Understanding conflict and evolving rights-based responses: CARE International’s experience in Sierra Leone
by Steve Archibald and Paul Richards April 2002

The illicit diamond trade often features prominently in discussions of the ‘causes’ of the conflict in Sierra Leone. This preoccupation with political economy downplays the political and social inequalities that have also driven conflict, and misses valuable opportunities to break the cycle of violence.

The most recent conflict in Sierra Leone is merely the latest episode in a cycle of violence stretching back more than a century. CARE is developing a clearer understanding of the issues that people believe have fed and maintained the conflict. In April 2000, we began research examining whether a human rights framework would be useful in helping us better understand the ‘root causes’ of the conflict, and to explore what the practical implications of this might be for our activities. CARE’s Rights-Based Approach to Food Security Project is the first practical output of the research. The project encompasses human rights and governance issues, and supports ‘inductive’ processes, wherein villagers evolve locally relevant expressions of key human rights principles, and aim to devise mechanisms to ensure their observance. The research has facilitated and documented scores of meetings, involving thousands of people in remote villages in CARE’s current and past operational areas. One of the questions asked is: ‘Why do you think the war happened?’ Preliminary findings reveal widespread and deep-rooted problems of social, economic and political marginalisation, particularly of young people and women. The emerging picture is one of disenfranchisement, discontent and impending social disorder, against a background of deep distrust of ‘traditional’ authority and governance structures.

Aspects of inequality

Initial analysis of the research data is feeding into an assessment of the impact of CARE’s work. As is common NGO practice in Sierra Leone, CARE has operational links with local Village Development Committees (VDCs) and other authority structures. These operational arrangements were discussed during the community consultations. Respondents repeatedly alleged that local hierarchies had systematically manipulated NGO systems and misappropriated project inputs on a significant scale. A review of reports on chiefdom consultations conducted for the Paramount Chiefs Restoration Unit (the PRU, situated within the government’s Governance Reform Secretariat) found similar allegations in other geographical areas.

In the project areas, the allegations appear justified. Some recipient groups prioritised by the previous food security projects did not receive assistance. Respondents said that intended project participants, including internally displaced people and recent returnees, were unlikely to have ‘friends’ in positions of authority, and were therefore less likely to receive assistance. Interviews and checks of registration and distribution lists confirmed that many intended recipients were excluded. In virtually every case assessed, actual recipients included VDC members, village chiefs, local authorities and their families. While everyone in the project areas could readily be regarded as ‘in need’, those in positions of authority generally have stronger assets and support networks. Access to NGO resources represents just such an asset and opportunity. Respondents frequently alleged that NGO field staff were either involved in, or aware of, graft. In this instance, field staff are often working in their ‘home areas’, where friends and family still reside; there are many opportunities for those in positions of power and authority to apply pressure on those distributing resources. The misappropriation of inputs and consequent exclusion from aid of ‘less powerful’ groups suggests that the humanitarian effort may be channelling resources through a system that creates grievance, division and disorder, thereby compounding the problems that have contributed to violence.

Misappropriation of aid is one of the issues most frequently raised during the community consultations. Others relate to past and present problems of governance and basic rights that, if not resolved, will generate further conflict. They include:

  • lack of awareness of the law: ‘chiefs make up the law’;
  • maladministration of justice, including the arbitrary imposition of disproportionately high fines, mainly on young people, for minor infractions;
  • lack of accountability or transparency within local governance and justice structures;
  • little popular participation in the political process;
  • exclusion of social groups (including women and young people) from decision-making;
  • no education facilities and ‘no opportunities’; and
  • very limited awareness of human rights.

The research consultations revealed an eagerness to address fundamental issues of rights and justice, and to do so openly in order to mitigate further conflict. Respondents said that what they lacked, or had been denied, was a recognised, structured forum for debate. Because of this, grievances were suppressed and never resolved, resulting in an environment of rumour and suspicion that was always susceptible to manipulation and conflict.

Dr Dennis Bright of the Commission for the Consolidation of Peace in Freetown helped in the search for a suitable forum by suggesting that CARE might propose supporting the re-institution of traditional feast days. Once widespread in Sierra Leone, these events provided fora for the resolution of family and community quarrels. In early 2001, a CARE-funded pilot project began in ten villages in a chiefdom ‘section’ in central Sierra Leone. It was agreed that these events should be called ‘Peace and Rights Days’. The pilot supported a series of such days at village level for a year. CARE provides food and facilitation. Communities construct meeting places, contribute food and accommodate attendees from neighbouring villages. Every individual in the section is invited. The day provides a forum for the open discussion of issues identified by the community. The starting-point for the discussions is that every person has the right to adequate food for his or her family and that, within the CARE project, every person has the right to an equal amount of seed. In the weeks leading up to a Peace and Rights Day, every individual with the will and ability to farm is registered, and the day itself culminates with the public distribution of 5kg ‘starter packs’ of seed to each recipient, along with a discussion of any deficiencies in the system.

