Monthly Archives: April 2013

Selecting a User for our POV

Post by Ramya Parthasarathy

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Though the unpacking and P.O.V. creation process really helped us think more critically and insightfully about our potential users, as we transition to the next stage of the process, we face another challenge: how do we select a single user?

Over the last week, we narrowed our set of potential users down to three: a disgruntled and displaced landowner, a relatively skilled but unemployed youth, and a struggling but able-bodied single mother.  But we are still left wondering which user to select, and the relevant criteria for selecting a user.  Should it be the user with most potential to impact the concessions process?  The one that is least enfranchised?  The one most affected by the presence of mining companies?  The set of potential selection criteria are many, but we’ve yet to identify the ones we think are most relevant to this project.

From what we’ve learned about the design process thus far, we know that “extreme” users can help to make obvious the needs of the broader population; however, we don’t yet know what “extreme” use means in the context of mining concessions.  Given that the specific user anchors how we reframe the design challenge, we know that this will have a huge impact on our work going forward.  As we kick off Week 3 of this project, we look forward to feedback from the teaching team, Simeon, and our classmates—not just about the specific POVs we’ve written, but for their assessments and insights as to which will make for the most impactful user!

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We Have A Point of View!

Post by Chelsea Lei

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The goal of the first two weeks was to define several Point of Views (POVs) that would guide our problem-solving for the design challenge in Sierra Leone. In the d.school’s language, POVs are focused frameworks that connect the users, their needs and some insights (observations and interpretations) about the problem. This blog post describes our team’s process of reaching our Point of Views (POVs) through unpacking field interview notes and reflects on the experience.

Unpacking: Distilling Information through Dialogue

Kevin, Jonny, Aparna and I sat around a high table in the Bay Studio each with our notebooks, a stack of post-its and a marker pen. Behind Aparna and me was a white board demarcated into four quadrants labeled counter-clockwise as “Quotes & Defining Words,” “Actions & Behaviors,” “Feelings & Emotions” and “Thoughts & Beliefs.” As Kevin and Jonny read their field interview notes line by line outloud, Aparna and I (who did not go to Sierra Leone over spring break) were to record key phrases and insights that were compelling to us, write them down on post-its, and put them on the appropriate quadrant on the whiteboard. At the same time, we would ask questions about details of the interview itself or background information.

Over the four hours we had to do the unpacking, we examined three interviews. The process unfolded with frequent interruptions and some digressions as Aparna and I (and sometimes joined by Jenny) sought to reconstruct the scenes in our mind and understand not only what was happening at the time but also the backstories. Aparna approached the process by first visualizing personalities, meetings, transactions, and stories through sketches and diagrams in her notebook and then transferring information to post-its. I at first tried recording information directly on post-its without taking detailed notes. Later, I found it more helpful to take detailed notes on paper and then transfer information to post-its because I could refer back to my notes and remember the specifics of a given interview when I stare at the pieces of information scattered on the whiteboard.

To Aparna and me, the information we were getting felt at once concrete and foreign. We were able to follow the narratives mediated by Kevin and Jonny’s first-hand experience. But we found it hard to digest them because we could not readily relate what we heard to what we know or have experienced in our lives. For instance, we heard about this town chief named Joseph wearing green pants who sat in the center of a semi circle and addressed everyone. We learned about his list of grievances – the lack of a health clinic, clean water and teachers, among others. As for to whom he could turn to address these grievances, we had a hard time understanding his relationship with the paramount chief (who was apparently drunk at the meeting) and other entities that we heard Kevin and Jonny mention, including the Justice Council and District Council. At many points, we were tempted to step away from the narrative itself and get Kevin and Jonny to tell us how things really work in Sierra Leone that explain the situations they observed. Jonny was good about reminding us of our limited time budget though and helped us stay in focus and suspend desire to overanalyze for the time being.

