Think of Sierra Leone and images of the Hollywood blockbuster 'Blood Diamond' come to mind - a film that, beneath its glamour, shows a country torn apart by the struggle between government soldiers and rebel forces. Coupled with the ferocious and desolate account of one of the many children who were turned into professional killers, you can see why people have a certain view of the country. However, that was over a decade ago and this remarkable country has overcome its horror with a bright future ahead of it.
You may recall the deterioration in the country's security situation during the late 90s and early millennium, the deployment of British troops, and the aftermath which included the setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was significant in helping to give the nation a better future. Religious leaders from both Christian and Muslim faiths played a imperative role. Such interfaith co-operation continues today.
I visited Sierra Leone with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation 'Faiths Act' programme a year ago to mark the beginning of their project to fight against a highly preventable killer: Malaria. The disease has replaced the 11 year war as the single biggest killer of Sierra Leoneans - it accounts for one third of all infant deaths in the country. Yet despite these startling figures, much ignorance still surrounds the causes of, and treatments for, malaria.
A lack of awareness is compounded by the over-burdened health care system. Sierra Leone is a country of nearly 6 million people, with just 102 medics. That's one doctor for every 59,000 people. Only half of the population live within 5km of any healthcare facility.
But in every village, no matter how remote, there are churches and mosques. The obvious, challenging, way forward is to unite religious leaders from the two predominant faiths working in the places where the medics cannot reach.
The 'Faiths Act' programme works to organise training programmes which encourage Muslim and Christian religious leaders to work together and then, in turn, to train their local congregations and communities in malaria prevention. They blend practical and Ministry of Health-approved advice, such as correct use of bed nets, with sermons that directly connect their religious inspiration with taking action to protect their fellow citizens from illness and harm.
As of May, 2012, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation had trained 234 religious leaders. These religious leaders then trained 6,094 community leaders - the new multi-faith malaria champions. Working in teams, these leaders made more than 178,000 household visits. During these visits the malaria champions talked with householders and offered advice on how to prevent illnesses and death from malaria. Many of these visits were to congratulate households who had successfully adopted the malaria champions' message and had put in place the vital preventative measures. These households were rewarded with a certificate and a sticker for the dwelling.
The cascading nature of this initiative means that the Tony Blair Faith Foundation aims to reach 15%, almost one million of the country's population in a year. If this works, the potential for this cost-effective and really impactful model is huge. It could be applied to different public health challenges, and to other countries where health infrastructure is poor but faith communities are vibrant and widespread. However, it is important to ensure that the project is actually working in practice, and not just a good idea in theory.
In order to gauge the effectiveness of the project, Ipsos MORI has been commissioned to evaluate the work being done by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in Sierra Leone. A baseline survey undertaken in September 2011 provides starting levels of awareness, against which the results from repeat field work, conducted a number of months into the project, can be compared. This will allow for the impact of the faith leaders' messages to be assessed.
Results from previous surveys give positive indications: 75% of Sierra Leoneans identify religious leaders as the group they trust the most, with just 2% trusting the advice of medical practitioners. It remains to be seen, however, if that trust and reach can be applied in this most practical of ways.
Having spent time in Sierra Leone, I feel a personal connection to the country. I can put a human face to the wider problems the country still faces, and have met some of the people the 'Faith Acts' programme is hoping to help. Sierra Leone is a country which has experienced much suffering in the past, however the people have carried on in the hope of a brighter future.
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