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

By Will LA. Bennett
2010, Vol. 2 No. 05 | pg. 4/8 |

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 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 as in the absence of channels of communication 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 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.

IV: Sport as a Transferable Medium of Engagement Suitable for Fractious Social Environments

I will divide this chapter into distinct sections. Firstly, I will endeavour to fully clarify the first assumption underlying this paper, namely how sport can replicate war to a certain degree and therefore both ease the reintroduction of combatants into the weave of the social fabric and simultaneously reinvigorate civil society. Secondly I will demonstrate the benefits of social inclusivity that sport encourages. Thirdly I will highlight how sport can and has served as a tool in its own right to plug the gaps in the Sierra Leone’s fledgling government’s schooling system and provide both health and services that afford it a special status as promoting truly holistic development.

Colin McInnes has argued that the west has become physically removed from modern warfare. The increasingly localised and intra-state nature of war, especially in Africa, has rendered the richest and most powerful nations detached from their realities and largely unable to settle their outcomes as they had done with relative ease until the 1960s.49 This has reduced the west to the role of bystander within the complicated triadic nexus of bystander, executioner, and victim. This has various impacting consequences. Negatively, the consequence of this new and largely passive role is that the West finds itself unable to significantly engage with fragile and failing states and as such is able to prevent conflicts relapsing within five years only fifty percent of the time.50 The wider regional and global impact of these new wars makes the need to engage with failed, failing, or fragile states of absolutely the highest importance, with Mark Duffield correctly remarking that the mantra of ‘letting them fight it out amongst themselves’ is no longer a viable option from ‘either an altruistic or realistic perspective.’51 However doing so in an unobtrusive, economical and yet meaningful way is not easy.

I have already mentioned the disconnect between bottom up and top-down policies and will not repeat them here, but in addition to these there is a troubling gap between aid policy and practice that hinders the transition from short-term emergency relief to genuine long-term development. Better policy directives and implementation guidelines must dictate aid allocation and methods of distribution. Perhaps the first principle should be Mary Anderson's 'Do no Harm': Aid misuse has wide reaching negative social and economic impacts, and the primary concern should be at the very least not make things worse.52 Yet by-products of aid such as embezzlement or horizontal show that this concern is not considered enough. Therefore from a wider viewpoint, ensuring four dimensionary policy coherence within the internal departments of each aid agency (internal); across the different aid agencies (harmonisation); between donor and recipient governments (alignment); and from those recipient central governments out to their more rural and disparate provinces (whole of government) will not only 'do no harm', but will in fact augment the efficacy of aid in general. It is a question of designing the right policies and establishing the right channels of dialogue to facilitate more impacting results.53

Sport fits within these engagement requirements. It is a low cost, high impact and transferable medium of engagement that allows for unobtrusive western involvement and encourages safe interaction of people who may have previously felt enmity towards each other. Far from doing no harm, it actually provides a solid social framework that parodies war closely enough to resonate with communities recently affected by it. Indeed the similarities between war and sport seem to go deeper than the obvious correlations of opposing sides, victors, supporters, uniforms, and rules. Moreover it is the sense of brotherhood between the competitors, and the feeling of belonging and shared fate that gives sport real relevance in post and pre-conflict settings. In Sierra Leone, in addition to this fraternal bond there was a pervasive feeling of patrimonialism between child soldiers and their Revolutionary United Front (RUF) commanders during the civil war that ‘was founded upon something way outside the fighting group, [something] within Sierra Leonean society,’54 and Olonisakin notes how ‘Foday Sankoh, the head of the RUF, was fondly called “Papay” by his juvenile followers.’55 However, as Peace Commissioner Dennis Bright dejectedly summed up in 2001, these bonds were afforded the space to form because ‘the only parents [these children] have now are their bush commanders.’56 Yet this notion of patrimonialism in the field is one that mirrors the idea of a sports coach on the pitch and hence provides a hierarchical structure that is easily understandable for former combatants. Therefore just as RUF commanders supplanted the biological fathers of many Sierra Leonean children during the war, so too can inspirational teachers and coaches during peace. Better still, these familial replications can be positively channelled towards improving tolerance and harmony within society for the greater good of the country as a whole.

Martin van Creveld is certain in his deduction that ‘in so far as war, before it is anything else, consists of fighting– in other words, a voluntary coping of danger– it is the continuation not of , but of sport.’57 If we were to reverse this logic that war is the violent continuation of sport, then it would appear fair to assume that, by replicating war, sport can be the medium to encourage its peaceful discontinuation or prevention. It is so effective for four reasons.