By the time we finished the unpacking sessions,  we had had a short discussion about pretty much every sentence Kevin and Jonny had written down in their interview notes. While the discussions were not exhaustive, they were productive in two ways. One was that Kevin and Jonny were able to process and better make sense of their notes because they had to teach it to Aparna and me. The other was that Aparna and I were in a much better position to ask perceptive questions and identify patterns. For example, in a community called Yoni, we heard a  story which was told by the town chief named James (who had a Manchu beard, had a walkman, and was illiterate) about the town’s recent impasse with an agricultural company AgriCap over disputes of compensation for land use. We sensed that something was going on with the contract negotiation process between the community and AgriCap and dived into questions about what terms it contained, when and where the contract was created, negotiated and signed, who was involved in the negotiations and what the process felt like for the community leaders. Jonny and Kevin connected the dots for us and pieced together a storyline despite having to fill in some assumptions. We gathered that the town chief basically trusted his paramount chief to sign a contract with AgriCap but felt powerless to stand up to the paramount chief when he realized later that they had gotten into a bad deal. At multiple points in the story, we identified imbalance of power and knowledge gap as likely contributing factors to the outcome. We were excited by this insight and decided to focus on the contract negotiation process for our POVs.

Point of Views: Connecting User, Need, and Insights

During a two-hour meeting devoted to defining our POVs, we first focused on the negotiation process that the town chief James in Yoni experienced. On a whiteboard, we drew three columns: User, Needs, Insights and tackled Needs first. Based on our recollection and whiteboard containing the unpacked information from the Yoni interview, we started writing down the following needs: “to understand terms of contract,” “to negotiate terms more effectively,” “to hold AgriCap accountable,” “to authenticate information communicated verbally,” “to have truth authority,” “to get independent counsel,” and “to get help from beyond the paramount chief.” Seeing that the needs corresponded to different points in the negotiation process, Aparna took the initiative to draw out a “negotiation roadmap” that visualized the process so that we could use the map to identify points where things “went wrong” and therefore translate needs into insights. The map helped us see that during the one negotiation meeting he was involved in, the town chief James lacked the power to assert and the capability to protect community interest. In addition, there was no mechanism of accountability and transparency for what the paramount chief was agreeing to on the community’s behalf. These realizations led to the following insights: “knowledge gap and pressure from cultural norms prevent town chief from acting in favor of the community,” “town chief’s symbolic authority was not actual authority,” and “deference for but not trust in paramount chief.” Finally, after defining the Needs and Insights, it was relatively easy to note that our User town chief James was “illiterate,” “subordinate to the paramount chief,” “frustrated,” “taking money from AgriCap.” Once we had a fair amount of descriptive and interpretive statements on the whiteboard, we started to write them into a single sentence. Here are two sentences that we came up with:

POV 1. Frustrated and illiterate town chief needs to feel empowered to act on his legal right/authority to sign agricultural concessions because oppressive cultural norms and knowledge gap prevent him from doing so.

POV 2. Frustrated and illiterate town chief needs an alternative lawful way to hold corporations accountable because current traditional methods are ineffective.

Later, we spend some time the question of youth because we all felt there was a great deal of uncovered potential in this segment of the communities. Unlike the POV related to the negotiation process, this process of thinking and talking through the youth’s needs and insights felt more arduous. It was clear to us that youth in the communities were frustrated with their employment situation and that they had the potential and desire to do better. But it was difficult for us to translate their day-to-day situations into a set of core needs that capture the complexity of the conditions in which they live. In the end, we arrived at the following point of view:

POV 3. Unemployed, repressed but enlightened youths need greater influence over decisions made for their communities regarding mining concessions because they are willing to fight for their communities as a) they have seen progress elsewhere, b) they expect the mining companies to give them a better life, and and c) they have no other options than to work in mining.

With our preliminary POVs, our next steps will be to refine them through more research and reflection and to generate ideas for solutions. We are excited about the progress we’ve made and will keep you informed about what happens next!

