Sierra Leone is now one of Ireland’s partner countries under the Irish Aid development programme, a match less surprising than you might think as the two small coastal nations have much in common.
The West African country was riven by a decade of civil war funded by the sale of so-called ‘blood diamonds’. But almost 12 years on from that conflict, an air of optimism is tangible in Freetown’s muddy streets.
In the beachside capital, the Irish flag flies over a walled compound, down an earth-covered road. It’s dwarfed by the nearby British embassy but work done here is injecting a steady drip of progress behind the scenes in the areas of justice and food-security.
Dubliner Sinead Walsh supervises various programmes - mainly on nutrition and gender issues - from the Irish Aid office, which was upgraded to Embassy status in January.
Ms Walsh works with the Sierra Leone government and in partnership with other NGOs.
She said: ‘The country after the war was destroyed. I was here in 2005 before I moved here in 2011, it’s remarkable the changes even since then.
‘Most of our programmes are about women, and rights. It’s an area that was neglected for a long time, even in Ireland. About 50% of girls by 18 here have either given birth or are pregnant, it’s a huge problem and something the government here is taking on.’
Gender projects include a partnership with American NGO International Rescue Committee to run the country’s only Rape Crisis centres. Known lovingly as the ‘Rainbo Centres’ they are part of a wider network including the courts and police trying to change attitudes to rape.
But according to Irish Aid, this is just the tip of the ice-berg. Gender inequalities are found in legislation, access to services, lack of rights and even in social participation.
Ms Walsh said: ‘In the last ten years, the government of Sierra Leone has shown increased commitment to enacting laws and policies for reducing gender-based violence. It’s however not evident to what extent these frameworks are effective.’
Legislative changes enacted since 2007 targetting gender-based violence are very strong, but the police and courts are hampered financially. Ireland funds Saturday Courts (link to story) in partnership with the UN, as well as providing training to police units called ‘Family Support Units.’
In common with other Irish Aid countries, a central focus here is MAM (moderate actute malnutrition). This is inspired by the relatively new understanding of how crucial the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are to development.
‘It’s not just about food. Sometimes the child will have enough calories, but not the right food. I find this very sad, they may never recover from that. Two-fifths of the children in this country are already suffering from MAM. Some of their physical and mental ability is gone, they will never get that back,’ Ms Walsh said.
Irish funding supports the National Food and Nutrition Policy – taking on the role of staff training and supporting the system. This is not perhaps as visible or easily explainable at home in Ireland as handing out food-packs to starving children, but it is vital, she said.
Linked to this, Ireland also works with local NGOs on land rights and women’s land rights. One of these groups, Green Scenery (link here to that story) works on the contentious issues around leasing of large tracts of land to multi-national palm oil companies.
And while the challenges are significant, Ms Walsh is positive about the Irish impact. As she talks, she leans over the table emphasizing points, and seems excited to be part of this nation getting back on its feet.
‘You can get together here and talk, it can help - this work on violence is really filtering down. It’s a small country, we know people here, and we can get a lot done.
‘I feel very fortunate to be here, it’s a good fit for Ireland,’ she said.
More from Niamh Griffin's trip to Sierra Leone:
‘Now people will be more careful when they are brutalizing our girls and our women’
Oil effects: Sierra Leone's once-pristine landscape is being replaced by palm trees
Diamond in the Rough project showcase (Mail on Sunday)
Diamond in the Rough documentary and interview with Minister Joe Costello and with Geraldine Horgan from the Sierra Leone Ireland Partership (podcast; Near FM, Monday, April 28, 2014).
Niamh Griffin travelled to Sierra Leone with support from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. The fund was set up in memory of Irish journalist Simon Cumbers. In June 2004, at the age of 36, Cumbers was shot dead in Saudi Arabia while working with the BBC.