As part of a series of webinars on the subject of systems change, Mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Amujae Leader Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, OBE spoke to Elena Bonometti, CEO of community empowerment organization Tostan about the importance of local government as an enabler of change.
Referencing Mayor Aki-Sawyerr’s TED Talk in which she spoke about successful governance requiring leaders to talk to their communities “under the trees,” Ms. Bonometti began the conversation asking why local influencers are critical to enabling change in communities at the local and national levels. Drawing on lessons learned from leaders during previous Ebola outbreaks, Mayor Aki-Sawyerr spoke about the need for bringing about a massive change in behavior, where “saving your life meant making some personal decisions about what you would, and would not, do.”
To bring about the changes needed to address the Ebola outbreak and now the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Aki-Sawyerr spoke about the need for trust before people change their attitudes and behavior—something that cannot happen overnight but is built over time. This trust requires engaging with influencers at every level of society who are able to deliver messages with the nuance required to suit the context of each audience. For example, in informal Freetown settlements where water is limited and dwellings overcrowded, there had to be dialogue about what would be possible to stop the spread of infections while taking into account limited resources.
“ lessons from Ebola came to bear. We’ve engaged influencers, we’ve engaged leadership groups. In community levels we’ve set up leadership groups.”
As the discussion moved onto local governance and its challenges, Mayor Aki-Sawyerr highlighted how local decision-making has been the bedrock of growth in many European countries with the majority of budget decisions taken locally. In Sierra Leone, however, less than 10 percent of spending decisions happen at a local level. On the long-term effects of national rather than local leadership on the African continent, Mayor Aki-Sawyerr commented:
“ removed the strength and in some ways the relevance of local governance. Local governance is incredibly important. I am totally committed to the belief that we will only develop as a continent when local governance is strengthened.”
She went on to say:
“Local government, by virtue of its proximity to the governed, has the real, unique opportunity and ability to listen and to respond.”
A further question was asked about Mayor Aki-Sawyerr’s experiences of being a woman in leadership. She shared that initially she had been surprised that so many people had asked her similar questions before and immediately after her election, having been encouraged to follow her ambitions by her family. However, once she was elected Mayor, the reasons for the questions became apparent: “I have been shocked by the level of chauvinism, misogyny, that I have experienced.” However, Mayor Aki-Sawyerr added that being a woman leader brings a lens of compassion to her role:
“The good news is that we are different We are equal, but we are different. There is a lens that I bring, as a mother, as someone who thinks about things maybe a male colleague wouldn’t think about And that can be very helpful.”
At the close of the session, Mayor Aki-Sawyerr commented on her hopes for the future of Freetown, saying:
“We’re taking risks. We’re doing experiments. We’re trying to speak to our people. We’re respecting our residents. And we’re hoping that we can get the buy in for us to have solutions that are collective.”