Assistant Professor of Political Science Melissa Labonte is spending 10 days in Sierra Leone and will send occasional dispatches from there – depending on the reliability of the power supply and her Internet connection. Here is her first post:
I am here conducting research that builds on issues related to Sierra Leone peacebuilding that I first started exploring in 2008. Why Sierra Leone? Two reasons: one, it is one of the first two cases that the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission, which itself was established in 2005, has been mandated to oversee. (The other is Burundi, and the UNPBC now has at least four or five other countries under its purview); two, Sierra Leone continues to be one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, ranking 180th out of the 180 countries participating in the UN Development Programme‘s Human Development Index. More than 70 percent of the population is illiterate; average lifespan is about 40; more women die in childbirth here than in any other country (one in six); and the under five child mortality rate is the worst in the world. In spite of enormous natural resource wealth (diamonds, rutile, iron ore and even some gold), the country struggles economically. Well over 80 percent of the population lives on less than one dollar a day. So, from a social science perspective, it represents a kind of “least likely” case from which to examine the relatively “new” concept of peacebuilding from the field level.
OK, enough of the academic mumbo-jumbo.What am I studying here? In a nutshell, it’s partnership design for peacebuilding programs and projects, and whether and how local authority structures are integrated into those designs. Local authority structures means the chiefdom system and the district councils, both of which have been resurrected by the national government in Freetown in order to decentralize authority down to the community level and re-connect the rural areas to the capital through service provision, good governance, and accountability. Yawn??? Nope. It’s actually a very progressive idea, one that is sorely needed here.
Local authorities have a great deal of legitimacy and authenticity in Sierra Leone. These structures were obliterated by the 1991-2002 civil war. Re-establishing them could help to ameliorate one of the root causes of the war: the marginalization of the rural population from the privileged in Freetown. But the devil is truly in the details; when peacebuilding programs that are designed to service an entire district or even a small number of villages (or portions of the capital city) are crafted, they can either tap local knowledge (through chiefdom actors or district officials), or not. They can be designed in faraway places like New York and London, or they can be worked out in close consultation with the communities they are meant to serve.
Most scholars prefer the latter type of program design over the former, claiming that local voice and ownership are the right ways to design peacebuilding projects. This seems logical and, on paper, would appear to be a pretty safe thing to conclude. But it isn’t that straightforward when you look at the issue from the field level. The political economy of the influx of resources from peacebuilding, coupled with the temptation of corruption and power consolidation at the local level, means that creating local buy-in for peacebuilding from key stakeholders may, in fact, perpetuate and even exacerbate social marginalization and exclusion of vulnerable parts of these local communities. Moreover, national ministries who are now mandated to let go of portions of their development and peacebuilding portfolios are loath to do so.
Why would they? It means cutting staff and budgets, which are already under great stress. So they resist. This further complicates decentralization, and actually creates greater incentives at the local level to “grab” peacebuilding resources as they trickle down to the chiefdom and district level.
Now, I’m only here for 10 days. I am very grateful for the support that Fordham has given me to do this, as it would not be possible to do without that. However, I have to keep my expectations in check about what I can reasonably find out in such a short stay. One of my colleagues here has said that researchers who come to Sierra Leone for a week think they can write a book; those that stay a month realize they can only write an article; and those that say for a year can’t write anything because, by then, they understand how complex the issues of post-conflict transitioning are.
It’s been a wild ride since arriving. Most people only know the name Sierra Leone because of the 2006 movie, “Blood Diamond,” but that movie’s depiction of the country is a gross representation, really. The war was always about much more than diamonds and the national struggle to transition away from war holds a multitude of challenges that can’t be slotted into neatly defined categories. It seems trite to say that Sierra Leone is complex, but it simply is. I’m just hoping to be able to sort the answers to questions representing but a small part of this nation’s attempt to consolidate peace and create sustainable livelihoods for its people.