Development Anonymous

Post by Kara Downey, Manal Dia, Ryan Harper, Aaswath Raman

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Although we came to the class from a variety of backgrounds—law, physics, business, journalism, education, political science, and more—our reasons for enrolling were remarkably similar.  Our first meeting last March began to sound like an “Alcoholics Anonymous” group for frustrated students of development: “Hi, my name is…, and I became disillusioned with traditional approaches to development and political reform when…”  We weren’t naïve enough to think that the design process would be a magic bullet.  But we did hope that this new approach would allow us to better tackle problems we cared about deeply but did not know how to address.

We did not get our first full taste of the design process until this past Saturday, several weeks after our work with Simeon and Timap began.   We spent all day engaging in the full design process—from empathy work to prototyping and test—around questions of how to get youth more involved in politics.  For those of us new to the design process, it was somewhat uncomfortable but ultimately valuable to develop, test, and get feedback on an idea so quickly.  The idea of rapid iteration seems very useful, but can’t help but make us wonder how much iteration will be needed before we can develop something useful for the challenges we observed in Sierra Leone.  Five weeks seems like far too little time for problems that complex.

Our physical distance from Sierra Leone adds to the difficulty of using the design process to address the problems facing local communities there.  We are very lucky in that we have Simeon to answer some of the many questions that have arisen in the process of unpacking our findings and developing points of view.  However, we are still limited by our inability to probe our direct users with further questions, and to evaluate our prototypes with them.  As was stressed repeatedly at Saturday’s workshop, testing prototypes is an important chance for a second round of empathy work with users, but that’s something we just can’t do directly.  It will be interesting to see what sorts of remote-testing and need-finding options we will be able to develop with the Timap paralegal team currently in rural Sierra Leone.

To that end, we spent a week capturing interviews from the trip in the form of empathy maps. These maps were constructed by going through transcripts of the interviews so that all team members could share the experience of being in one of these communities, and collectively extract both observations and inferences. From these empathy maps (in our case, for four interviews and users) we then sought to construct Point of View (POV) statements that distilled the deep needs of these users and connected them to surprising or compelling insights. A key challenge in this project is keeping in mind the system insights and learnings we also had during our trip. It’s not just a question of picking the most compelling user needs, but also needs that connect to the broader systemic issues we hope to tackle.

More generally, we struggled with the question of how one can construct a user-centered POV that is actionable and that indicates potential levers of influence in the network we observed? As we move forward, we hope to address the user-level challenges encountered by developing interventions or solutions that engage with key system-level interactions and connections. Understanding where these connections might be incentivized or pressured to act differently or more responsively became an important background consideration as we filtered and wrote a final set of four POV statements. In the coming weeks, this combination of user- and system-level concerns and thinking will, we believe, prove essential to tackling the complex problems we have identified.

Need Finding in Bo

Posted by Lindsay Gorman and Mohammed Yassine

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The driver’s side front wheel of a large overturned truck blocking the rugged dirt road spun swiftly as the rearview mirror of our diesel SUV narrowly side-swiped it.  We’d been driving for 2 hours and had covered less than 30 miles on unpredictable terrain roads en route to a small country town of Sierra Leone’s Bo district. Located near one of the country’s largest mining corporations, the town is something of a settlement community for displaced land-owners throughout the chiefdom and faces increasing defamation of its once rich farmland.

We arrived in the early afternoon to an eager group of upwards of 40 local leaders, miners, and land-owning families who had been awaiting our arrival in the sweltering sun since 8 o’clock that morning.  Our goal?  To understand these people’s attitudes towards the nearby mining company and the concessions agreements nominally permitting the industrial activity.

The group of land-owning family heads we interviewed hailed from 13 different towns within the surrounding chiefdom. Over the course of the last 40 years, they had slowly left their homes, one family at a time, and migrated here as company caterpillars laid waste to their land, polluted their streams to an undrinkable level, and destroyed the trees many villagers use to construct their homes.  The incensed frustration we’d observed in other communities and the youth was replaced here by a powerless resignation as these elderly men passionately and eloquently conveyed their stories.  One man, educated in a training college in agricultural innovation, had walked for 2 hours the previous day to visit the land his ancestors had cultivated for him and his children: “Yesterday I watched the bulldozers destroy my land.  I felt horrible and I was thinking about the future.  I realized that when these companies leave, this land will never again be arable.  My father planted these crops for me.  Our children will not have any vegetation there to farm.”

