with needs.