Idle Youth: Using Sport to Address the Youth Bulge in Sierra Leone

By Will LA. Bennett
2010, Vol. 2 No. 05 | pg. 2/5 |

The Changing Nature of Warfare and the Resulting, and Necessarily new Approaches to Conflict Prevention and Post-conflict Initiatives

Carl von Clausewitz’s most basic analogy of war is rooted in sport. His depiction of two wrestlers struggling for control is the purest representation of combat he presented. Yet the traditionally symmetric nature of warfare symbolised in the wrestlers and parodied on a larger scale by uniformed armies fighting for territory and resources has been supplanted by a more diverse conflict paradigm where inter-state warfare is a rarity and intra-state conflicts the norm. These so called ‘New Wars’32 are usually fought by a multitude of actors both internal and foreign who represent both the public and private sectors.

At the intersection of these sectors where public and private, political and economic interests collide, new wars occur, driven by external factors and actors, and sensitive to regional developments. In addition, their asymmetry, the distorting presence of valuable resources, and the relative ease of acquiring weapons has seen more recent conflicts being fought by the people and amongst the people so that civilian populations have increasingly borne the brunt of casualties.33 Not only are these new wars more decimating to entire societies rather than just their military personnel and infrastructure, there complexity means they are also more cyclical and likely to relapse; indeed it has been found that over fifty percent of wars restart within five years34 and seventy-five percent of all countries with recent conflict will likely experience conflict again in the next decade.35

Given these high stakes and new conditions, conflict resolution and subsequent rebuilding and prevention policies must therefore cater for the now prevailing societal aspects of those said conflicts. Conflict resolution, immediate relief efforts, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) policies, and development initiatives must all initially place conflict prevention as their primary target, and strive to fully engage all sections of the societies in question in a ‘bottom up’ approach. Yet for real results, the target must be to prevent this bottom up approach from being mutually exclusive to the more traditional ‘top-down’ variety. The current perception that NGOs address issues at grass-roots level, and that multi and bilateral donors and other conventional development actors offer official development assistance (ODA) at the national level must be challenged. Instead the aforementioned societal aspect of contemporary African conflicts necessitates a new more inclusive, more socially sensitive and most importantly more coherent approach that links development initiatives from above and below.

This makes sense from every angle. The simple fact that both NGOs and the government share the same long term aim of inducing sustainable development is reason enough to coordinate their efforts, but also from an economic perspective the potential benefit of joined up policies preventing program duplication and resource waste should not be ignored. As such, strategies that link the bottom up NGO and top-down ODA methods in a more holistic manner must be given more support in the conflict prevention field. As this paper will demonstrate, using the convening power of sport is one such low cost, high impact method that works both to bind post-conflict societies at the general populace level and also include nascent governments in the post war restructuring process. This latter’s inclusion is obviously of particular importance with regards to building a sense of trust amongst the people in the emerging political systems and its representatives; and certainly in the interest of conflict prevention it is the youths within society that must be made to trust in the national leadership most of all. Indeed Ismail Rashid underlines this requirement well:

Central to ensuring the stability of democratic regimes and promoting good governance practices in West Africa is the challenge represented by the region’s youth…the challenge of youth transcends their involvement in violence. It also includes their use as sex objects, forced labourers, couriers and consumers of illegal drugs, and victims of infectious diseases such as HIV and AIDS.36

Hence we can see here that the youth related challenges in the region are not just related directly to violence, but in fact the problems are much deeper and incorporate a host of illegal activities that are all precursors to, or drivers of, violence in their own right. What links them all is their prominence in places where states fail to provide for their youth populace. Such paucity of governmental control allows for illegal and insalubrious activities to flourish. This gives weighty credence to Rashid’s deduction that addressing the youth bulge is the central challenge to the overall stability of the region’s governments.

It was Rashid again who asserted that ‘youths are victims of war, poverty and disease but they must also be considered conscious agents and full citizens.’ 37 They have a vital role to play in working towards sustainable growth, political development and stability. Indeed ‘the interests of children and youths must be reflected in the political agenda, economic development, and resource allocation in national and regional budgets.’38 This advocates the aforementioned necessity of peace building efforts from above working in concurrence with more hands-on bottom up methodologies.

