What is accountability, and why should it be powered by young people?

This blog was co-written by Bob Lamin, our Communications Officer, and Corina Pickering, our Partnerships Manager, in our Sierra Leone Hub about the Strengthening Accountability, Building Inclusion programme and the recent report we released about our findings from the programme so far.

Definition: being responsible for what you do, and being able to give a reason for it.

Restless Development genuinely believes that young people are able to be the ones who are creating actual, long lasting change in their communities and countries, and we support thousands of young people to do this effectively and at scale.

We’re also living in the time of Peak Youth – there are more young people in the world right now than ever before, and according to projections, more than there will ever be again. We see this demographic not just as a statistic, or even a threat, but as a historic opportunity. Specifically in Sierra Leone, the majority of the population is young, with 62% of the population under 25 years old. However, young people are often talked about as a problem in Sierra Leone. Since the devastating 10 year Civil War, which ended in 2002, people fear what disenfranchised young people are capable of. The manifesto of the successful party in the 2018 election warned of “unskilled and underemployed” young people “roaming the streets”. Despite this, young people played a key role in ending Ebola, and this has been recognised.

During the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Restless Development was in a unique position – we had a network of alumni and young people who were keen to do something about the disease threatening the country. We recruited over one thousand young people as volunteer mobilisers, who then worked in pairs in communities across every district of Sierra Leone. We supported the government’s work, delivering 10,000 sessions in all areas of Sierra Leone, partnering with communities to create and deliver action plans to end Ebola. It was also at this time that we started to research and learn about how we could collect useful data, to also report on community behaviors around the disease.

We started building this concept and model of engaging young people to collect data in real time. Restless Development wanted to see how we could build on the momentum generated by this incredible collective achievement, so we held a workshop (which was sponsored by DFID, the National Youth Commission of Sierra Leone, and UNICEF) with mobilisers and youth activists who were working to address the Ebola outbreak. In this workshop, young people discussed their role in ending Ebola, and how they wanted to be involved in the development of the country going forward. They said they wanted to continue to be involved in monitoring services and continuing to collect data on their available services, as well as continuing to work with communities to develop action plans to address the issue. This is how the model emerged for a programme we now call “Strengthening Accountability, Building Inclusion”.

What is the programme all about?

Restless Development helped to design and deliver the “Strengthening Accountability, Building Inclusion” programme, which is often referred to by its acronym “SABI”. Interestingly, “sabi” in the local Sierra Leonean language Krio, means “to know” or “to understand” – which I think gives people an instant feeling for what the programme is all about.

SABI is a four-year citizen-led accountability programme funded by UK aid and being delivered by a consortium of leading international and Sierra Leonean partners, led by international development agency Christian Aid.

Operational in every district in the country, the programme is strengthening community-led accountability, increasing awareness of, and demand for, the delivery of basic services – including health, education, social protection, water and energy.

SABI is building relationships between citizens and the state and encouraging citizens to fulfil their own responsibilities for social amenities.

Gender equality and social inclusion are central to the programme. SABI is ensuring vulnerable and excluded groups have the skills and support they need to become active agents of change in their communities.

SABI recognises the integral role communities played in the fight against Ebola and presents an important opportunity for accountability programming. By again placing communities at the forefront, SABI is building on the potential to make significant shifts in the role of citizens and the responsiveness of the state for improved service delivery. The programme also aims to assist the government of Sierra Leone to achieve its National Recovery Strategy objectives.

For further general information about SABI, what we do and who we are, visit our website sabi-sl.org, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

So how do we actually do this?

To achieve this, SABI works through volunteers to collect Citizen Perception Data, and then supports communities to use that data to demand improved services in their area. Restless Development recruits and trains counterpart pairs of local and national youths as Youth Accountability Volunteers – the national volunteer moves to the community they’re placed in, and the local community volunteer stays in their own home and community.

The national volunteers are provided with free accommodation, and both local and national volunteers receive a volunteer stipend allowance, as the programme is equivalent to a full time job. We currently have 122 Youth Accountability Volunteers, which make up 61 counterpart pairs, who are working in 610 communities, which are spread across all 16 districts of Sierra Leone. Each counterpart pair of volunteers work with 10 communities, including their ‘Hub’ community where they live, and 9 ‘Satellite’ communities, which are the surrounding areas of their base.

