Posted on 26 Oct 19 in Sierra Leone

Despite the challenges created by the brutal civil war and the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, we have managed to successfully set up and support 64 Community Based Organisations (CBOs) since 2004 with our local partner MAPCO.

“All other NGOs that have come here since the war – and there have been many – have failed. MAPCO has trained us how to manage after they leave, not just left us goods and gone.” says the loans development officer and CBO executive committee member.

A high proportion of CBOs have continued to thrive long after our projects have ended, despite severe challenges. So, what has made the survivors more resilient to these challenges and therefore more sustainable?

A country devastated by civil war and Ebola

In the aftermath of the civil war of 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone was devastated. Not only in terms of its agriculture; but people lacked the basics such as seeds and tools to restart agricultural production, and many of the communities were reliant on food aid. There was also social deprivation and high levels of youth unemployment and instability. Malnutrition and infant mortality were all extremely high and life expectancy at that time was one of the lowest of all countries in the Global South.

To make matters worse, 2014 to 2015 saw the outbreak of the Ebola virus, which led to restrictions on movement, production and activities to keep the virus contained. This meant the closure of schools, markets, meetings, and group agriculture, all of which had a significant negative impact on communities and CBOs, alongside a high incidence of teenage pregnancies and children dropping out of school.

The partnership between MAPCO and Action on Poverty

It was in this context that MAPCO and Action on Poverty delivered development initiatives with over 64 local CBOs, between 2004 and 2013, to help tackle food insecurity, malnutrition and community development. This included help with fish farming, seed banks and agricultural training, water and sanitation. There were also apprenticeship training schemes, revolving loan funds and many other projects that supported and improved the lives of people in Sierra Leone.

It was important from the very beginning that the CBOs were able to continue their work after the project support ended, and it was with this aim that MAPCO /Action on Poverty sought to promote self-management within the CBOs. In 2018, we re-visited these communities to review the sustainability of the MAPCO/Action on Poverty interventions with the 64 CBOs.

CBOs face challenges to their survival

Given the external factors that made it a challenging environment for the CBOs to survive, such as post-conflict reliance on food aid, the Ebola virus, the contracting of agricultural land in one area leaving farmers landless – the failure of some of the CBOs was inevitable. Added to this were the problems with sustaining revolving loans, issues with the poor accountability of leaders, poor business decisions and the mismanagement of resources.

Yet, despite these challenges, there is still a high rate of CBOs surviving, with 56 per cent of the original number still going strong. But what were these CBOs doing that helped them survive?

One of the objectives for MAPCO/Action on Poverty was to provide interventions that would be sustainable. What the survey found was that when self-management is promoted, the CBO was more likely to survive. Some of them are flourishing, having increased their capital, remaining active in seeking their rights and implementing greater inclusion of vulnerable groups. In some cases, new enterprises – and with them the services they provide – were created.

Factors contributing to CBO sustainability

Revolving Loan scheme: This enables members to develop small businesses and save for the hungry season. The loan scheme is a draw for the CBO and members come together to access and return loans, which helps to maintain the regular CBO meetings. 44 CBOs started revolving loan schemes and over 70 per cent are still operating. Many have even increased their capital.

Seed banks: They allow members to access seeds and pay for them after harvesting, which stops people getting into debt. This agricultural support has been maintained by all eight of the CBOs that set them up.

Strong Executive Committee/Leader: Some CBOs have weathered the storms better than others because of their strong management committees. We found that those with a group or one committed and competent leader can support the CBO to survive effectively.

Nguyea-e-wola CBO received the support of MAPCO/Action on Poverty in 2010 with the objective of tackling household food insecurity and incomes. It showed good practice by electing a female ward councillor to represent them at district council; a female was also elected as deputy town chief and a young person was elected as chiefdom chairman. These good election practices, together with the linkages developed with local stakeholders, have helped the CBO to maintain its services and attract new members.

Organisation and management: The more involvement of the community in decision-making the stronger the CBO, with 65 per cent of continuing (strong) CBOs holding elections to change their executives and 75 per cent of continuing (strong) CBOs maintaining regular meetings. The main reason recorded for the weakness and collapse of CBOs is the lack of collective decision-making and lack of properly convened meetings. One example of where corrupt organisation and management could have led to the collapse of a CBO was through the misuse of resources by the leadership of the Port-Loko District Disabled Association. This example also highlights the importance of regular local elections.

The aim of the Port-Loko District Disabled Association was to support people with disabilities in accessing services to help them to fight inequality and destitution. Through the support of MAPCO/Action on Poverty, the association have been able to fight destitution and discrimination, access the civil rights of its members and engage in income-generating activities such as soap making and revolving loan funds to support individual enterprises.

However, in 2012, the CBO loan committee was found to have carried out some illegitimate transfer of funds, and therefore service delivery stopped. An election was held to remove the leaders who were not acting in the best interests of the membership and mismanaged CBO funds. Since then, people with disabilities have managed their own affairs and in doing so, ensured the continuity of the association’s activities.

Income generation: In addition to the revolving loan scheme, several CBOs have community assets and services which bring additional income. Whether it’s managing a blacksmith centre, producing farm hand tools to sell in the community or generating income from vocational skills training, the CBOs which respond to the needs of their members with innovative approaches to income generation had greater chances of survival, as they are less reliant on just the members’ dues to function.

The Kori Women’s Development Association was established in 2000 with the purpose of rebuilding the livelihoods of young women affected by the civil conflict by learning vocational skills. Since they were supported by our project, over 200 young women in and around Taiama communities have benefited and are operating their own enterprises. The CBO is also receiving income for the use of their building, and members are currently engaged in other income-generating activities, such as bread baking, cloth weaving, dressmaking and vegetable gardening.

Rights awareness: This is where local councils and CBOs, in collaboration with other agencies, have put in place structures where any incidents of abuse can be referred for redress, or legal support obtained. This has led to a reduction in cases of rights abuse. The Port-Loko District Disabled Association, mentioned above, is a good example of this.

Strong identity of the group: Women’s groups, youth, elderly and disability groups have fared better than other groups. This may be because there is more cohesion and a tighter focus, and in some cases, specific groups such as these are supported through national policies, which provides them with support.

One example of a strong identity is the Market Women Development Association

The Market Women Development Association is a small group of small traders formed in 2004 whose aim was to pool their resources in the form of a weekly contribution which was shared among needy members as a loan to either start or expand petty trading activities. Although the Ebola outbreak was challenging, the group worked effectively to deliver much-needed services to the community.

Women’s groups tend to seek the support and approval of their fellow women prior to making decisions, which means that the decision making of such a group is more likely to be built on discussion and consensus. The commitment of the women in the Market Women Development Association, their stable leadership, joint decision-making and their responsiveness to women’s needs, is what has enabled the organisation to be maintained for over 14 years.

Resilience leads to sustainability

The work that MAPCO and Action on Poverty have done with local CBOs cannot be viewed in isolation. We recognise that addressing social needs must go together with other strategies that are sustainable in the long run. This will only happen if these communities and CBOs become more resilient to challenges. It calls for concerted efforts towards building an inclusive, sustainable and resilient future for the people of Sierra Leone.

The challenges that the CBOs have faced are many and complex, and for some it resulted in closure. Yet, the survey has shown that the chance of survival can be increased. By building strong leadership, ensuring ownership and engagement of members and diversifying income and activities, the CBOs have a chance to withstand these trials and continue to enhance the lives of the individuals and the communities within which it operates.