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Liberal chiefs or illiberal development? The challenge of engaging chiefs in DFID's security sector reform programme in Sierra Leone


Written by Lisa Denney

It is increasingly recognised that informal actors, including chiefs, are dominant providers of services and need to be factored into overwhelmingly state-focused programmes.

While informal actors indeed offer important opportunities for deepening donor development and governance programmes, there is a danger of replacing the simplistic ‘state-good; informal-bad’ mindset that has often predominated with the equally limited ‘informal-good’ assumption. Informal actors, while an essential element of the governance matrix in many African states, also pose real challenges for the political and bureaucratic nature of many donors.  

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) has carried out a relatively successful security sector reform (SSR) programme in Sierra Leone since 1998. However, in doing so, DFID has engaged almost exclusively with state security providers, neglecting informal actors, which risks limiting the overall success of DFID’s SSR programme.

This article reveals real and important challenges to development in Sierra Leone, such as the illiberal character of some informal actors and DFID’s liberal bureaucratic nature, while raising questions about the success of development without the involvement of informal actors.

An important step towards addressing the obstacles donors face in engaging with chiefs is to think more carefully about how aid spending is represented to the public and to start to communicate the more complicated messages about development.

Lisa Denney