The success of the 2007 elections in Sierra Leone can be partly attributed to development partners’ harmonised approach to supporting the electoral process. These were the first elections to be run by the Sierra Leone government. Together with donors, the government recognised that in order to maintain stability, it was critical that the elections be recognised as free and fair, that the process be non-violent and that the results be widely accepted. This required a mix of funds, appropriate technical assistance and capacity building to ensure that the Sierra Leone authorities, and in particular the National Election Commission, were well prepared.
Because there is only a small number of donors active in Sierra Leone, informal co-ordination is common – harmonisation less so. An exception to this was the establishment of a basket fund to support the 2007 elections, managed by UNDP. The basket fund’s steering committee included donors who were unable to actually participate in the fund; this helped to eliminate overlaps between their efforts and those of the fund. In many respects, the basket fund worked well, although it might have operated even more effectively if it had supported civil society organisations, especially women’s and youth organisations.
Overall, the elections were well run. They were considered free and fair by international observers, and when the government was defeated, it stepped down peacefully – a remarkable achievement given Sierra Leone’s recent history. The Electoral Commission was praised for conducting the elections in a professional, transparent and impartial manner.
Civil society groups, government, media and donors helped to strengthen the election process, making it robust and credible, and owned by all citizens – women and men alike. A Civil Society Action Group played an important role, especially in preventing election violence; women’s and youth organisations also campaigned against violence. The strategic leadership and vision behind the process, the involvement of government at all levels, and the engagement of people in remote areas all played a key role, as did the involvement of the media. Furthermore, election monitoring conducted by trained citizens strengthened accountability, as did the setting of standards for vote counting.
Capacity development extended well beyond individual training to cover strengthening of institutions and structures. Although costly and time-consuming, this was essential to build capacity at all levels of society, including civil society, the media and the government.