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Published on 14 June 2023

In February Christian Aid’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Patrick Watt, travelled to Sierra Leone to see Christian Aid’s programme first-hand and spend time with partners, funders, and political and religious leaders in the country. Here Patrick shares his reflection on the trip.

It was 18 years since I’d last visited, while working for another organisation, and much had changed – a lot of it for the better. The most visible scars from the brutal civil war have gone; the road network has improved, and civil society is vibrant and effective. On the flip side, both in Freetown and in travelling to Pujehun district and Bo, in the southeast of the country, it was clear that environmental pressures are rising from a combination of climate change and local degradation, with deforestation a growing problem for both rural and urban communities. For a country heavily dependent on food and fuel imports, COVID and the war in Ukraine is hitting Sierra Leonean’s economy hard.  

Christian Aid has been working in Pujehun, which is one of the most rural, least densely populated, and poorest districts of Sierra Leone, for over twenty years. Aside from some diamond mining, the economy is almost entirely agricultural. The land is verdant and productive, but the storage and distribution infrastructure to get products to market is minimal, and access to credit and market information is often lacking.

I spent a day in Pujehun, meeting Christian Aid partners SEND and RADA, and local government in the district offices. I also visited one of the 20 villages where we’ve supported the creation of Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs). The Women’s Empowerment and Leadership project (WEEL) project in Pujehun and Kailahun districts is designed to strengthen women’s economic and social roles, given the close connection between gender inequality and poverty. The current project only started in May 2022, and although it builds on prior work with VSLAs in the area, it’s still too early to draw any substantial conclusions from this latest iteration of the work.

However, two things particularly struck me. Firstly, significant non-financial benefits appear to be flowing from our work in setting up the savings union in Pujehun. It was striking to hear from the women involved in the savings union and the staff in the partner organisation about the project's more comprehensive benefits. Women in the two communities we visited told us they have increased confidence and access to information and can better participate in markets. We were told this has resulted as much from access to mobile technology, as we are partnering with a private mobile phone company with national coverage, as from the skills gained from community organising and the running of the VSLAs, and the added financial security provided by the savings union - although the introduction of mobile banking does appear to make savings easier to manage and less vulnerable to theft. These less immediately quantifiable benefits need to be captured in the ongoing learning and evaluation of the project, alongside progress against the baseline for savings and mobile phone usage.

The integrated approach to the project – which links to efforts to boost women’s political participation in local government and health-seeking behaviour- also plays a part in these broader social benefits. I met with a local woman, Mary Selous, the first woman in a culturally conservative and predominantly Muslim district to be elected to the council due to the programme we’re supporting. She described how new women councillors had changed dynamics in the district, put issues that significantly matter to women up the agenda, and increased transparency and political participation. These political changes may have played a role in the reduction in maternal and child deaths reported by the district medical officer in Pujehun town. The effects of increased political participation by women on community perceptions of the effectiveness of local governance need to be tracked systematically over time across the project sites – and measured against the situation in communities not reached by our work.

The other thing I took away from the visit was the need for further investment in advocacy to improve market access for communities participating in the savings union. I was told that the transport and communications infrastructure in the district has improved, and it was clear that much work has been done recently on the road network. This has the potential to lower the cost of getting goods to market and the cost of inputs for farmers and small businesses. However, I suspect more work is needed to create a more robust enabling environment for SMEs and smallholder farmers, support economic diversification and progress up the value chain for women participating in the savings schemes. These are areas that colleagues in Sierra Leone are keen to explore as they look to scale up the WEEL project and provide better evidence of its impact.

Reflections on the visit

Overall, I left Sierra Leone encouraged by the reports of positive impact in our work, both in Pujehun and in the other parts of the country in which we work, impressed by the quality of our partners and their broad and deep links with communities, and inspired by how our programme is working to fully integrate our strategic approach to poverty, power, and prophetic voice.  With deep cuts to UK aid for Sierra Leone in recent years, this work is more reliant than ever on private donations and new funding sources. Fortunately, we’re seeing new funders who are buying into the focus and ambition of our work and want to follow the programme's story as it develops.

Image credits and information i
Patrick in Sierra Leone Credit: Christian Aid
Image of Patrick in Sierra Leone, with colleagues

This short video covers Patrick visiting the community where the ITL project is up and running.

Patrick's visit to WEEL

This short video covers Patrick visiting the community where the ITL project is up and running.