Sierra Leone’s government too is beginning to recognise this. Regionally the ball was started rolling in 1999 by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Security Mechanism aimed at launching regional dialogue on the problems of child soldiers and war orphans. This was reinforced by the Accra Declaration in 2000 which ensured that ECOWAS had a permanent Child Protection Unit in its secretariat. The trickle down effect of these initiatives saw Sierra Leone create a National Commission for War Affected Children in 2002. This seemed to be a response to the challenge of engaging with a youth that ‘felt alienated, abused, discouraged, and abandoned.’39 These feelings were to a large extent hangovers from the war itself. The RUF had been established by young people in Freetown, the majority of whom were students. They were ‘disheartened by the lack of prospects and angered by the governments negative role.’40 It could even be argued that their predicament was made more dangerous by an engrained propensity towards violence born from the legacy of the brutal Siaka Stevens. Indeed Cyril Foray, formerly Stevens’ foreign minister, concluded:

The idealisation of violence by Mr. Stevens and his political cohorts produced a belief among a whole generation of young Sierra Leoneans that violence pays, that it is or can be a way of life and that it is the shortest and most effective route to achievement and success.41

Therefore much of the RUF was imbibed with a deep-rooted belief in the legitimacy of aggression and revelled in the fear-preying power it inevitably brought. Lacking education and job opportunities, with no visible path to take, and in the absence of traditional schooling and the associated receipt of awards, praise, success and advice, many young Sierra Leoneans were drawn towards the RUF in pursuit of the respect and recognition missing from their lives. Consequently, after the war the government were faced with the serious task of not only providing the youth with this sense of value, but also altering the mentality a generation raised on the virtues of violence. This certainly fell within the bracket of new, societal based challenges that required deeper, more sensitive responses.

However recognising and addressing these new societal problems does not mean pursuing traditional economic growth can be ignored; indeed there is a strong case linking conflict directly to poor or slow economic development. It appears low growth rates and GDP are synonymous with conflict, and conflict is almost invariably a precursor to economic stagnation. Paul Collier’s research is especially enlightening on this subject. He found that:

  • If income per person doubles, the risk of conflict is halved.
  • If there is a 20-25% primary resource dependence, conflict is five times more likely.
  • Conflict economies grow 1-2% slower than peace economies.
  • Countries with an annual income of 4000 USD per capita are three times less likely than those with an annual income of 1000 USD.
  • When an economy shrinks 6%, conflict becomes twice as likely as when an economy increases 6%.42

Thus it would appear that to a large extent traditional growth orientated prescriptions are antidotes to conflict. These results also link conflict firmly to poverty. This confirms the need to integrate conflict prevention into development strategies, security considerations, and aid polices in order to address the aforementioned social drivers of bad neighbourhoods, horizontal inequalities, natural or primary resource dependency, the legacies of past conflicts, and of course demographic youth bulges.

Inverting Collier’s logic and statistical results, it would appear sage to deduce there is also a profound correlation between sound development and conflict prevention. Yet Collier’s research rests on the understanding of the term ‘development’ as in fact economic development measured in terms of GNP. There are three things missing from a purely economic and national measurement of development: A sense of spatial differentiation, for example between the inevitably distinct urban and rural data; differences of scale– by lumping all citizens together the potential for gauging individual, local or regional development is lost; and finally, numerical conclusions ‘fail to see inequalities’43 within societies that may in fact be hindering development. Furthermore quantitative analysis tends to ‘exclude feelings, experiences, and opinions of individuals and groups… [and] reinforces outsiders’ ideas about development rather than what local people feel it is or should be.’44

Sport for development efforts in Sierra Leone are instead working towards qualitative results. These can be loosely linked to the International Labour Order (ILO) and World Bank approach under Robert McNamara who pushed the concept of ‘basic needs’ having grasped that the intended trickle down of top-down policies ‘were limited in their success at reducing poverty.’ If we are to continue along Collier’s line of argument that poverty is inseparably linked to conflict, we must also conclude that in failing to address the former, trickle down policies also failed in their efforts to prevent the latter. The ‘Basic Needs Approach’ (BNA) outlined four necessary conditions that must be provided:

