Chiefs in Training

Post by Tate Rider, Mohamed Yassine, Federica Carugati, and Lindsay Gorman

Little more than a week ago, the challenges involved in selecting a user situated right at the center of the mining-concessions ‘system’ had barely crossed our minds.  As we moved quickly from defining a PoV to the brainstorming process that through HMW statements led us to a solution within just one week, the system surrounding our selected user came into focus in all its multifarious complexity. The Paramount Chief, our selected user, stands at the confluence of governmental, industrial, and community interests, an intersection vital to the concessions process.

We soon realized this challenge as an opportunity, both to empower rural communities through their traditional authorities, as well as to experiment with the interplay between systems-level and user-centered design process for a user caught squarely in the middle of this system. We unearthed our first insight from a wealth of post-it notes produced while unpacking the interviews from our fieldwork: according to custom, any actor interested in Sierra Leone’s provincial resources—be it government officials or company representatives—must go through the Paramount Chief of that chiefdom. And despite allegations of corrupt Paramount Chiefs and the intense feeling of disempowerment in this position, actors in the system abide by this rule.

At the heart of this insight was a fundamental idiosyncrasy: despite such a primary de jure role as chiefdom gatekeeper, our Paramount Chief was a de facto colander through whom information ran without ensuing action.

The second critical insight we identified through our empathy work was that despite the Paramount Chief’s stable political position, his impotence vis-à-vis mining companies and government, paired with the reality of his community’s hardships, had exacted a heavy emotional toll – he felt literally small and overwhelmingly powerless.  This palpable sense of disempowerment visibly permeated the community at every level.  More subtly though, we realized through unpacking the Paramount Chief’s outbursts of expression, that this ‘disempowerment’ was tied to a failure to provide justice for his people, the resulting reputational cost, and a profound sense of shame. 

Thus given these two levers of insight – the shame of the Paramount Chief over his disempowerment and declining reputation for justice on the one hand, and the centrality of his role in the concessions process on the other – we asked the following questions: How can reputational concern be leveraged to become an incentive for action? And how can we help the Paramount Chief strengthen his bargaining position, sense of empowerment, and ultimate ability to provide justice for his people in the negotiation of mining concessions?

Our solution involves a new approach through an old institution.  We seek to leverage the PC’s concern for a just reputation through effective peer pressure –information sharing and relative benchmarks –by introducing contract negotiation workshops and legal assistance into the long-standing District Councils of Paramount Chiefs.  We learned through our fieldwork that mining companies currently confront Paramount Chiefs individually to push through contracts compensating displaced villagers – often inadequately and at times illegally. We hope that providing these ~25-Chief bodies the tools necessary to negotiate mining contracts more effectively will empower individual Chiefs, while simultaneously consolidating their overall power in the concessions process against this divide-and-conquer approach.

Why peer-pressure? The empathy work in SL and the additional information extracted from our conversations with our client, Simeon Koroma—whose insights have been vital to this process—revealed an intricate net of power relations whereby community dissatisfaction, though present, did little to steer the Paramount Chief from feeling sorry to taking action. At the same time, the relational subordination of the Paramount Chief to the government and mining companies—witnessed firsthand in the field as well as evident from a simple look at the Mines and Minerals Act 2009—left little room, and even fewer incentives, for independent action.

With powerless communities providing only complaints, mining companies providing only notice of occupation, and government ‘superiors’ providing only instructions, the Paramount Chief seemed fresh out of allies we could harness for his empowerment. In the absence of suitable actors within this complex system we identified the one group with political power that the Paramount Chief can turn to: his peers.

The difficulties of each Paramount Chief may vary by chiefdom, but the potential for cooperation is inherent in the traditional organizational structures in place.  While we were initially interested in the national Council of Paramount Chiefs, in order to being our initiative closer to the community level, to a smaller scale, and among Chiefs with greater familiarity and commonality, we alighted on the District Councils of Paramount Chiefs. These Councils, one in each of Sierra Leone’s 12 districts, meet approximately monthly to discuss issues common to the district. They have near perfect attendance. Mining issues, however, have yet to be raised formally.  One reason for this lack of collaboration may be that mining concessions are coveted as potentially lucrative for the Paramount Chief who needs no public discussion of these details. Another, more basic reason is that lacking the relevant knowledge and expertise to evaluate and improve mining contracts, such a discussion has no motivation.

Our solution tackles this issue head on.  We propose a Contract Negotiation Program for Paramount Chiefs featuring:

  1. Substantive training in the law relevant to mining concessions (SL law, international and national best practices) and associated negotiation strategies;
  2. Practical group exercises that involve sharing and scoring existing contracts based on the standards introduced during the training period and comparison to local case studies; and
  3. Legal assistance, from Freetown lawyers whose families and roots are in the provinces, to renegotiate contracts that do not meet legal requirements and to negotiate future contracts from a stronger and more informed bargaining position.  At present, legal assistance is provided by the mining companies themselves.

Admittedly, leveraging reputation-consciousness through peer pressure and solidarity is easier said than done and implementing our solution will require creating the right incentive structure whereby cooperation may trump competition and hostility yield to mutual aid. Yet we have hope in this idea, which, through the design process, has brought something new to the table in identifying a set of interpersonal relationships (among Paramount Chiefs) whose potential has long remained untapped. Moreover, in taking advantage of an existing institutional structure and one with close ties to Timap for Justice, our solution is easily implementable. We can only hope that our client (and perhaps other readers) will be as energized by the final product as we have been throughout the process that led us to formulate it.


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