The Youth Accountability Volunteers work with the local community to recruit and train Youth Data Collectors, and they work with them to collect Citizen Perception Data through a mobile phone app called Kobo Collect – each counterpart pair is provided with a mobile phone to use to collect the data). They do this by going from house to house to conduct surveys, asking citizens to reflect on the availability and quality of essential services such as hospitals and schools. We are aware that these tools and surveys must be carefully designed, to avoid the risk of creating further divisions between citizens and service providers, rather than bringing them together as we aim to do.

The data is then fed into and collated in a database for analysis by staff, which shows what Sierra Leoneans in each community think about their local services. So far, SABI has generated a strong evidence of citizen’s perception of health, education and social protection, with approximately 75,000 responses to the surveys collected so far. In 2017, we gathered the experiences of more than 45,000 Sierra Leoneans in 606 communities, 80 wards and 40 chiefdoms. In 2018, we reached up to 29,923 Sierra Leoneans in 610 communities, 106 Wards and 56 chiefdoms. All of this open data is available to view on the SABI website here. As well as helping to collect data, as they live in the local community themselves, the trained Youth Data Collectors also support at community meetings and help the Youth Accountability Volunteers to work closer with the community members.

Restless Development staff and the Youth Accountability Volunteers then work with the Citizen Perception Data which highlights common problems within the community that need addressing. They create infographics and user-friendly facts about the problems, and then organize meetings to sit down with stakeholders in the community, to talk about the issues, do a mapping about who has the power to change the problem and create an action plan for addressing it. If people in the community can advocate for or begin addressing the problem by themselves, then they will start taking actions to do so – for example, if there is an issue with a buildup of rubbish in a particular area of their town, they could include in their action plan multiple activities; a community clean up, raising awareness within the wider community about where waste can be disposed of better, or starting an upcycling project. Other actions could include fundraising (such as to buy school furniture), or meeting with local chiefs (to ask them to support a particular behavior change in the community).

If the community members need the help of others to address the issues, the Youth Accountability Volunteers help organize meetings with local councilors or other local government officials, where the community members and the volunteers can use the Citizen Perception Data to advocate to them to address the problem (for example, for more funding for education in the community, or to enforce an existing law or policy). The volunteers also support their communities to keep track of progress against these action plans.

The Youth Accountability Volunteers receive two residential trainings throughout the one year programme with us – total 3 weeks. These trainings equip them with the knowledge and skills needed to plan, deliver, evaluate and communicate SABI effectively. The trainings are participatory, and cover topics such as; data collection techniques, community mobilization, essential skills and attitudes of a volunteer, facilitating evidence sharing, and action planning.

Restless Development tries to ensure that the Youth Accountability Volunteers themselves are representative of the people they service – applications from young people living with disabilities are encouraged, as are applications from young women. Since the programme started in 2016, there have been 366 Youth Accountability Volunteers – 38% are women, and 3% are people living with physical disabilities.

What have we learnt so far?

With two years of the four-year programme now complete, we can reflect on the design of the project – particularly on how important young people (our volunteers) are in delivering the main parts of the work we do, and how the programme is affecting the volunteers themselves. We also want to delve into how the work of young Sierra Leoneans through SABI is creating a more informed and empowered society who are able to hold service-providers and their leaders accountable. To do this, we have conducted research and self-assessments with our Youth Accountability Volunteers throughout their volunteer journeys, as well as gathering comments and reflections from community leaders. You can read our full report here.

So, what impact has SABI had on the volunteers themselves?

Getting people together:

Volunteers often organize community meetings, which average attendance of is around 38%, but some meetings could have over 100 at them. By the end of the programme, 95% of Youth Accountability Volunteers rated themselves highly skilled at organizing large meetings, up from 60% at the beginning of the programme.

Influencing decisions:

Because volunteers are working with so many service providers, as well as community leaders (such as local chiefs), as well as people such as school principals, they get a strong understanding of how decisions are made in those communities, and in doing so learn how to target them to influence those decisions in line with the data they collect. At the beginning of the programme, 58% rated themselves highly skilled at influencing decision-makers, which increased to 89% at the end. Many volunteers have had a significant impact on social norms in the communities they work in. For example, one volunteer said “Women were never given the chance to make decisions in community meetings, but SABI made them understand that everyone’s voice counts in terms of development, women’s voices were now heard during the meetings we volunteers called for. Another volunteer said “In most of the communities where I worked, the physically challenged were not given the chance to make contributions in development issues, SABI changed that.”