  1. The basics of personal consumption– food, shelter, clothing.
  2. Access to essential services– clean water, sanitation, healthcare, education, and transport.
  3. Access to paid employment.
  4. Qualitative needs– the provision of healthy and safe environments and ability to partake in the decision making process.45

Sport projects in Sierra Leone very much fit into the fourth category, but also provide aspects of the second such as education. And although the Basic Needs Approach is considered dated now, I argue that by going some way to provide these needs sport for development projects in Sierra Leone augment the chances of participants securing access to paid employment by ‘improving the skills and education of the population [which] has the concomitant potential for contributing to greater economic growth.’46

Thus in essence, sport programs provide the social, physical and educational tools necessary to improve the individual potential of young Sierra Leoneans. Collectively, this can induce what might be coined a Sport for Development ‘multiplier effect.’

Figure 3. Keynes’ Multiplier Effect.

Figure 3

As opposed to Keynes’ cycle that depends upon governmental or private investment to create jobs and kick-start capital flows (Figure.3), this relies upon indirect job creation through the provision of better education and life-skills in a setting where uninhibited social interaction facilitates the sharing of ideas and entrepreneurship (Figure.4).

Figure 4. Sport for Development Multiplier Effect.

Figure 4

Whilst Keynes’s Multiplier Effect may have had its day at the forefront of development thinking by the time of the debt crisis in the seventies, and whilst current emphasis seems to be on the notion of sustainability, it would be myopic to assume that it is a case of choosing one or the other. Rather these two approaches must be galvanised. As such these two multiplier effects work in synergy at the micro and macro levels. The micro Sport for Development multiplier effect demonstrates how sport programs are directly beneficial to ‘non-material aspects of development, in particular empowerment, participation, and democratisation.’47 These skills endow the participants with the qualities needed to enter into the macro Keynesian cycle more easily. Furthermore, better educated, skilled, and healthy youths will not only make this transition more seamlessly, they will also offer a better standard of participation in the national economic cycle once they are there. This in turn will attract more investment and continue to drive the Keynesian cycle at a higher rate.

This cycle also fits within the current trend to see successful conflict prevention as dependent upon pushing for deeper structural reform that addresses the roots of conflict. In Sierra Leone the roots were, as I have shown, a combination of youth marginalisation, economic stagnation, and a belief in the value of violence as the principal agent of social change. However youths engaging in sport for development programs have the opportunity to eradicate these social ills. From a youth perspective it is a case of being part of program that can change their fortunes and offer them a platform. From a governmental point of view, supporting youth sport for development projects works primarily to rebuild a social contract by appearing to place the citizen rather than the state at the centre of its policy initiatives. This human security approach encourages incorporation of youths into programs regardless of ethnicity, ability or gender, and is in keeping with new conflict preventative measures that are directed at reducing structural horizontal inequalities at the local level.

When local investments of time and money in youth schemes are undertaken correctly, project ownership can be given to local community members– and as Save the Children, War Child and Right To Play have found, local ownership of projects renders them locally accountable and more likely to succeed. As such the community members with whom they work have more say, and their participation can lead to a ‘stronger civil society and contribute to the democratic process’48 by familiarising those involved with political values.

To sum up, the two flow diagrams in this chapter concerning micro and macro development must be merged to better understand how to approach the new societal challenges arising from the changing nature of warfare. It would therefore also make sense to merge the thinking of Paul Collier and David Keen. The former’s heavy reliance upon data and economic rationality renders his judgements often quite impersonal. Greed, as he asserts was a huge factor in prolonging the war in Sierra Leone, but so too was the lack of respect and recognition shown to a violent minded and disaffected youth highlighted by Keen.

Disillusionment and shame fuelled the conflict as in the absence of channels of communication violence became a means of raising grievances. As the next chapter will show, using sport to open such channels so as to prevent the populace resorting to violence has been a crucial and transferable lesson from Sierra Leone. By highlighting and addressing the root causes of the civil war within society, sport can endow to a generation the skills needed for societal and community progress as the micro-economic level, which at the same time work to induce structural improvements required for long term macro-economic growth.

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