Building Homes: A Discussion with Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr of Freetown, Sierra Leone - Transcript

Matt McGarry: Hello, everyone! My name is Matt McGarry. I’m CRS’ senior director for development. We’re thrilled to have you here with us as we take a close look at how CRS is implementing our Homes and Communities objectives at the local level through the lens of a truly special partnership with the municipal government of the city of Freetown, Sierra Leone. This work is only possible because of your support. So, we’re especially excited to report back and share with you some of the impact that your generosity has made possible.

Joining us today is Her Worship Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone; Jamie Richardson, shelter and settlements technical advisor on CRS’ humanitarian response team, who is in Malawi; Caroline Raes, senior program manager for CRS, who is in Freetown; and then Andreas Sashegyi, CRS foundation board director calling in from Indiana.

To start us off, I’d like to turn to Jamie, our shelter and settlements technical advisor on CRS’ humanitarian response team. Jamie, you’ve had a bird’s eye view of what we’re trying to accomplish through the Homes and Communities approach. Can you tell us a little bit about what we mean by Homes and Communities and what you have in your mind when you’re designing approaches to meet the needs of families whose homes have been damaged or destroyed by manmade or natural disasters?

Jamie Richardson: Thanks very much, Matt. So, Homes and Communities is a concept and approach where people are at the center of our programming. It looks to support and build upon the strengths and capacity of the population, local organizations, private sector and government. Programs are designed to implement using participatory and community-based approaches that ensure solutions are appropriate and sustainable. By working in partnership with communities, we’re able to ensure our support and assistance is appropriate and compliments the community strengths and resources.

A home of course, is much more than four walls and a roof. It’s where the whole family’s health and well-being needs are met; where people can live in peace and safety; where they can all reach their potential. This requires a holistic sustainable view of the home that considers the social, cultural, and spiritual along with the physical space, sanitation, community services and facilities and livelihoods.

So, CRS is already implementing these approaches in countries, such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar and Uganda. And these contribute to our continued learning and experience in this area. For example, programs in Nepal have developed and then refined social and technical assistance that have allowed thousands of families to safely rebuild the homes they lost in the earthquake.

In Myanmar, a successful community holistic resettlement pilot project for families displaced by conflict, has provided evidence for this approach to be adopted by others. This dual approach of supporting communities and then using this learning to roll out at scale, is the plan for informal settlements in Freetown. I hope that gives a bit of an overview, Matt. Thanks.

Matt McGarry: That’s really helpful context, Jamie. It paints a really nice picture of why the Homes and Communities approach is so important and impactful. Thank you.

Now, let’s take a closer look at that programming in action—how it translates to the ground. I’m honored to introduce Her Worship Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr. Mayor Aki-Sawyerr, thank you again for joining us today and sharing your unique expertise and experience.

For those who may not be as familiar with the challenges and the opportunities facing the 1.2 million residents of Freetown, would you mind sharing your perspective as mayor on the challenge of providing safe, dignified and durable housing in an urban context?

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr: Thanks so much, Matthew, and thanks everyone for being on this. I’m really pleased to be here. Why is this such an important question for Freetown? I would say a confluence of two big issues which are really actually resulting in the challenge for housing and all that comes with that. The first is rural urban migration.

That story of migration in our context started with the war. When we had a big move—jump—from 500,000 people to roughly 750,000 people in the city, we then had the Ebola crisis, which pushed more people into Freetown.  We’re having to deal with the consequences of climate change, our national population is 65% subsistence farmers. That’s a huge risk because when a crop fails one season—a second season—there’s a real strong tendency for people to just literally pack it all up and move to the city. So that’s the driver.

But the second piece of this is the lack of development control. So, the Local Government Act of 2004 gives the local authorities the power to issue building permits, to do zoning, to actually plan land use. The reality is that power is held by the central government and it’s not used.

Our topography in Freetown, for those who don’t know our beautiful city, we’re nestled between a mountain range on the Atlantic Ocean. So, when you move in and there’s nowhere to go, you do one of two things. You go up the hills, where you are susceptible and vulnerable to landslides, flooding and other sort of disasters, or you come along the coast where coastal sea rises, and coastal flooding is going to be your specific vulnerability.