The debate about equitable access to NGO inputs is the catalyst for a discussion of broader issues related to community-level development, rights and governance. Discussions are facilitated and recorded by villagers, local conciliators and CARE staff. Plenary groups and focus groups of women, young people, chiefs and elders focus attention on specific problems, and propose practical measures to resolve them. Thus, at village level the primary objective of the project is to encourage more inclusive, transparent and accountable community-based governance structures. Discussing equitable access to CARE’s project inputs prompts discussion about the broader development process, and how the definition and representation of priorities can be made more inclusive. Steps to achieve the objectives are agreed and follow-up meetings with CARE staff and local facilitators are scheduled for the intervening period between Peace Days (about six months).

Linking local initiatives with national structures

The local resolution of rights and governance problems has only limited utility if this is not ‘connected’ to the appropriate authorities. Ultimately, local processes should be able to make reference to the relevant governance, legal and human rights frameworks at chiefdom, district and national levels. Within this proposition lies the critical issue of social membership – being recognised as a citizen. Amongst the prerequisites for this are: awareness of the governance framework, the law and citizens’ rights; effective representation; and responsive, transparent and accountable governance.

The government of Sierra Leone is working on the reinstitution of local governance structures. A vibrant human rights community is also emerging. Each ‘project’ will be more likely to achieve its ultimate goals if it is connected with, and responding to, initiatives voicing ‘grassroots’ issues. However, there are many practical constraints, not least the remoteness of many locations, and the lack of transport and communications. Democratic structures and processes may not exist in rural areas.

The aim of the Peace Days is to get functioning, democratic community representation in place and ready to engage with the agencies of governance reform, the human rights community and government or non-governmental development agencies. To this end, the Peace Day communities are electing committees of women, young people and elders which they hope, eventually, will act as mechanisms for representation, regulation and enforcement at local level, and also to represent their respective issues at ‘higher’ levels within the chiefdom and district structures.

These mechanisms will take time to evolve to a point where the majority regard them as representative. Ultimately, they are long-term goals that require commitment from CARE and its partner communities. The recent acquisition of funding for a three-year period enables CARE to lay the foundations on which the project will be built. Other encouraging progress has been made during the pilot project, with local human rights organisations and a representative from the PRU involved in the fieldwork.

Establishing links with relevant organisations is essential at this early stage, and will become still more important as the project progresses. As rights organisations and governance structures materialise from the ‘centre’, it becomes increasingly important that they are connected with emergent democratic processes and structures in rural areas. In addition to technical support on food security issues, the role of CARE’s Rights-Based Approach to Food Security Project is to identify and facilitate useful linkages between village- and section-level groups, and the appropriate governmental or non-governmental entities at chiefdom, district and national levels. Ultimately, the project aims to re-establish food security in CARE’s operational areas; support fora for the democratic resolution of community-identified problems; increase awareness of rights and governance codes; and facilitate connections between the resultant rural capacities and their urban counterparts.

In Sierra Leone, many of the tensions that fed and maintained violence persist, their effects felt most by the poor and disenfranchised. A more focused effort to understand these issues may help to identify practical options for relief and rehabilitation projects to engage with some of the most important challenges. Through its action-research, CARE Sierra Leone will continue to develop and apply rights-based approaches to its other sectoral activities, and will disseminate the findings of the research to relevant departments of the government, as well as to donors and other NGOs.

Steve Archibald is Project Manager, Conflict and Human Rights Project, CARE International UK. His email address is Archibald@ciuk.org. Paul Richards is Professor of Technology and Agrarian Development at Wageningen University, the Netherlands; e-mail: Paul.Richards@Alg.tao.wau.nl

The action-research and the design of the Rights-Based Approach to Food Security Project are the initial results of an ongoing collaborative initiative sponsored by CARE and the Social Science Research Council (New York), led by Steve Archibald and Paul Richards.

An edited version of this paper first appeared in CARE’s Rights and Responsibilities newsletter in October 2001.

References and further reading

Abdullahi A. An-Naim, ‘Human Rights and the Challenge of Relevance: A Case of Collective Rights’, in M. Castermans-Holleman, Fr. Van Hoof and J. Smith (eds.), The Role of the Nation-State in the 21st Century: Human Rights, International Organizations and Foreign Policy. Essays in Honour of Peter Baehr (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1998).

Steve Archibald and Paul Richards, Cultivating Human Rights: Addressing Root Causes of Forced Migration through Rights-Based Humanitarianism. Draft report, Social Science Research Council Human Rights and Forced Migration Project, 2001.

Paul Richards, Fighting for the Rain Forest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone (London: Heinemann, 1996).