Spring Break in Sierra Leone

Posted by: Jeremy Weinstein

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Human-centered design begins with need-finding, as a clear understanding of the user’s needs is central to the design process. So before the quarter even began, I accompanied eight students from Rebooting Government on a week-long trip to Sierra Leone. Hosted by Simeon Koroma, the executive director of Timap for Justice and our partner in the process, the trip was an intense and immersive exploration of the politics and economics of mining and agricultural concessions.  Students in the class completed a comprehensive set of readings on Sierra Leonean politics, structures of governmental and traditional authority, the challenges faced in mining communities, and a range of other issues before departure. But for the kind of work we hope to do in the course, there is no substitute for direct and sustained need-finding work in the communities most affected by foreign concessions.

Over the course of a week, we engaged senior officials in all of the major ministries, including mining and agriculture; leading legislators with responsibility for oversight of the concessions process; and civil society leaders working on issues of transparency, accountability, and the effective management of Sierra Leone’s natural resources. These interviews in the capital, Freetown, were intended to help us map the dynamics of the concessions process: the key actors involved, the legal framework and obligations/responsibilities of the parties, and the backstory on how things play out in practice.

After our work in Freetown, we headed to the rural areas to interview local leaders, landowners, and ordinary citizens in communities affected by agricultural and mining concessions. Timap’s local ties – through their community-based paralegals – were essential interlocutors in facilitating these visits. We moved around Bo and Moyamba districts, visiting a variety of chiefdoms affected by gold and bauxite mining as well as large-scale agricultural concessions. In each community, tens and tens of residents came out to speak with us, anxious to share their stories and perspectives on how communities have fared in the negotiations between government and foreign companies.

In the blog posts that follow, students offer some first-hand reflections on their time in Sierra Leone. In class, they are already hard at work poring over interview transcripts and documentary materials, such as concessions agreements and photographs, as they begin to extract insights relevant to the design process.

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