Writer / Journalist / Teacher

War-ravaged Sierra Leone is on the mend, and we're on our way

A child stands in the rain in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone August 22, 2012. Source: Reuters photo by Simon Akam, used by the Council on Foreign Relations.

A week from Friday, I'll be boarding a plane in San Francisco to New York, and from there to Belgium and then onto Sierra Leone, the war-ravaged but healing nation in West Africa. The airport is separated from the capital, Freetown, by the Sierra Leone River, and the drive around is a nine-hour ordeal. So we'll board a hover craft and arive amid the blur of the motor scooting us across the water.

Today is my 42nd birthday, and this is not a trip I'd been expecting to take to celebrate. All changed last week with a suprise invitation.

The trip has nothing to do with the reason I am at Stanford -- as a [John S. Knight Journalism Fellow][1] -- but in another way, it has everything to do with it. It's exactly the kind of unlooked-for experience with the potential to change not just my life but my way of thinking that has become almost commonplace since I arrived last summer.

So why am I going, really?

Answer: Sixteen of us here at Stanford have been asked to partner with a leading in-country civil society organization to study one of Sierra Leone's biggest problems, one with implications for resource-rich and yet poor nations all over the globe. Our goal is simple: To find a breakthrough solution that changes the way things work in real people's lives.

Our initial understanding of the challenge is this: Now that the civil war is over, and private investment is poised to again rain down on the diamond mines, how can that money and related opportunities find its way into the mining communities that need it so badly.

Diamonds are big business in Sierra Leone, which is otherwise poor. Average life expectancy is 48 years old.

The diamond fields cover about a quarter of the land mass -- some 7,700 square miles -- in the eastern and southeastern areas of the country, [according to a government site][4]. About 14 percent of the nation's workers toil in the mines, or in related jobs.

But you know most of that, if you've ever seen Leonardo Dicaprio in Blood Diamond or if you followed the 2007 trial of Charles Taylor at the Hague. The violence of the 10-year civil war claimed at least 75,000 lives but the violence has mostly stopped. United Nations peacekeepers have been out of the country for two years and two successful, and peaceful, elections have taken place since the end of the civil war.

The project-based course is called Rebooting Government with Design Thinking, and it's being taught by Dr. Jeremy Weinstein, former Google internation development executive Jenny Stefanotti and 'public architect' Liz Ogbu.

The 16 of us who are enrolled are divided into four groups of four. And out of each group two of us are traveling to Sierra Leone and two of us are staying behind to conduct what the scholars are calling "research into analagous conditions" -- in other words, how have nations whose economies (and subsequently, their politics) other than diamonds handled issues of economic justice. From oil-rich (and oil dependent) Venezuela to the eastern Kentucky coalmines (my contribution) there's a lot to learn.

But the eight of us headed overseas will be doing the field research in Sierra Leone to identify the stakeholders who comprise the entire "system" of the diamond economy, along with the political and social networks underpinning it. We'll interview representatives from every point along that complex vertebrae to understand how they interact with diamonds. We have meetings scheduled with activists, officials, reformers, mining executives, lawmakers and local bosses.

We're meeting with the vice president, and we're going to spend several days in the east at remote mining communities nearly a day's drive from the capital talking to workers and their families.

This is a class jointly offered by the law school, the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, the political science department and Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, or d.School for short. It's a blend from heavy duty political science "systems approach" and the revolutionary user-centered approach to design that has earned such a loud reputation in Silicon Valley and beyond.

The entire trip to Sierra Leone is an extended form of what the d.School calls the empathy stage of its five-step process, and it is the stage that is most familiar to journalists.

The idea is that we talk to all the people above -- and others we encounter -- not to get answers, so to speak, but to hear their stories. To understand what their lives are like, what their routines are -- and the obstacles, hopes and leverages they have.

Armed with that information -- and it can be a deeply immersive interview -- we can begin to understand what their needs are. In fact, the idea is that we'd understand them better than they do -- better, anyway, than if we had simply come out and asked them, hey what do you need?

Henry Ford once said something to the effect of 'If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said. 'faster horse-and-buggies.'" Instead, he had a key insight -- they needed to get where they were going in a more reliable way wtih a further range and more comfortable ride.

He designed a solution.

In that sense, it's a much more powerful way of research than focus groups. We're not asking people to tell us how to fix Sierra Leone. We're asking them to tell us about their lives, and then we'll design solutions based on insights gathered from these conversations. We'll create fast, low-tech prototypes and iterate like hell -- changing them as we get feedback from the potential users.

Anyway, that's how the approach works at its simplest level.

It'll be a heady experience, and one I'll learn more about as I work with my colleagues and see what we see once we're on the ground. I'm not convinced we'll find something in the next eight weeks or so that will change lives, but I'm entirely on board with trying.

So I'll close with a promise to update this blog as I go. And I'd like to say a word about my team members. The d.School is nothing is not cross-disciplinary.

We're told that the class prompted nearly 100 applications from across campus. The team includes two graduate students from Lebanon, both studying technology, a law student who worked for President Obama's 2008 campaign and at the White House, an Italian professional basketball player who grew tired of her philosophy studies just as her knees were giving out and came to Stanford to get her Ph.D. in classics, a six-year graduate student who just defended his PhD in applied physics, computer programmers eager to refine 'their craft' and a recent Harvard Crimson alumnae who spent two years in Teach for America in Philadeplhia before coming west.

Just like the Knight Fellowships itself, the wonderful richness of my colleagues will prove to be the most powerful part of this experience.

An additional note about the photo above by Simon Akam of Reuters: I don't own the copyright, and will remove it on receipt of a request to do so.