So, by moving into these areas, we’ve seen massive deforestation in the city, leading to more mudslides, landslides and to water shortages as catchment areas have become exposed. And similarly, along the coastline, mangroves have been destroyed. And with all of this, there’s one factor that we can never forget: Everyone needs a place to lay their head. And so that question of homes is at the heart of all of this.

What are the homes that are built in these situations? They are predominantly made of corrugated iron. They are in themselves then heat ovens where the extreme heat caused by the very deforestation, by the same climate change, then actually creates more of a pressure cooker. But if it was just extreme heat that this poor housing led to, maybe it would be, you know, OK. But it certainly is not. In these conditions, access to sanitation, access to health facilities, safety of women and girls is a real issue.

And of course, let’s not forget, that the irony of all of this is that very often these homes, terrible as they are, are not owned by those living in them. They are, again, the victim of slum landlords who, you know, are prepared to charge them anything they probably can get away with, because of the dearth of available properties and options. So, dignified housing for us is a game changer and that’s why we’re so pleased to be working with CRS on these projects or on this particular transforming life project.

Matt McGarry: Would you mind telling us a little bit more about how you’ve partnered with CRS and how we’re working together in Freetown?

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr: In general terms, I can say CRS is a partner beyond housing. In 2019, there was a flood and I saw houses almost entirely covered in water. And I saw families trying to escape to get out of the floods and … police and other staff were down there with Red Cross and others literally ferrying people across on their backs.

I said, “I want this to be the last time that I watch this happen. And whoever’s interested in talking to me about how we can actually change the story of these informal settlements, please stay and let’s talk after this flood response meeting.” CRS stayed in the room along with four other partners and that was the beginning of the consortium. And two years down the line, we’ve made a lot of progress. CRS brought some money to the table to provide resources for a dedicated person to work on this. I always work with community. So, we have the Slum Dwellers Association, FEDURP and CODOHSAPA, two organizations who work within these communities are from the communities at the heart of it.

I think it’s intuitive and most people would probably have felt the same thing that we need to understand who these people are. Why are they living here? How long have they been here? Because there’s a profile. We’re not talking about numbers, we’re talking about people. There are people who have lived in slum communities for a second generation, in some cases, a third, but there are people who are passing through. And you need to understand who they are, why they’re there, in order for us to be able to best address their needs.

Community engagements have been done. A deep and very, very rich database has been created of the community’s views. Their slogan in the Slum Dwellers Association is upgrade where possible, relocate when necessary. Don’t take the people out of the slum, take the slum out of the people. And that means you bring sanitation, you bring water, you bring roads, you bring lighting.

So that was the beginning of what we collectively decided to call transforming lives because it’s really going to the heart of what we’re seeking to do as a city.

Matt McGarry: That’s amazing. I know you have an ambitious vision for transforming Freetown. Would you mind sharing with us a little bit more about that vision and how the partnership with CRS fits in there?

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr: So, perhaps it’s worth also just mentioning that I don’t have a political background. I’m from the private sector, I’ve never joined a political party in my life until I decided to run for mayor. I’ve never been near public office, but this decision to run for mayor was really fueled by my concern for the environment, and for sanitation.

So, we have in Transform Freetown, four clusters: resilience, human development, healthy city and urban mobility. Under resilience we have management, urban planning and housing. A city has to be able to pay for itself. And at this point where we are now, with me coming in, we needed to make some pretty big jumps. So, there’s capital investment which we need to source them outside. OK. So that’s resilience. And under human development, we have education; we have skills development; we have job creation with a tourism focus; and we have persons with disability, leave no one behind. Then we come to our third cluster, healthy city. Health, sanitation and water. And again, you can see that these are all interconnecting. And then finally the fourth cluster is urban mobility.

So, coming into office, I spent, or we spent, two months, engaging 15,000 of our residents. We had 322 focus groups. And we asked them to rate for the council, for those sectors, what their view was about affordability, accessibility, availability of services. Where one is terrible, 10 is great. We didn’t score five on average for a single sector, which kind of confirmed what we knew, which is why I’d run for office.

But then we then moved on to have the top down, ’cause that was bottom up. We invited development partners, NGOs, the MDAs, that’s the ministries, departments and agencies. We invite to the private sector. We invited community people. Whoever was really interested in that topic could come and join a technical sector working group, and CRS joined those technical sector working groups. They came in on sanitation. They came in on urban planning. They came in on environment. They came in, I think, as well on water.