Education is also very important in the other villages we visited. One 44-year old local land-owner, Kekora Amsila, had sent his three daughters and his son to complete secondary education in the city. For his daughters, staying in the village would have meant a brutal initiation into the Bondo secret society and preparation for marriage. Instead, Kekora wanted education for them; he was proud that they might support both the family and the community through their education: they would be able to hold senior-level employment and to communicate the community’s needs to authorities and international counterparts. He cited Christiana Thorpe, chair of the national electoral commission as his inspiration for how education can empower women to help their country.

We made our way one of the country’s poorest villages next to a large UK-based agricultural company. We received a warm welcome from the children running around the village. They were calling us by our names, guiding us through the village, and acquainting us with their houses and families. A six-year-old boy was holding a live yellow bird next to his chest and caressing it. He had caught it himself by constructing a tool made out of a wooden stick and a string – a genuine engineering feat! The children invited us to a game of soccer and offered us some cassava, a local delicacy which we had the pleasure of sharing with them. One teenager expressed his desire of studying arts once he completes secondary school to become a singer. He sang to us in a jovial atmosphere of singing and laughing. Another teen, Peter, also has dreams for the future: He wants to be a medical doctor. He is 19 years old but still has 6 years to complete secondary school. When we met him, he had been out of school for 2 weeks since his parents were not able to settle his school fees.

In our meeting with the town chief, we saw the agreement with the agricultural company allowing it access to the people’s best farmland.  The chief and his people were very upset with this agreement and felt it was a very bad deal with grossly inadequate compensation, but were powerless to renegotiate it.  Simeon Koroma – activist lawyer, founder of Timap for Justice, and our guide – immediately noticed discrepancies between the agreement and the national law which might render the contract invalid. Simeon stood up and offered, “I’m a lawyer and can help.”  As he explained his ideas, the chief responded: “I feel like I have tears in my eyes.  We’ve been looking for someone to help us for so long.”

We are looking forward to working with Simeon to empower local communities and improve their access to justice.

We Are Here in Darkness

Posted by Kara Downey and Aaswath Raman

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Though the distance traveled was only a few miles, we had been bouncing along a rough dirt road for over an hour when the village came into view.  The paved roads and streetlights of Freetown that we had left before dawn seemed a world away from this chiefdom, whose head, or paramount chief, we had just visited.  The village consisted of dozens of low-slung houses tinted red-orange from the mud that formed their walls and the rust that dappled corrugated metal roofs.  As we later learned from residents, the village had no electricity, toilets, access to clean water or a mobile network.  Fifteen people had recently died from a cholera outbreak.  An attempt to buy refreshments for those gathered nearly failed because village ‘shops’ were mostly empty.

On the hill overlooking the village sat a gleaming, high-walled compound of modern buildings with bright electric lights shining, even though it was the middle of the day.  This compound was the administrative center of a gold mine operated by a large foreign company.   The only evidence of the company within the village itself was a poster branded with the company logo that warned of the dangers of illegal mining by quoting a Wall Street Journal article about South African mines.

Around a hundred men, women and children were gathered at the barrie, or meeting place, where they had been waiting in the blazing sun since morning.  A visit from outsiders to this isolated village was extremely rare and, as we quickly learned, was eagerly anticipated by the community. Given the size of the crowd gathered and our limited number of translators, there was some initial trepidation as to how needfinding interviews could proceed. But, those present were extremely eager to share their stories with us, facilitating a very successful visit. After introductions by our Timap partners and the section and town chiefs, we split the group up according to their individual roles in the community.