Firstly, because sport, like war, is governed by norms that reflect society’s expectations about how it should be conducted, ‘the behaviour of combatants or sports competitors cannot be divorced from the society they represent.’58 As a result sport provides a viable medium through which to alter societal perceptions that can in turn permeate and improve behavioural patterns. Hence in sport projects in Sierra Leone, enormous emphasis has been placed on encouraging tolerance and fair-play amongst the youth that transcend the sports pitch and in fact pervade society itself.

Secondly, sport is closely attached to the notions of loyalty, community, and national identity. Spectators become involved by identifying with participants and vicariously experiencing their emotions. But individual spectators also identify with larger bodies of spectators which ‘provides a communal experience that transcends other social barriers.’59 Such collective behaviour supports Jean Michel Faure’s conclusion that sport is a ‘ritual representation of confrontation’60 which, if played within the rules and expectations set by the society in question (as described in point one), can diffuse social tensions and foster unity en masse.

The third point concerns itself with the difficulty of engaging in development practices highlighted by McInnes. The changing nature of war and what is actually expected from the West means its methods of engagement have to adapt accordingly. These expectations hinge on what is really understood by the word ‘development.’ It is a contested and flexible term that has embodied a number of conflicting practices since its real entry into the global lexicon after the Second World War. The raw pursuit of ‘economic development’ seen in the thirty or so years after 1945 can largely be said to have been synonymous with the belief in the remedial qualities of pursuing ‘modernity.’ The relative failure of this approach has resulted in the current prevalence of a more encompassing definition of development that is considered ‘more than just economic progress measured on a national scale.’61 The term ‘development’ now incorporates social and environmental betterment, and improvements with regards to the protection of , the provision of education, and the rule of law. Consequently, as the scope of what exactly is meant by development increases, and with it too the respective expectations of Western assistance, so too does the need for new approaches both in the field and in policy making. I argue that owing to the suitability of sport defined in points one and two, sport for development programs can bridge this engagement gap and provide the medium for impacting initiatives that work towards improving all of these different facets of development in Sierra Leone. More importantly, the popularity of sport programs in Sierra Leone mean they easily occupy and placate the bulging and potentially dangerous youth. Right To Play’s Program Manager, Moses J. Johnson, spelled out one such positive intention and result of sport programs amongst the youth: ‘Sport leagues encourage community spirit through local competitions between local youths that are supported by their respective friends. Prizes are awarded by local elders, and this interaction of course serves to build respect between the old and young sections of society.’62

Yet away from this more competitive side of sport is the fourth reason of why sport can wean post-war societies off of violence or dissuade potentially opposing forces from fighting: sheer inclusion promotes social harmony. McInnes may have deduced that ‘participation in sport is often associated with professionalism, physical and mental prowess, and an idealised manly virtue,’63 and Lincoln Allison may have added that, sport and war are gendered activities where the virtues expressed in both are essentially masculine,64 but Right To Play and other development NGOs in Sierra Leone harness the power of sport in a much more encompassing way and realise that participation brings more people directly into either the peace or conflict prevention process. In Sierra Leone sport for development initiatives have created young stakeholders in a society that, as we know, was suffering from youth marginalisation. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, and it is worth remembering Eric Hobsbawm who sagely noted that ‘where you see little stake in a system, you may be tempted to destroy it.’65

Given this urgency of creating stakeholders, it is perhaps sensible to look at this fourth point in more detail. Sierra Leone has an enormous youth population, yet the Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has estimated that sixty-seven percent of children do not receive even a primary school education.66 There is a complete lack of sport in schools, which is detrimental not only to the holistic development of children but also to the general level of attendance. Increasing school attendance is a crucial area sport can work towards in Sierra Leone and indeed it his has worked well elsewhere: In Azerbaijan school principles reported an increase in attendance by fifteen to twenty percent when sport was added to the curriculum; parents in western Tanzania noted Right To Play sport programs had resulted in a reduction in school dropouts; and head teachers in Dar Es Salaam reported attendance in school is higher on days when Right To Play activities are offered.67 Drawing on their experiences globally, Right To Play have therefore made a concerted effort to work with schools in Sierra Leone to use sport to entice more children into classrooms. The astonishing level of youth fanaticism for sport makes this particularly successful in getting the children though the school gates, if not entirely guaranteeing their commitment to study: ‘The new mind opium,’ writes Minister of Youth and Sports, Dennis Bright, ‘is the regular viewing of European soccer on satellite TV. Nearly every other youth in urban Sierra Leone is an avid fan of one European Football Club, with school going youth devoting very little time for studies.’68 Whilst this may indicate that sport can in fact be detrimental to the amount of time left for study, it also indicates that sport can mobilise the youth to actually attend school better than perhaps anything else. Furthermore the alternatives to school attendance, regardless of whether the attendees are studying or not, are certainly not preferable: many of Sierra Leone’s youth are,

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