Community mediation in Liberia: Ebola, child welfare and building trust

In late July last year, my organization, the Citizens Bureau for Development and Productivity (Citizens Bureau) formally launched a community mediation program in Logan Town, Monrovia. With technical support from the Accountability Lab (a local NGO) and seed-funding from Trust Africa (a pan-African grantmaker) we had very high hopes. Packed in a hot, unlighted church for the launch event were civil society representatives, government officials, and personnel of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

At the time, we could scarcely have imagined that just days later Patrick Sawyer, a government consultant, would die from Ebola in Nigeria, igniting global fears of a disease that had been percolating in Liberia for months. While our challenges in establishing operations during Ebola were formidable, they are emblematic of the historical trials we have endured and which continue to manifest themselves in a variety of ways – from physical conflict to outbreaks of disease.

Times have been difficult since the launch- we’ve been afflicted by a pervasive fear and mistrust, similar to that which emerged during the 14 year civil war in our country. While many cultural practices have changed overnight to combat Ebola, the challenging circumstances that make life hard for Liberians have not. A lack of accountability, access to justice, and equal opportunities for all have led to immense tensions. In West Point, a low-income community in Monrovia (and home to our sister mediation organization), an Ebola treatment center was ransacked and a child was shot during a protest calling for the removal of a barricade quarantining the community. Most of these cases directly or indirectly involve children, who are of course the future of our country and those who will be responsible for sustaining our development efforts.

While sensational reporting grabs international headlines, it is the unreported everyday challenges that define life in Liberia and which our citizens struggle with every day. During my service as a member of the Liberian National Police, I experienced firsthand the importance of building community trust in the institutions of the state. Now with the Citizens Bureau, we seek to supplement the capacity of the state, saving affected parties time and money while using local mediators to hear civil complaints and offer non-binding solutions.

The disputes we mediate come in a variety of forms. Recently, a young girl called Deborah* came to us in tears, explaining that she was forced to sell cassava on the street. Our team stepped in and worked with her guardian to see if there was a better way to supplement their income and keep the girl in school. Since then we’ve provided her with a scholarship and we are working within the community to monitor her progress in school as it reopens, following a prolonged closure due to Ebola.

In another instance, our mediators prevented an angry crowd from lynching a teenage thief. We identified the primary culprit responsible for beating the thief and impressed upon him that mob justice was not the way to solve the problem. We also worked with the thief and the community to rebuild trust. We sat the thief down with the victims several times to talk through the issues- he admitted wrongdoing, the property was returned, he was forgiven for his actions, and those he had violated have played a leading role in helping him become a more productive member of the community.

In another case, a woman called Bethany came to us distraught at the fact that her niece was being accused by the community of being a witch. Our team stepped in and persuaded the community that witchcraft does not exist and that they should work to integrate her into society. It took time (it was one of our longest running mediations to date), but now Bethany’s niece is living harmoniously in Logan Town.

Despite the suffering, the attention Liberia is currently receiving as a result of Ebola presents an opportunity for our country. Civil society organizations like the Citizens Bureau are striving to ensure that this moment is seized and that our society is transformed for the better through efforts to build trust and work collaboratively within communities. We are taking the lead, but like the Ebola response, this is a global effort. We as Liberians need to find the solutions to our challenges, and we are doing so. Let’s forge a silver-lining from this latest catastrophe to empower ourselves, protect our children, and embrace a better future.

John Kamma is Executive Director of the Citizens Bureau. The Accountability Lab Liberia supported him in writing this blog.

(*Names changed to protect identities)