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What the Cluster Model Can Bring to Sierra Leone

The Freetown Cluster is going through an important stage in its development. Our co-leader TED LANKESTER went to see them not long ago, and here's some of what he learned.

What would you think of if I asked you to think about Sierra Leone? Ebola? A brutal 11 year civil war?

I have my own thoughts. Of kind, welcoming people. Of colourful stylish clothes. Of some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And of a new generation of people, who want to put their past problems behind them in order to own their futures, with help and accompaniment.

The country has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. Its people would be the first to admit that money is in short supply and often doesn’t reach the places it’s most needed. And yes, the country took a real hammering from Ebola, which has left a devastating effect on health systems, especially in the welfare of children and pregnant mothers.

How can a situation like this exist in spite of development efforts? If you're reading this, then you may well have read books, blogs or seen TED talks that try to answer just this question.

I’ve been involved in this field for years. With my ‘other hat on’ I am a doctor caring for the health and wellbeing of international humanitarians. And I hear and see a familiar story all the time…

A development agency goes into a ‘low-income’ country. They try and discover the problems. They write proposals. A group of them (some of whom have never travelled outside their own country before) come in for a few years to help put the situation right. Afterwards, they do an evaluation, and then they go home.

What happens to the community once they've gone? At best it will have made some helpful differences, leaving people better informed. But more often, it leaves a bewildered community asking itself what to do next. Possibly another group of people on the next plane, but coming in with a new programme?

Now, tell me, can you or one of your younger family members do a headstand? Give it a go! Why? Because we - and an increasing number of people like us - think we need to stand development on its head.

At CHGN, we don’t start with health problems. Instead, we start with strengths: health assets, gifts and abilities.

We don’t start with experts coming in to decide what problems the community faces. Instead, we start by making sure the community identifies their own challenges, and their barriers to health and wellbeing.

We do this because in almost all circumstances, the community knows more about its challenges than anyone else. It already knows about its gifts and abilities.

And who knows best about finding solutions to these challenges? Experts 3,000 miles away will know some of the best evidence-based answers, but the people who really know the situation best are local change-makers, local champions, and that growing number of people who realise that social enterprise may have the best answers for their situation.

This doesn’t mean that health and development experts aren't needed. Rather, it means they need to have a newly defined role and approach. Well not really new, very old actually! An ancient Chinse proverb says: 'outsiders can help, but insiders must do the job'.

And so development workers and sensitive outsiders do have a valuable role. This role is firstly as learners, listeners and friends. Only then, they can become people who can help ‘fill the gaps' by providing training and making connections to those with skills which the community may not possess.

But the rights and the privileges for leading the future are reserved for communities, no matter how small, no matter how remote, no matter how ‘poor’.

So let’s think about Sierra Leone again, and our new Cluster that’s forming in Freetown.

Two weeks ago Elizabeth and I met with a number of community leaders there. Our meetings started with 35 people with their heads down, wanting to hear another talk, not expecting to be asked their ideas, some probably hoping for a per diem.

But gradually they came to see that they were being asked what they could do and how they could solve their challenges. The meeting erupted into one of excitement and passion. Groups moved to the four corners of the room, scribbled ideas on paper, and came to the front to explain their plans. In the end we had to prevent people from giving any more ideas as we were way over time.

But of course they also mentioned what they did not feel able to do, and what outside help they would like to have.

The big popular demand was for leadership training. So that’s what we're planning to set up over a 3 day specially designed programme in a few months time. We'll have more on this soon.

The people in this room represented just a few communities in one country. But thousands of people in a thousand different places doing a thousand little things can change the face of our world. And even more so if the love of God and the values of kindness and justice are woven into our ventures. In that meeting in Sierra Leone, I got a glimpse of just that.

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