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A Changing Lens for Africa

2011 December 2

This is the first part of a two part piece article on SFCG’s latest research that informs our regional strategy in Africa. Read the second part here.

Changing images of Africa

It’s easy to dismiss Africa’s conflicts as tribal, intractable and monolithic but Frances Fortune, Search for Common Ground’s Africa Program Director doesn’t see it that way. Most recently based out of Sierra Leone, Frances has worked in post-conflict settings for over 20 years. Recently in DC to speak about our new regional projects and research, she sees hope, growth and changes in African conflicts that can be used to inform conflict transformation in our work, on the continent and beyond.

One of these new projects of conflict transformation is an elections toolkit for post conflict countries, where elections can be a particularly tense time and the threat of violence looms large. SFCG has had success in reducing tension and violence around elections. A large reason for this, Frances says, is because SFCG brings civil society perspectives into decision-making processes from the beginning. Too often civil society actors are asked to give lip service and legitimacy to government policies without having a say in what those policies are; or asked to work on small projects with limited impact. They can, however, do much more.

Traditional areas of involvement of civil society in electoral processes are in voter education and observation and the usual approach has been one of civil society being a service provider to Electoral commissions. However, civil society can be utilized for much more. In countries where democracy is either new or tenuous, bringing civil society actors in from the beginning of the electoral process can generate confidence in the process. They are able to provide an independent voice where often, even media cannot.

Stopping to listen for elections updates in Sierra Leone

SFCG looks for areas where civil society has not normally been included such as electoral reform and hiring of electoral commission staff, supporting parallel vote counts and other areas which can enhance public education. In many post-conflict settings, electoral commissions are deeply underfunded, especially between elections. In this “downtime” voter education becomes a slush fund from which electoral commissions pay staff and finance initiatives. Civil society can help by taking on the task of voter education and by advocating effective funding for electoral commissions between elections. Also unique to SFCG’s work in elections is connecting a fully operational civil society to the media to generate a national conversation about the electoral process.

In post-conflict settings, the relationship between media and politicians is often transactional. Without media monitoring, newspapers and radio stations can become party mouthpieces and their allegiances are known to the population. However, SFCG has created models of how media can be used to move away from this transactional relationship to a more interactive one, where conversations can be two-ways.

Sierra Leone is deeply divided regionally and political between the North and South/East. During the 2007 elections, SFCG used radio to humanize the ‘other’ through joint-broadcasts from community radio stations across the country. Because the political divisions in Sierra Leone are largely regional, many people had never met or even spoken with an opposing supporter. “Community radio is by its nature very local, and we allowed for local debate,” Frances says. Through radio, showcasing the voices and concerns of real people, each side was able to see that they had shared desires, fears and sometimes even opinions on how to solve problems.

Sierra Leoneans queue in the rain to vote in the 2007 elections

Emotions run highest before elections, but afterwards, more opportunities for reconciliation abound. Post election in Liberia, SFCG went into divided communities where the incumbent won by a small margin, bringing in the winning and losing candidates so that both could be celebrated. Additionally, SFCG worked with the community to set a development agenda where diverse voices could be heard.

In building the elections toolkit, SFCG conducted a survey with 4000 people across West Africa and found that people did not vote based on knowledge of good leadership. Consistently people could list the qualities of a good leader but when voting, little of that information came into play. “People were voting around fear,” Frances says. They were afraid they wouldn’t have jobs if their party didn’t win, that their livelihoods would be diminished, and in many countries this is true. “Post conflict means that institutions are not strong,” say Frances, “These are new countries.”

Continue to the second part of this article…

2 Responses leave one →
  1. December 4, 2011

    Love this! Seems like the right partners form an Africanist photographer whó only takes posive shots! I want to help you rebranding Africa! [email protected]

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