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Rebuilding a National Society

By Rosemarie North

The Sierra Leone Red Cross Society is aiming to become financially independent. How can the Red Cross society in the poorest country in the world rebuild and fund-raise after ten years of civil war?

Rosemarie North /
International Federation

Everyone in the Sierra Leonean city of Makeni is glued to the radio. In the market, people walk around with radios pressed to their ears. They're listening to a woman recount to the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission how she survived a rebel attack on her village near Makeni. "I ran into the bush and hid," she says. "I came out the next day and the village was deserted. There was no one left. That day I buried 17 people from my village."

Makeni fell to the rebels in 1998 and became the base for attacks on other centres, including the capital, Freetown. The town was considered safe for Red Cross activities only last year. The local Red Cross branch health officer in Makem, Kadiatu Dainkey, helped a boy give evidence at the commission. The rebels had stabbed him in the stomach. The wound healed badly and the boy needed surgery.

Because of the town's tragic history, Kadiatu had hoped her branch would receive special assistance to run programmes to de-traumatize and reintegrate communities affected by war. She is frustrated that it has not worked out. "Our needs are quite different from other towns, who have been working for a longer period. We don't have anything. We have had to start over with nothing."

The challenges ahead for not only the Makem branch but also the Sierra Leone Red Cross are formidable. To assist the country in overcoming the effects of ten years of conflict is no easy task. Add to that extreme poverty and lack of internal resources, and the obstacles facing the National Society seem insurmountable.

Assistance from the international community is helping in the recovery process. But one day the aid will stop flowing, and then the country must fend for itself, including the Red Cross. It is this eventuality that many local Red Cross branches are starting to plan for by developing income generation projects. The way forward, though, is not without its difficulties.

The challenge of raising funds locally

In Kenema, in the southern part of the country, branch chairman Sandy Moijueh says he would make typhoid a priority if he had his own income. "People have started dying of typhoid. People do not understand how this disease is contracted. For Kenema, it is urgent to do something to prevent further infections."

Before the war, Kenema used to raise funds by hiring a hall and holding discos, among other projects. But the scarcity of buildings — because so many were destroyed in the war — has put up the cost of hiring a venue, so the branch would not make a profit.

Field officer Steven E.B. Koroma has another motivation for raising money for the city of Kambia, north-east of the capital, Freetown. He would like to see the branch healthy enough to help respond to disasters such as flooding, wild fires, epidemics and hurricanes.

Kambia is raising money from projects such as palm oil plantations and a guesthouse that serves travelling business people. Other income comes from members who pay in the local currency less than 50 US cents a month, and from chiefs and other leaders who pay somewhat less than US$ 1.50. Like many branches, Kambia does not force people to pay membership fees if they cannot.


Rosemarie North /
International Federation

Meeting the needs of the most vulnerable and ensuring the financial survival of the National Society are the principal challenges facing the Sierra Leone Red Cross.

Learning from experience

Some income generation projects do not work. Near Makeni, there is a dirt enclosure with a gaggle of skinny goats and sheep. The aim was for the livestock to be cared for by people maimed during the war. They would breed the sheep and goats for sale. But the investment has not paid off. Some of the goats died after eating plastic. Some of the others are sick; and veterinarians are a luxury.

It is an uphill battle raising funds locally. More than 80 per cent of Sierra Leoneans live in extreme poverty, unable to afford basics like clean water, good nutrition, health care or education. It is the last of 173 countries on the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index. The population has a per capita income of less than 50 US cents a day.

So the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society relies on overseas donors for most of its income. It is grateful for their generosity, but the society shows a healthy wish to stand on its own feet and raise its own money. One of its difficulties is that you need members to be able to raise income. Thousands of people, including members, were displaced by conflict. To complicate it even more, people were suspicious of the Red Cross. They could not understand why the organization had dealt with all sides during the conflict.

In spite of the destruction of the war, today only two districts do not have active branches. One of these districts is Pujehun in the south of the country. Once the district has its own building, it will have crossed the last hurdle needed for branch status, say chairman Emmanuel Kallon and coordinator John Koroma, from an office they personally pay for. Local chiefs have donated a big piece of land. And the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society has provided additional funds to construct a building that should be completed this year.

Local fund-raising initiatives

Although Pujehun would like to be stronger, it has 600 members in five groups. The problem is keeping them committed, says Emmanuel. "It is difficult to get 50 people in a meeting. Maybe if you have this set of people for the meeting, you will have a different set next time. We are really trying to encourage people to be interested and come."

Because of its position near the Liberian border in south-eastern Sierra Leone, Pujehun was one of the first areas to be taken by rebels in the war. Since peace was declared last year, it has seen huge numbers of displaced people returning from other parts of Sierra Leone or abroad. Many traumatized and mutilated people are living there. And the peace is uneasy. Near the border with Liberia, you can hear gunshots. So there's a lot of work to be done. Emmanuel says it's frustrating that many overseas agencies pulled out soon after the fighting stopped.

Once it is a branch, Pujehun hopes to initiate projects such as a literacy programme for young people who have never had the chance to go to school, health clinics, water and sanitation, preventing fires in wooden homes and rehabilitating people damaged by war.

Bo, one of the strongest branches, has raised money — and profile — by winning contracts from the United Nations and international non-governmental organizations. For example, it delivers World Food Programme supplementary feeding through the branch clinic, transports patients discharged from hospital, runs a rice cultivation project for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and arranges for burials of people who die at nearby refugee camps.

At a meeting with donor National Societies, the president of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society, Dr. M.A.S. Jalloh, said they still needed outside help. "The government of Sierra Leone is having an uphill task addressing the humanitarian needs of the country. The government needs support. A lot of us are uneasy. Peace has come to this country, and we feel that sooner or later we will be left on our own to fend for ourselves with very little resources."


Denis Allistone
Denis Allistone, ICRC regional delegate in Kiev.

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