Peacebuilding in Sierra Leone: where to from here?

As Sierra Leone takes the lead in its peacebuilding process, external actors have to rethink the way they support the country.

The closing of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL) on 31 March was a celebrated milestone in the UN’s work in the small West African country.

The UN had taken over from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1999 as a result of the Lomé Peace Agreement, and helped to end a long civil war. Now, 15 years later, the UN reports that Sierra Leone has shown ‘remarkable achievements’ in the strengthening of institutions and in safeguarding stability and promoting democracy.

Indeed, the withdrawal of the United Nations mission presents an important benchmark within the larger peacebuilding process in the country. Sierra Leone is a good example of how continuous support, assistance in developing capacities and engaging with local and national leadership can help to produce success stories.

However, many other steps have yet to be achieved by the country. This means that although the international community deserves to be commended for their good work in the country, they should now try a very different role – that of supporting a country’s peacebuilding process without being in the driver’s seat.

Good signs are coming from Sierra Leone in terms of taking leadership in this process. Sierra Leone has presented plans to continue consolidating its peacebuilding process by implementing frameworks that address potential sources of fragility in the country. The most notable of these is the Agenda for Prosperity, in which the government outlines its aim to reach middle-income country status within 25 years.

Sierra Leone has made considerable progress, but the process is far from complete

The Agenda for Prosperity was particularly influenced by the findings of the Fragility Assessment conducted by the country. The assessment is one of the mechanisms used to implement the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, an international platform that aims to change the way in which the international community deals with post-conflict countries.

The Fragility Assessment points strongly to the need for continued support from external actors to avoid a relapse of conflict and assist in development in the long term. Sierra Leone thus acknowledges that while it has made considerable progress in making society more resilient and less prone to conflict, the process is far from complete. The country sees itself in a stage of transition, where there are still several structural issues that need to be addressed.

As one of the pilot countries for the New Deal – along with Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and others – Sierra Leone’s Fragility Assessment identifies three key challenges. These are challenges in governance processes, which lead to a lack of consistency and effectiveness; capacity constraints, particularly in relation to limited resources, personnel and skills; and finally the differences between various regions in the country, since conditions vary dramatically across Sierra Leone.

External actors must find ways to deal with what is often an irregular process

To support the country in overcoming those challenges, international actors need to develop new approaches in empowering national actors and processes. ‘Money alone is not a solution to this problem,’ President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Donald Kaberuka, said at a recent World Bank Seminar on ending conflict and building peace in Africa. He added that there is a need to develop a deeper understanding of countries' political economy: a critical step that has to be taken by external actors in Sierra Leone as well.

External actors should contribute to the wider development plan presented in the Agenda for Prosperity; and should therefore look to the Agenda to guide their engagement and support to Sierra Leone. In this way, external actors can meaningfully assist in developing national capacities and structures that would lead to the national development planning process being successfully implemented.

Helder da Costa, the General Secretary of the g7+ group, a voluntary association of countries that have been affected by conflict, says this process is not always straightforward. ‘Operating effectively in countries in danger of falling back into conflict demands risk-taking, speedy action, flexibility, persistence and even creativity,’ Da Costa explained. He also urges external actors to practice what he calls ‘strategic patience’ in countries such as Sierra Leone.

External actors should therefore identify ways to deal with the complexities of what is often an irregular process and focus on pragmatic approaches. Such approaches would help them to identify actions that are more focused on long-term and incremental results, and less on short-term (and often volatile) realities.

Peacebuilding is not an event, but a process. It takes time and patience to create social institutions that are resilient and sustainable – and to ensure that Sierra Leone will remain on its successful path.

Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher, Training for Peace (TfP) Programme, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria.

This article is based on an earlier version published by the International Peace Institute’s Global Observatory.

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