OVP’s Sierra Leone-based staff gathered last week to watch the Pirate Fishing, a two-part Al Jazeera documentary identifying and exposing the industrial-scale fishing operations that are illegally trawling in Sierra Leonean offshore waters. The documentary focuses on this illegal activity as it has perpetuated corruption and has had adverse consequences on those most vulnerable—Sierra Leonean fishing communities. Such exploitation is contributing to cyclical poverty in rural Sierra Leone; fisheries are being depleted and local fishermen are increasingly experiencing a lack of food and income as a result.
The film was followed by a lively discussion on the impacts of extractive industries, and not simply in relation to fisheries. Community Action Coordinator, Brima Lansana, identified the timber, minerals and cocoa as other natural resources that are exploited by foreign industries to the detriment of local farmers who “lose out” in the process. The profits from these trades are confined to those at the top, most often foreigners and Sierra Leonean officials who enable corrupt practices for their personal benefit.
This comment sparked an intense conversation about systemic corruption in Sierra Leone. Sheku Gassimu, Community Action Supervisor, stated, “corruption is unchecked…Sierra Leone is not diversifying its tax base, and only the poor pay…leaders are appointed that shouldn’t be, and all of this is really, really damaging to the economy.” All staff echoed this sentiment. Muje Belmoh, another Community Action Coordinator, pointed to favoritism by leaders to one’s family, clan, etc. as one of the reasons that perpetuates corruption. Especially when it comes to powerful exploitative industries, leaders are more content to turn a blind eye and be bought off than they are to monitor and regulate their activities. In virtually all sectors of the economy, Sierra Leoneans lose out to high-level government corruption.
Lahai Tucker, Monitoring and Evaluation Coordinator, commented that, “there are poor systems and institutions in place, and there are not the resources [human or material] to monitor exploitation”. The discussion took another turn, and the staff began discussing weak institutions that exist in addition to—and perhaps a result of—corruption, and where change needs to take place in order for common Sierra Leoneans to experience the benefits of national economic growth. Staff agreed that a combination of “top-down” and “bottom-up” change must occur. Sheku advocated for top-down change, and he pointed to US President Barack Obama’s quote that “Africa doesn’t need strong men, it needs strong institutions.” He urged that systems need to change to work for the people, not against them, and that “those at the top perpetuate corruption” because they want the systems to stay the same for their benefit. Brima added, “corruption has to change before exploitation stops.” The team agreed that those at the top must be held accountable, and that process starts at the community level.
Musa Gangha, Community Action Coordinator, specified “the masses are disconnected from development issues and information…we need to raise awareness, especially relating to natural resources.” Musa and others agreed that, by raising awareness, community members and whole communities could advocate for themselves and their resources, which would put pressure on government entities to pull their weight in protecting Sierra Leonean communities’ resources. Staff agreed that the work of OVP is connecting people to development issues and cultivating advocates of community development. Additionally, OVP adds value to community’s natural resources, and links the importance of natural resources with community development. By working at the community level to empower communities and encourage sustainability, OVP is helping to fill a necessary role for the overall sustainable and equitable development across Sierra Leone.