By Nik Hartley, Chief Executive, Restless Development

There is a generation in Africa and Asia more able than ever before to take over the lead role in change for all; and Ebola has been the grimmest of stress-tests to prove it. Nik revisits Sierra Leone, a year after the first case of Ebola, and 12 years after he first was there exploring the possibility of a youth-led national programme after the civil war.

In 2003 I was privileged to travel across every corner of Sierra Leone – from Koinadugu’s hills to Bonthe’s rivers – meeting young people from all walks of life. I met youth groups like the Kono Youth League and the Makeni Union of Youth, which still kept guns and machetes as part of their standard tool set; individuals in Red Cross centres looking for siblings on massive billboards of photos; and patients with limbs lost in UN shelters.

We had been invited to the country by the Ministry of Youth and the UK’s Department of International Development with a question to answer: “Could the Restless Development reputation for building massive cohorts of young people in leading community development be transferred to this post-war world?”

It could. It was. Young people literally dropped everything to sign up to help make it happen. Over the years Restless Development Sierra Leone established itself as the agency for young people. We recruited thousands of young Sierra Leoneans from tens of thousands of applicants to take on the most sophisticated of programmes across the country – their own country – including business-building, corporate partnership programmes and sexual rights programmes. Temne people were placed in Mende areas, Mende in Temne and Crios in both. And it had a significant and well documented impact.

Then came Ebola. Ripping through communities and crossing the country at the same horrible rate of warring factions a decade earlier. A year on from its dreadful outbreak in Kailahun, I have come to meet our volunteers, not far off 2,000 of them, who have been the core of the Social Mobilisation Action Consortium. This consortium, above all other efforts, has turned the tide at scale across the country towards zero new infections.

In case that seems over stated, I have only been here for a couple of days and have heard it repeated in theatrical proportions:

“Young people were the one group we could put our faith in; they have been with us leading our communities for so long, they could guide us in a way others could not” Head-man of the Funkia Community, Freetown.

“Youth have done this; medics have saved lives, but young people have been on the front line changing practices community-by-community”UNFPA Deputy Representative

“350 of our alumni from the last 10 years of work texted back in the first 24 hours saying they were ready to re-join up” James Fofanah, Country Director Sierra Leone (more thoughts from him here)

So let me overstate it. What has emerged here in Sierra Leone is global: young people are the answer to linking global development (the industry behind it and its worthy ambitions that will be signed up to by the world in September) to the millions across world that we want to engage but so rarely do at depth and scale.

Young people make up the vast proportion of the population of nearly every one of the poorest countries on earth. They are able, they are willing and, so often unemployed and desperate for life-changing opportunities. They can and will live at the heart of poverty, and they can change attitudes and behaviours – even the most embedded and controversial of those. Above all, regardless of our role, they will lead change anyway; the only question is how. This is their time.

What Ebola has taught me is our role is simply to offer support, to facilitate their commitment to liaise with their peers, their elders, their most excluded groups and individuals, so that they can shape the world we, the development industry, are so hopeful of.

That is my experience here back in Sierra Leone meeting many of the 2,000 young mobilisers who are living and working full time in half the communities of the country, alongside another 10,000 Community Champions, led by 50+ young staff, half of whom were once volunteers too.

Ebola will reach zero soon thankfully. We must not send these young people home with a “thanks and good job” message. There are livelihoods to grow, human rights to promote, gender issues to transform. And they will do it at depth and scale at the heart of every community, and linked to the government and us, the development sector – if we just give them the chance.

Nik dedicates these few thoughts and his visit to the three young Restless Development volunteers and Ebola-response Mobilisers who have lost their lives during their frontline work in communities over the past 12 months: Esta Kamanda, Daniel Missalie and Morlai Kamara.

What do you think?

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