This was my first trip to Africa. I was traveling with a group researching the challenges Sierra Leone faces in building peace since the end of its 11-year war that lasted from 1991 to 2002. I had realistic expectations for the two-week visit, and I also had high hopes for falling in love with a new place. What I was not prepared for turned out to be their expectations for my visit. It turned out those expectations were quite high.
In hindsight I am not surprised that the people in Sierra Leone expected to receive money and other aid from a white person visiting their country from the West. After all, most of the people on our flight were going to Sierra Leone to build health clinics or for other aid-related work. I was another Westerner visiting Sierra Leone, but I had a very different mission there - to understand how my research in Sierra Leone fits into the larger picture of international aid and peacebuilding.
In the village I was relieved to learn that the villagers had a plan for themselves. They envision building a new community center with a tin roof to replace the current grass roof, which does not last through the rainy season. The villagers also plan improvements to their mosque. I was impressed with the work that the villagers had already done to clear a “road” through the bush so that visitors like us might come. The village was the exception, though. Most of the people we met seemed used to receiving money and donations from foreigners. It felt like they had come to expect help from the outside at the expense of their own sense of responsibility and empowerment.
I am still struggling to reconcile the role of the international community with the need for true grassroots, ground up, local visioning and action. I was surprised that the expectations for a group like ours were so high, and I was disappointed that some locals are not already doing more on their own. At the same time, I witnessed that the reality in Sierra Leone is one of desperate need. How much can locals be expected to envision a peaceful and prosperous future when they cannot feed their families today? Sierra Leone’s unemployment is higher than 50%. Many children are not able to attend school. Many young adults are struggling to make their way because they came of age during the war, and had no opportunity to do more than barely survive.
There is no question that the international community has some responsibility to help the people of Sierra Leone who may not be able to help themselves. I am concerned that the current efforts are not enough. Sierra Leone is in much the same situation now as it was before the war broke out. The efforts at peacebuilding to date, while noble, have not been enough by themselves. Unfortunately, Western aid has had the negative effect of creating unsustainable expectations that have led to a perpetuation of the status quo in Sierra Leone. Well-intentioned foreign aid has led people to wait for more and more aid to come.
The reality is that aid is not enough. Real and lasting change needs to come from within the people of Sierra Leone themselves. I know the desire for change is there; I saw it in their eyes and heard it in their voices. I know the international community is ready and willing to help. If the desire for a better future could be strategically coordinated with available resources, Sierra Leone would have a bright future indeed. Conflict brings the opportunity for change, unfortunately sometimes in the most violent way. Sierra Leone has an opportunity for change now. This is the opportunity that must be taken advantage of before it slips away. It would heartbreaking for Sierra Leone to have experienced all of the conflict and not to benefit from the change it so desperately wants and needs.
Heidi Zirtzlaff was in Sierra Leone for a two-week course led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Heidi's blog is part of a series of reflections by Dr. Iyer and her students on the challenges to building peace in this war-ravaged country. -Ed.
Heidi Zirtzlaff studies international policy and conflict resolution at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, California, USA. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College, Massachusetts, USA. Heidi has studied abroad in Moscow, Tbilisi, Reykjavik, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Strasbourg, Amsterdam and Geneva. Through her travels, Heidi has come to believe that we all have more in common than we have in conflict. It is this belief that sustains Heidi’s hope for peace and understanding, even in today’s world.