Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Non-Government Organisations

The Non-Government Organisations (NGO’s) are an interesting phenomenon here in Sierra Leone and Makeni in particular. There are a huge number of different organizations providing aid of some sort or another. It is laudable that so much world attention is directed here in a poverty stricken and still war torn country. However as a casual observer over the past three months I do have some unanswered questions that trouble me.

Whilst I do not have the answers to these questions and I certainly have not studied the subject in any detail it seems from my observations that the questions may not have the best of answers.

One has to bear in mind that this is a small country with about 6 Million people in an area about the size of Ireland. It is difficult to travel around the country due to the poor state of the roads. Much of the population is rural where towns are small but with Freetown the capital as the exception.

The civil war from 1991 to 2001 was quite brutal and although sparked by diamond riches it was fuelled it seems by extreme poverty and the despair of youth. The result of the war has been to further impoverish an already poor population, break down social and government structures and destroy institutions. It is heart warming that the world organizations both Government and non-government provided massive aid once peace was declared. However one wonders whether after 5 years the welcome is overstayed. Certainly the people are still desperately poor in terms of food, health care and infrastructure but it seems to me that people have slumped into apathy and the question of whether this is prompted by the acceptance that services will be provided almost entirely by the international community then renders any Salonean effort worthless. One personal example is my question of the community as to why they were reluctant to pay local taxes. A common refrain is that the NGO community will provide the service, so why pay for local government to supplant them. This came as a complete but understandable surprise.

It is important for me to describe a typical set up of the NGO here. From my vantage point on the ground in Makeni and traveling to urban areas Freetown, Bo and Kenema I have seen what seems to me, to be an enormous profusion of different organizations each branded with their own set of equipment, people and real estate. The typical set up is a prison like base compound, walled and protected with a large stylized emblem of the occupants and inside but highly visible, a large white satellite dish. The more important International NGO (compared to a lowly local NGO) also has another similar compound as a residence elsewhere. There, it seems by status requirement, a series of recent model white Toyota 4x4 Landcruisers specially adapted with important looking huge antennae mounted on the front grill and swept back to hook into the aft of the vehicle. The exhaust is adapted, so that unlike a normal vehicle it protrudes up the side and to the roof line so that treks across deep river beds are possible as well as climbs up steep rock strewn mountain sides. Mounted prominently on the doors and elsewhere is the emblem of the organization. I have photos of at least 70 different emblems from parked vehicles that I have casually come across. I have to admit to some keen train spotting like excitement at the sight of one I havn’t logged. The large majority of the vehicles are polished, shiny, and without a scratch contrasting enormously with the fewer private vehicles that without exception are all very well used throw offs from other countries displaying varying degrees of body damage, suspension problems and rust. The NGO vehicles move about the towns almost ghost like and sometimes in convoy but always at an unreasonable and to me a dangerous speed. It must be explained that streets are small without sidewalks (pavements) and the ordinary people are without transportation and thus walk along the road. Moreover the roads are heavily potholed so that vehicles often swerve mogul skiing style so that pedestrians are at high risk of injury or worse. Last night in Bo a CARE NGO vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian. I know this because I had my travelers checks stolen yesterday and in reporting this to the police (another story) an enormous hullabaloo ensued and the driver of the Care vehicle was tossed in jail for his own good.

I hate to dwell on the NGO vehicles but they really are striking. The cost of the vehicles must be well north of $100,000 and to put this into perspective, the popular lottery in Sierra Leone has a life altering jackpot of $10,000. Needless to say the impression of the NGO vehicle is of daunting power, of which the average Salonean can not even dream. Moreover the NGO seems detached from the population evidenced by the closed windows of the vehicles (air conditioning) and the fortified compounds. The people who staff the NGO are rarely seen in person around town but move even short distances in their vehicles lest the local population somehow infect them. The overall impression of the NGO vehicles from the street is quite strange and I think of the simile of the African Lion Safari near Toronto (and SOSA my gliding club) where cars move among the roaming animals. The scene here is very similar. Now I know how the animals feel when I fly my glider overhead.

From the normal Salonean’s point of view the NGO is a very detached and almost inhuman force come to invade and supposedly help them. Instead the average person on the street sees very little advantage apart from the economic stimulus of the money that is openly spent in the bars, provisions stores and withdrawn from the bank. These occasions seem to be the only times that the NGO personnel will dare to mingle at a distance with the population. Unlike western countries most people here move about on foot and much of the social interaction is done on the street. By withdrawing from this in such an obvious way the NGOers draw much ire, although not publicly spoken. The NGO vehicles, the compounds and the detached opportos inside only serve to highlight the huge and obvious gulf of disadvantage suffered by the local population. Moreover if the NGO people are the masters and the epitome of success, no wonder that the average Sierra Leonean rice seller feels disenchanted, third class and apathetic about the prospects of advancement.

There is obviously a need for some help in this country but one wonders how much and to what extent. From what I have seen there are the more serious and well organized NGOs like Action Faim and War Child that impress me and there are the “softer” organizations that are often local in nature and seem less focused in their objectives. Certainly the organisations and their responsibilities overlap; they sometimes admit this even to me. However they all compete vigorously for donor funds for their own survival and rarely talk of closing down or merging. The search for funds seems to me to be a major driving force and is talked about more than the needs of Saloneans. Then I wonder about the front line people like Medicines Sans Frontiers who normally operate MASH like in warring countries. Their presence here seems exaggerated in what appears now to be a relatively peaceful country. Overall there is little co-ordination, certainly not in Makeni and one wonders whether the donor funds are used to benefit Saloneans or Toyota (sorry, that was below the belt!).

It must be remembered that my perspective is very limited and I can just see things from the ground rather than with any hard information. Perhaps there are greater benefits. The VSO organization that sent me here has I think a good model. Share skills and then leave to let the local people take over. The volunteers live among the population and walk the streets and thus there is an attempt to be part of the community. Importantly my project, as an example, is an attempt to get the community to stand on it’s own feet from a tax revenue perspective. I think it will succeed as long as people feel a need. If international donors and others continue to provide a never ending stream of everything from schools to houses, health care, well digging and goats then what incentive is there for the Saloneans to do this for themselves? Admittedly life is unpleasant, dangerous and quite miserable for many but people have to be encouraged to take charge. Instead what I see is a lot of apathy especially among the huge and growing number of unemployed youth. Let’s remember that this section of the community fuelled the war for 10 years and could be a tinderbox for further similar discontent.This is a large subject and perhaps many have studied the problem. I’d be interested to read more. Perhaps Suzanne can give me a few hints.


My name is Emily and I'm living and working in Freetown at the moment. I found your blog through Judith Muster, who is friends with one of your children...I think...at any rate, this blog entry of yours got me thinking as well and I like the pictures. There are so many NGOs here...and what do they all do??
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