Rural Sierra Leonean society is very hierarchical and organized.  The paramount chief is the “custodian of the land”, and theoretically has the final say in all questions of land ownership.  In practice, the degree of influence the paramount chief has on land concessions varies significantly; in some of the communities we visited paramount chiefs seemed powerless in the face of decisions made by the national government and foreign companies.  Section chiefs, town chiefs, and a variety of other community leaders form the lower layers of the hierarchy.  In addition to these community leaders, heads of landholding families and former employees of the mining company were also present.

First we met with landholding families, who were angry that the mine had taken over their ancestral, productive agricultural land and the richest gold deposits nearby, but paid appallingly low surface rents for their use (around two dollars per acre per year). These rents were negotiated directly with the paramount chief, and did not include them. They were also frustrated by the mine’s failure to make good on its early promises to improve the community by providing toilets, clean water, and electricity.  One town chief gestured towards the mining compound and said with disgust and despair, “The company compound shines brightly at night, but we are here in darkness.” This searing image was at once heartbreaking and instructive. Moreover, the boundaries of the mining company’s concession are not clearly demarcated and contain far more land than is actively being used.  Armed security guards prevent villagers from accessing this land.

The ex-miners we interviewed next were also angry, but for different reasons.  Employment, rather than surface rents, was their primary concern.  Most were men, but there were also a few women who had worked as cleaners.  Given the desperate conditions in the village, earning money was an overwhelmingly priority, but our discussions revealed that employment was about more than making ends meet. The ex-miners felt a deep sense of personal responsibility to provide for their families, and were ashamed that they could no longer fulfill this role.  When we asked about the families they cared for, they gestured to the crowd that had gathered around the porch where we were meeting—their families were all there listening to our discussion and hoping for change.

Particularly frustrating for the ex-miners was the company’s not hiring local workers, even for unskilled positions. All present believed that this practice was due to the mining company having something ‘dubious’ to hide. Most local workers were fired before they reached the three-month mark that would allow them to become permanent employees and earn a higher salary and a wider range of benefits.  However, while they strongly disliked the company, they would – without exception – immediately take jobs there again if they had the chance.  The farming and illegal small-scale mining in which they currently engage is nowhere near enough for them to survive in the long term.

Though the landholding families and the ex-miners had somewhat different points of view, they were united in their deepening resentment of the company’s neglect of the village and evinced a growing sense of desperation as living conditions worsened.  All segments of the community were keenly aware of their current poverty, and demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the broader political and economic system, using words and concepts like ‘corporate social responsibility’ with fluency. Violence has already broken out in several mining communities in Sierra Leone, leading to several deaths, and the town chiefs of this village recently defused a protest.  Sierra Leone’s civil war was rarely mentioned directly, but the burden of that recent history was felt in the nervousness people expressed about a return to violence.  Nonetheless, the risk of conflict between the company and the villagers will continue to grow if conditions remain as they are.  As one resident put it, “They can trample upon [us] as much as they want but when the day comes, you will have to kill [us].  We have patience, but there will come a time when enough is enough.”

Concessions Businesses in Sierra Leone

 Posted by Kevin Ho and Johnny Dorsey

ImageIn this post we seek to share a few important facts about concessions businesses in Sierra Leone, based on our meetings last week in the country. The industry is not monolithic, but we believe that the following facts are widely true. We will present each fact, and illustrate the point with stories from our meetings.

1. Concessions businesses in Sierra Leone are financially precarious

 Sierra Leone is homes to tons upon tons of valuable mineral resources, from diamonds to bauxite to gold. However, it is home to many challenges. Consequently, a. the businesses that come here must not be very averse to risk, and b. many face financial hardships.

We sat across from an agricultural-entrepreneur who acknowledged that the firms growth had not gone as planned, and they’d have to “try their best to make due” until hitting profitability. We spoke with a mining leader who admitted operating at massive losses, and angrily counted off the ways the firm has failed to capitalize on its opportunities.

This reality will prove important as we think about how to push the firms to better serve the community.

