Feb 2013

Turning up the volume on dialogue and governance in West Africa

Conciliation Resources/Clare Richards

With a common experience of devastating conflicts in their recent past, groups from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone had many similar stories to compare when they met recently in Bo, West Africa as part of a Governance and Transparency Fund project.

After enduring years of violence, it’s perhaps no surprise that the post-conflict issues played out across communities in the Mano River Union region of West Africa have marked similarities – the turmoil of the 1990s and early 2000s has sown a legacy of distrust, land disputes, corruption, underinvestment, and youth alienation.

We are from different districts but we’re one and the same people and with a unified voice we can help resolve our issues.

Rougia Toutoure, Forecariah Prefecture, Guinea

During the workshop participants reported that their neighbours commonly express frustration that distant leaders take decisions without consultation and development investment doesn’t filter through to fragile borderlands.

Through involvement with this project they’ve come to realise that community engagement in good governance is essential if their leaders are to be held to account on such issues.

To improve future prospects for peace and development, for the past four years Conciliation Resources has been working with partners in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to coordinate a project – District Platforms for Dialogue (DPD) – that’s brought notable improvements to everyday life, particularly for communities in the marginalised border regions.

Rather than attacking issues, the DPD fosters dialogue. Learning how to go about dialogue and implement strategies has helped us greatly in building confidence between civil society and power holders.

Melvin Mattia, Kambia District, Sierra Leone

With financial support from the UK Department for International Development, the Governance and Transparency Fund (GTF) is helping local communities relate to and influence local decisions that affect them.

In the process, people living in border areas are engaging in discussions and making their voice heard in debates that were previously closed to them.

During the workshop in Bo, Sierra Leone they report tangible results like improved relations with big mining companies and the increased presence of women in what continue to be male-dominated traditional leadership systems. They’re also helping more neighbours to have a voice by holding talk shows on local radio during which councillors respond to community concerns.

One of the big advantages of these groups is in us realising that one organisation and one interest area isn’t more important than another – people are bringing a range of issues to our meetings, like women’s rights and domestic violence but also youth and resource extraction problems. Together we’re finding a way through them and we can really see a difference.

Christiana Deen, Sierra Leone

To achieve this we’ve been working with our local partners the West Africa Capacity Building Centre (CENCAD) and the Institute for Research and Democratic Development (IREDD) to implement the project in 25 locations across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Conciliation Resources has provided guidance while our local partners have been travelling to each of the local community groups every month to support them in their efforts. They’re building on the training they provided in dialogue activities and advocacy to enable local people to make a difference on the issues that affect them in a way that helps to improve community relations.

The way the GTF project has been implemented has had a multiplying effect. These District Platform Dialogue groups aren’t just there for the short-term. They are based in the communities and they know and experience the problems they’re working on. That creates confidence, ownership.

Ibrahim Sillah, CENCAD

As the project’s funding comes to an end, participants joined together to talk about the successes and challenges they’ve experienced along the way and what their plans are for the months and years ahead.

Carrying out such work is not easy – coping with restricted financial resources and unreliable communications is a common theme voiced by participants across the three countries.

After years of instability, addressing the political, infrastructural, and social tensions and weaknesses that drive conflict is a heavy undertaking. However, the groups are finding strength in combining their efforts and seeing the worth of their joined-up approach.

At the culmination of the workshop, the groups report being energised about their own ability to drive change forward through dialogue activities – they pledge to be role-models for neighbouring districts in a bid to expand the DPD network from 74 to more than 300 groups over the next decade.

I feel a great sense of self-fulfilment: I’m very happy inside because of what I’ve contributed to, and also what more there is to come.

Harold Aidoo, IREDD

Given that the most recent conflicts all bubbled out of borderland tensions and community disgruntlement, they appreciate more than most just how much they have to gain by continuing to foster a culture of dialogue and responsive governance.

Find out more