If you’re going to do something in our city, it makes sense for us to all work together. So we don’t have silos and we don’t have people going off on their own agendas. That way we get maximum benefits for our residents, and real possibility of the transformative change that we want. So that’s how CRS has been a part of the broader vision, some examples.

Matt McGarry: Thank you. What an inspiring overview. Caroline, turning to you for a moment, we heard from Jamie about CRS’ global approach to Homes and Communities, and we just learned from Mayor Aki-Sawyerr about the challenges, the opportunities, the aspirations for Freetown at the municipal level. So, where is CRS Sierra Leone in all this? How are you and your team working to advance these broader objectives, and what are you hoping to accomplish?

Caroline Raes: Thanks, Matt. So, as the mayor has mentioned, CRS has been part of this initiative since it was launched in 2019. And as most of you know, CRS works in close partnership with stakeholders. Partnership is really at the core of all of the work that we do. We partner with government, both national and local government. We partner with the Church, and we partner with civil society organizations. And in this particular initiative project, we’ve also partnered with four other international NGOs who complement our skills.

As the mayor has mentioned, these informal settlements face a wide range of challenges. These are very intense challenges and very complex challenges. And to address intense challenges, you need to have a holistic approach. You cannot have sectoral responses. And so, the Transforming Lives initiative is a holistic and participatory slum upgrading initiative that can actually work. Because it has not been successful in many places, but we feel that we have a lot of the key ingredients for success here in Freetown.

We want to provide sustainable livelihoods. We’re trying to improve access to basic infrastructure and services. We’re trying to improve access to affordable and dignified homes. We’re trying to also enable social behaviors and strengthen networks, and we’re also looking at improving governance and accountability. So, we’re delivering on four key outcomes and CRS is focusing on the outcome that looks specifically at housing.

We’ve been very fortunate to have private funds and we’ve leveraged our private resources to conduct extensive research. And so, as the mayor has mentioned, at the local level, we partner with two Sierra Leonean civil society organizations to conduct research to understand, “What is the profile of the people who live in these communities? What are the challenges that they face?”

Working with civil society organizations as the entry points, and CRS and Freetown City Council and the consortium leading from behind and letting these CBOs really be on the ground collecting the information, is really crucial because slum upgrading, or informal settlement upgrading is a very sensitive issue. So, it’s very crucial to have the support and the trust of the communities and working with the communities for data gathering is also critical because it empowers them.

As the communities are involved in this process, they also understand the level of services and the gaps and the challenge that they face. And they can use that data to advocate for improved environments and conditions. As they say here in Freetown: Information is power.

And so, as the mayor has mentioned, we’ve come a long way since the start of the project. We’ve conducted extensive research, but while we were doing that, we were also looking at opportunities to inject some direct funding into these communities to deliver tangible benefits for these communities. And so, the Freetown City Council has a very ambitious initiative planting, growing one million trees and they’re digitally tracking it. It’s quite an innovative initiative.

And one of the components of that tree planting initiative looks at mangrove restoration. So, CRS is also making a financial contribution using our private funds to support this mangrove restoration in one of the informal settlements where we’re already working with this project. And so, through this effort, we are able to work with residents to ensure that they are part of this planting process. They’re getting economic incentives and re-greening their own communities and protecting themselves from the risk of climate change. But also, the mangroves are quite critical for livelihoods as the mayor has mentioned.

We were also able to secure some funding after two years of engagement and research to implement a pilot project within these two communities. So, we are looking at ensuring that 300 households within these target communities will be able to have access to dignified homes as well as improved infrastructure and services. So this is our key target, and this is what we’re working with Freetown City Council to deliver on.

Matt McGarry: Thanks, Caroline. With all the challenges that we’ve heard about, what gives you hope? What keeps you going in the face of what may seem like insurmountable obstacles?

Caroline Raes: What keeps me going? The first thing is that need for action on the ground. The mayor has really well explained the challenges that we face, maybe just to add to that, you know, in one of the communities, Kola Town, there are only 12 water points for a community that has more than 3,000 residents. That is one water point serving 54 households. Out of those 12 water points, our research has shown that actually only four provide safe drinking water. The rest are contaminated. So that means that it’s a one to 163 household ratio. This is a huge gap. There’s a huge need to intervene. So, this is one of the things that keeps us going as CRS and the consortium.