2. Businesses are influenced by the new Mines and Minerals Act

 The government is extraordinarily proud of its Mines and Minerals Act of 2009, described in Michael and Ramya’s post. Fortunately, some of our experiences affirmed this optimism.

At one mine, we heard that the EPA was sending staff the following week to measure effluents emitted from its cleaning process. We learned that the 1% funding or communities had a line reserved in the budget. One mine leader’s overall reflection was: “It will be good for Sierra Leone. It is much needed. It will be more stringent on us, but is better.”

That said, there is little evidence that the 1% community fund has been put to use by companies, so this demands further investigation.

3. Businesses suffer from weak relations with communities

All three major businesses we met with suffered from weak community relations. This caused trouble for communities, certainly, on which others will comment in additional posts. It also posed a serious business threat, by halting operations and introducing uncertainty about the future.

One mining firm had to stop operations for 4 or 5 days in order to negotiate terms after a protest. The community intended to take up the cause again. Another firm had to change its crop planting decision when a community refused to allow planting on lands over which the firm believed they had ownership.

Two of the three companies have engaged military police in ending strikes and protests, which have not put the tensions to rest.

4. There is an imbalance of power between businesses and communities

 While tensions between communities and firms suggest that community members can disrupt firms’ operations, initial contract negotiations are highly skewed toward firms. They have access to high-powered law firms, often linked to government officials, who successfully negotiate highly favorable contract. We spoke with a lawyer involved in one recent deal, and familiar with several deals, who shared: “I’m also a Sierra Leonean, and I think this is not fair for the people.“

5. Businesses appear to participate in bribery

All three businesses we interacted with appear to participate in bribery. This takes many forms – giving funds to Paramount Chiefs for support, paying police forces for support, giving cash to community leaders during times of tension, etc. One lawyer told us, “We have to engage the paramount Chief.” When we asked, “What does that mean,” he responded, “I think you are hearing me.” Others shared more blunt accounts off the record. This bribery was also evident in some of our meetings with community leaders.

While it is easy and fair to criticize business for this bribery, it is worth noting that in many ways they may prefer a more transparent system that did not reward these actions. There seems to be little cost to government and community leaders in asking for bribes.

 6. Business, and their employees, are not monolithic

 We met with one mining official who was straight out of central casting. He was a big South African from an Afrikaner stronghold who had previously mined diamonds in Zimbabwe (an even more difficult environment than Sierra Leone). On the other hand, we met with an apparentlywell-meaning twenty-something who seemed very committed to helping train her employees and support them in moving up the skill and pay ladder. We spoke with one Sierra Leonean mining official who knew his firm was doing some bad things, but also believed that if the mine could succeed and be fair to the people, the nation would be better off. In our work, we will resist the temptation to paint the concessions businesses and their staffs with a single brush, while always putting community and country needs above private interests.

Two days, five governmental ministries, two members of parliament, and four civil society organizations

By Ramya Parthasarathy and Michael A. Lindenberger

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We arrived in Freetown last week to see what we could learn on the ground that we couldn’t learn from the hundreds of pages of background reading. The in-country observations illuminated the lessons we had read and taught new ones, too. We hope this post makes clear how that happened.

On the first morning after we arrived, the beating sun already overhead, we set out from our hotel to brave the dust and heat for interviews with governmental officials and civil society organizations in the capital city. It was a crowded and dirty place of crumbling buildings, maddening traffic and endless streams of poor workers hawking goods on the street.

Aided by our local partner, public-interest lawyer Simeon Koroma, we had scheduled meetings with top officials in the ministries for local government, agriculture, mines and minerals and justice. We also met with a leading member of Parliament from each of the two parties in Sierra Leone. Our hope was to get a clearer picture of the role of mining and agricultural concessions in the country’s development, how they were awarded to companies, and how they affected local communities in the provinces.

