BRAC Sierra Leone's Independent Evaluation and Research Cell by Ananda Paez

by tuftsigl
Jul 07

I have spent the past month interning at BRAC Sierra Leone's Independent Evaluation and Research Cell, which is their research and M&E branch. I am working on a country-wide Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) that evaluates the development effect of a new microfinance product that BRAC introduced in the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak. Because of the nature of this research, I get to spend a lot of time talking to Sierra Leoneans, and naturally, the focus on economic inclusion has exposed me to some of the most pressing challenges faced by Sierra Leone's poor.

Sierra Leone is the most intriguing country I have ever been to. When I decided to spend my summer in Freetown, I was expecting to learn about Sierra Leone's post-conflict and post-Ebola recovery. What I did not expect, however, was to find myself in a country that should be a role model for the world in so many aspects. A friend told me recently: "whoever discovers a way to replicate what has happened in Sierra Leone will win the Nobel Peace Prize" and I couldn't agree more.

In spite of having experienced one of the world's most brutal civil wars just over a decade ago, today Sierra Leone is extremely safe. As a woman often travelling by myself I am always hyper-aware of safety and I can say that Sierra Leone is by far the place where I have felt the safest in my life. It is safer even than the US. Whenever I tell this to my friends and family, they usually don't believe me. When I announced I was going to Sierra Leone, my uncle who had lived in Nigeria for some years, was concerned about my safety, noting past violence. That couldn't be farther from the truth, and yet, most people I talked to where more willing to accept my uncle's predicament than to believe that Sierra Leone is a safe country. To some degree it makes sense. After all, the last time Sierra Leone made headlines, it was all about blood diamonds, mass murder and a country in shambles. And though to some extent the war's legacy is still visible today- you can still see mutilated people on the streets and the mining district of Kono is still in bad shape- it is admirable to see how effectively Sierra Leone has been able to move past that and build a new future for itself.

It is incredible to think that most Sierra Leonean adults participated in some form in the war. Many were combatants. And yet today, only a select few in the army and police have access to weapons at all. Equally impressive is the country's religious tolerance. Sierra Leone is a Muslim majority country with an important Christian minority and it is often referred to as the most tolerant Muslim-majority country in the world. I was shocked, for example, when our research monitor training began with both Christian and Muslim prayers and realized that most people were saying both prayers regardless of their religion. I have been invited countless times to churches and mosques, and my colleagues where more than happy to have me join for Eid prayers. At the same time, I had no problems with a dress code or even finding ample food options during Ramadan.

Though like everywhere else in the world, gender issues here are a problem, Sierra Leone is the only country where I have seen such an open and constant dialogue about it. Right in front of the Presidential Palace, at the base of the Cotton Tree, which is Freetown's emblem and the center of the city, are large signs saying "violence against women is violence against the state". Signs like these can be seen throughout the city. There are also many other visible campaigns on contraceptives, adolescent pregnancy and consent. Coming from conservative Ecuador where many of these issues are so taboo I could not in my wildest dreams imagine seeing signs on the street talking about them, I was delighted to see such awareness here.

That is not to say, of course, that Sierra Leone does not have many problems. It does. Approximately 70% of its population lives below the poverty line, there is virtually no local food production and even Freetown lacks basic services like electricity and water. But compared to where it was ten years ago, Sierra Leone has achieved so much that I believe the world has a lot to learn from it and its people. I am humbled to have the opportunity to spend 2 more months in this beautiful country and look forward to learning more from it. I already know I will be sorry to leave.