Additionally, I think as I was mentioning earlier, there are some key ingredients for success that are united here. One, we have a city council with a strategic vision. We have a holistic approach. Through our engagement, we’ve built trust with these communities and that is the most critical ingredient for success when we’re looking at and informal upgrading. And so we are at a place, if you go to those two communities now, they recognize us, they know us, they know the project and they are willing to work with Freetown City Council and this consortium to upgrade their communities.

Matt McGarry: Thank you, Caroline. I want to turn to Andreas now. Andreas, as someone who’s been an incredible supporter and leader of CRS for many years, could you tell us a little bit about your connection to CRS and how it’s evolved over time?

Andreas Sashegyi: Thanks, Matt. And first off, I also want to say thank you Mayor Aki-Sawyerr for being with us today and for your witness. So, my wife Mary and I, we’ve supported CRS for about 20 years, and it’s been a very inspiring journey. I first heard about the organization just through an insert in our Archdiocesan newspaper, but what got me interested immediately was the fact that CRS focuses its humanitarian and development outreach on regions of greatest need around the world. And that really resonated with me. Our solidarity with those most in need around the world and our championship for justice at a global level, not just local, but at a global level, is a primary Christian responsibility. So, we’re literally compelled to do it, so that’s one thing.

And one of the things that resonated with us in particular is the broad reach and effectiveness of CRS’s work, which often accomplishes human development projects, where other organizations have been unsuccessful. And that’s enabled by very strong bonds of trust built by longstanding strategic partnerships with the local Church and other organizations on the ground. So, in every region it operates, we’ve come to understand CRS has an authentic local face that brings understanding, that meets people where they are and helps lift them up in meaningful and lasting ways.

Matt McGarry: Andreas, we’ve been talking about Homes and Communities. Why has that subject been so important to you?

Andreas Sashegyi: I will say on the path that CRS is on boldly with the Go FAR campaign, that campaign is really a visionary stake in the ground. For the visible signs that support and uphold, I’ll say fundamental human dignity, I can’t think of any as significant as decent shelter.

Now, I haven’t yet had a chance to travel with CRS, you know, to witness firsthand the plight of the people that the organization serves and to see the hope that CRS brings. But just even living in the inner city of Indianapolis, I’m sad to say that I pass people sleeping on bare concrete sidewalks and in alleys almost every morning on my way to work. Very jarring and even more so when I think of the millions who, because of political injustice, persecution, or natural disaster, face the reality of being without shelter as an ongoing condition of life. So, when I wake up in the morning, I can’t imagine not knowing where I’m gonna go into bed that night. And Mayor Aki-Sawyerr, you said it, everyone needs a place to lay their head. Without that, families can’t flourish, people are adrift, despair sets in and that’s what CRS is seeking to change and what Mary and I want to be part of.

Matt McGarry: Thank you, Andreas. Caroline, if I could ask you to chime in quickly from the CRS perspective and Mayor Aki-Sawyerr, if you wouldn’t mind from the municipal perspective, what are the biggest threats to our success?

Caroline Raes: I think we’ve formed a coalition of like-minded organizations, stakeholders, but what is really critical at this point is to expand it to bring more people on board, because it’s really crucial that we have a national government as well, we have other civil society organizations. In the two communities we’ve worked with—two community-based organizations. But we need to now ensure that we’re also reaching as many people as possible in those communities. So, for me, it will be really crucial to bring everyone on board so that we have smooth implementation.

Matt McGarry: Thank you, Caroline. And Mayor Aki-Sawyerr, any threats to success or things that we need to mitigate to make that vision a reality?

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr: I think a very practical threat is not accessing the finance, because we’ve spent two years, we’ve done some incredible work, and we can only move this forward if we’ve got finance to do so. So, I think that would be my major appeal. And I would say that the foundations are strong, the political will is there, the community are engaged, and this is a real opportunity to bring dignity to the lives of many and to develop a model that will be an inspiration for other communities.

Matt McGarry: Thank you so much, Mayor Aki-Sawyerr. And also, thanks to Jamie, Caroline and Andreas for joining us for this discussion. And of course, thank you for listening and for your continued support and prayers. You really are an essential part of the work that we do, whether it’s in Freetown or around the world. Please visit for more information and stories on how you make a difference every day. Until next time.