Conflict resolution:

During the programme, volunteers deal with many conflict situations in meetings, in the community and even between the volunteers themselves. When asked about their ability to resolve conflict in their community, 85% felt highly confident to manage conflict, up from 55% at the start. One volunteer said “I resolved the dispute between health workers and community people. There was lack of management in the PHU, pregnant women and lactating mothers didn’t have appointment cards, instead were told to buy books, which were not kept safe at the hospital. Through our work with SABI, the service providers decided to provide a PHU card.”

Impact on the volunteer’s confidence:

As well as gaining valuable skills, the volunteers grow in confidence to do their roles throughout the 12 months they’re on the programme. At the end of their year, 81% of the volunteers felt highly confident in holding service providers to account, compared to 47% before. One volunteer reflected that “SABI made me responsible, professional and made me a leader in the communities I worked.” And another volunteer talked about the training they received from Restless Development – “I had a lot of challenges in my life, but during the training I learnt how to cope and manage in certain situations.”

Skills and aspirations:

We also asked volunteers about their attitudes and aspirations in life, and they showed clear signs of changing attitudes over the course of the programme. By the end, 94% of them thought that they have an important role to play in bringing about change to services, up from 71% at the beginning. When asked if young people are heard by those designing services, the rate of volunteers agreeing more than doubled – from 25% to 68%. In terms of their ideas about their own futures, when asked at the beginning if they have a clear idea about what they will be doing in two years time, 58% said that they did, and this rose to 86% at the end of the programme.

What lies next for the Youth Accountability Volunteers?

We conducted follow-up interviews with the volunteers 6 months after they finished the programme, to find out how they feel about their experience on the programme after having some time to reflect on it.

  • All of the volunteers still felt that SABI was a positive programme to take part in, with all of 100% them saying that they would recommend SABI to a friend.
  • 100% of the volunteers said that they have gained more control over their lives as a result of the programme.
  • 100% think that they made an impact on services during their time on the programme – 8% believed their impact was modest, and 92% believed they made a big impact.

The volunteers still gave positive feedback about how the programme had affected their lives beyond the programme, with 56% saying that the experience had an impact on their future direction, and encouraging some to go back into education. One volunteer said “I am more confident than before and I am being respected in my community now.” Another said “SABI has given me the zeal and the way forward to further my education.”

However, the interviews showed that while some volunteers were able to go back into education, work or even more volunteering, unfortunately 69% hadn’t been able to do so despite these huge gains made in skills, confidence and experience.

The view from the community

Chiefs, Women’s Leaders and other local officials were also asked for their thoughts and comments about SABI in their communities. These conversations showed that all across Sierra Leone, SABI volunteers are being recognised for their work, and young people are seen as providing energy as well as great skills in diplomacy and negotiation.

The Chief of Bonthe who talked about the volunteers, said “They use tact and diplomacy to engage communities that traditionally embrace what one can describe as ‘handouts’ rather than programmes that agitate for social change. We must treasure these exceptional young people.”

A Women’s Leader in Moyamba said “Young people are sometimes considered problematic in our Sierra Leone, however they have been instrumental in our community driving forward improvement in service delivery through the SABI project. This demonstrates that the future of development in Sierra Leone lies squarely in the hands of these young people.”

Community Leaders also spoke about how the volunteers had changed social norms around disability and inclusion. A Community Leader in Bonthe said “What was very surprising for me was seeing people with disabilities being involved; because over the years, we as community members overlooked them in decision making processes. They were marginalized because of their physical appearance. With the help of the SABI project, all categories in our community are now involved in policy and decision making.”

Final thoughts

From doing this research, we’ve found that using young people as the Youth Accountability Volunteers has been a key part of the success of the programme. The volunteers gain a range of skills, they grow in confidence and their attitudes change. The young people involved in SABI seem to be seen differently by leaders, and often come to be seen as leaders themselves. They seem to be actually changing the way that young people are viewed in Sierra Leone, as well as actually improving accountability, inclusivity, and service provision in the communities they work in.For more detail, statistics and recommendations going forward, you can read the full report here (I promise you it’s a good read, and not the boring kind of report that your mind probably just conjured up)!


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What is accountability, and why should it be powered by young people?

by wearerestless Reading time: 11 min