Our first governmental meeting took us to the Parliament Building, a dark brick edifice walled off from the surrounding city.  There, we met with the deputy speaker, a rising force in the ruling APC party, and a leading member from the opposition SLPP.  By seeing them interact with each other, we were able to see viscerally how much deference is paid to the ruling party – even by a parliamentary opponent who, Simeon told us afterward, had been among the top vote-getters in the last election.

Everyone in government whom we interviewed agreed on two basic points: Sierra Leone desperately needs to attract foreign investors eager to develop its natural resources, and that the contracts it has signed in the past have been lopsided in favor of the companies.

The growing international recognition of Sierra Leone’s wealth was echoed in every meeting we had: from the bittersweet comments of the SLPP MP, who saw it as the one silver lining of civil war, to the proud deputy minister of mines, who admitted that he wanted us “to be part of selling Sierra Leone abroad.”

Most officials, even the opposition member in Parliament, saw the 2009 Mines and Minerals Act as a key accomplishment of the current administration that could improve the country’s growth in this sector. The legislation establishes new ground rules to renegotiate existing contracts, higher royalties for the country, incentives for companies to move quickly from prospecting to actual mining, and a new regulatory body to ensure compliance with government policy.

But by the time our two days in Freetown were over, we had seen how the spirit of the new law was easily circumvented. Senior officials didn’t even agree on the basic rules, as we heard as many accounts of the concessions process as we had meetings with officials. Even those proud of its passage noted major obstacles that remain: The inheritance of bad contracts from the war period, a limited capacity to develop domestic expertise, a comparative disadvantage in negotiating contracts, and continued challenges in community relations.

MPs, agriculture officials and the attorney general all told us that agreements required the signed consent of local communities. Others told us the opposite, and one official insisted all the wealth buried in the country belongs only to the Government.

The Attorney General admitted that some chiefs may seek to profit from concessions, but said the defect was in human character not in the system.

Turf battles over the concessions process were clear from the get-go, with agencies often pointing fingers: “My biggest frustration is the Ministry of Mines,” admitted one top ministerial official.  Another pointed to the challenge of local representation: “The paramount chief is the conflicting viewpoint.”  Still others asserted their ministry’s dominance: “It is clear that we are the supervisory body. We make the policies and they implement.”

The worn and dilapidated building that housed these ministries—an old “gift from the Chinese,” we were told—was clearly reflective of the communication and capacity issues within.  Electricity cut out twice during our meetings, once with the attorney general, who grimaced and said it happened every day at the same time, and once during a meeting with the deputy agriculture minister, who swore in frustration.

The flow of information was no more reliable. Officials at the local government ministry admitted that they were often unaware of concessions contracts until crises erupted. Some of these crises turned into tragedies—including at least one protest in the last year that left two dead and eight wounded.

Another pattern was complaints from government officials about the lack of capacity – lack of legal, financial, and engineering expertise. One MP commented, “Even we [the central government] feel poorly equipped to negotiate” with companies.  Another secretary sharply criticized the government’s ignorance about the country’s resource deposits, quality, or size.

Government officials agreed Sierra Leone had traded its mineral wealth for too little in return in the past, and said progress in the future would be slow. Meanwhile, local expectations were too high, they said.

One official in the Ministry of Local Government said starkly, “These people have to sacrifice,” while an official in the Agriculture ministry – a former civil society activist — grew frustrated over local misunderstandings: “They [locals] think we’ve already negotiated everything and we’re here to dump them.”

We learned as well that the government is sensitive to foreign perceptions. The recent suspension from the EITI was embarrassing, and ministers repeatedly put the blame in the provinces not in the capital.

Finally, a note about civil society: We met with a handful of groups dedicated to helping local villages and landowners see more profit – or at least see less harm – from these investments. These groups, like Simeon’s Timap for Justice, are providing real service through a variety of avenues: grassroots legal aid, contract renegotiation services, and impact litigation among others.

The flip side, however, is that across the government, officials cited civil society and NGOs as providing a providing a “voice” for locals who are often left out of the formal negotiations process.

We were left with the troubling possibility that the very groups that do the most for local people are giving the government an excuse for doing so little.