All That Glitters Is Not Gold: The Power of Holistic Education in Sierra Leone

Remember the film “Blood Diamond”? It brought together a warlord hungry to feed his bloody business, a diamond smuggler eager to leave Africa (Leonardo DiCaprio) on his last operation, an attractive journalist (Jennifer Connelly) investigating the ins and outs of the illegal trade, a corrupt European businessman, a Mende slave, and his son who was turned into a child soldier.

Depicting the diamond business in Sierra Leone during its civil war in the 1990s, the film finishes with an actual conference that took place in Kimberley, South Africa, in 2000. It led to the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme, which seeks to certify the origin of rough diamonds in order to curtail the trade of so-called conflict diamonds, mined in war zones and sold to finance an insurgency or warlord activity.

Whether the origin of the nice stones mounted in wedding rings and other costly jewelry is dubious or not is difficult to know exactly. But the fact is that Sierra Leone has relied on diamonds for its economic base. It is also among the largest producers of titanium and bauxite, a main producer of gold, and has one of the world’s biggest deposits of rutile.

Despite this natural wealth, 70 percent of its population lives in poverty. Sierra Leone might be one of the countries hit by the “resource curse,” a term used by economists since the 1990s to deplore the way abundant minerals and oil can lead impoverished countries into worse mismanagement, civil war, environmental degradation and more-ingrained poverty. But economists also affirm that having minerals can be a way to help some of the poorest countries catch up, provided that the revenue is invested in productive assets such as education, health, and infrastructure. Perhaps mining could be the key for Sierra Leone’s prosperity — it remains to be seen.

Almost 200 years as a British protectorate, were followed by an 11-year war (1991 to 2002) that claimed the lives of more that 50,000 people, destroyed the countries infrastructure, and displaced 2 million people now refugees by the year 2002. In the last decade, the country has been gradually recovering. Its third peaceful presidential elections were held in 2012. The gross domestic product has grown, mostly with the revival of an iron mine that was obsolete for decades. But the national budget is still very small (roughly $640 million) and mainly comes from foreign aid. Also, the gradual economic growth has not translated into employment opportunities and sustainable solutions for the country’s young (15 to 34 years old), who constitute almost 50 percent of the total population (5,967,910) and hold a 60 percent unemployment rate.

In 2012, Sierra Leone remained in the low human-development category, ranking 177 out of 187 countries, according to the U.N. Human Development Index, which incorporates dimensions of health, education and living standards — placing the country among the top 10 percent poorest countries in the world. Women are the most vulnerable group, as reflected in the UNDP Gender Inequality Index 2012, which ranked Sierra Leone in position 139 out of 148 countries.

What could happen in a country that has an incredible amount of highly priced natural resources and 70 percent poverty?

Most mining sites in Sierra Leone are owned by foreign companies. Often, they partner with other foreign corporations, they bring expatriates as the core part of their staff and hire local people only when necessary and at much lower wages and benefits. Much of the export revenue goes abroad to service foreign capital. Local mining communities claim that while they have to bear the environmental, social, and economic costs of mining, the cash benefits flow out of their community. Such trends could probably be curtailed if mining businesses, international financial institutions, and donor governments encouraged Sierra Leone’s government to use mineral revenue for solid economic growth rather than just distributing among it’s own elite.

Yet it would not be fair to simply blame the foreign mining companies that are not “bringing enough development,” as some Sierra Leoneans claim.

Sierra Leone’s economic development “has always been hampered by an overdependence on mineral exploitation,” we were told by an ex-government official from the ministry of trade. Different governments and the population believe that diamonds and gold are sufficient generators of foreign-currency earnings and appeal for investment. But that belief has led to neglecting large-scale agriculture of commodity products, industrial development, and sustainable investments.

So, the challenge is not only to explain the gap between the seemingly abundant mining resources, and the reality of the poverty level and social development in Sierra Leone, but also how to contextualize the country’s problems beyond it’s most evident circumstances — mining.

In December 2013, the International Brain Education Association (IBREA) visited Sierra Leone on the invitation of its ministry of foreign affairs and its permanent mission to the United Nations. Along with discussions and field assessments, an agreement was reached to start a brain education and earth citizen awareness program in partnership with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Welfare, Gender and Children Affairs. The goal is to help vulnerable groups of society recover from negative experiences and information and improve their motivation, self-esteem, and capacity to focus and grow. The program is designed to benefit children, unemployed youth, and women from rural areas.

As a holistic educational methodology combining neuroscientific findings with energy principles from Korea, IBREA focuses its national assessments and programs on the mind condition of the country’s general energy or character. There are two things at the core of its mission: brain education and the Earth Citizen movement. Simply put, brain education is a holistic approach to education that aims at awakening the brain to an earth citizen awareness and action that embrace humanity and the earth and benefit all life beyond any identity boundaries. That, IBREA believes, is essentially what all human beings ultimately long for. They want to use their brain fully to help humanity and the planet. But tough experiences and biased information deviate us from that purpose. Sierra Leoneans and foreign companies in Sierra Leone are no exception.

The long history of conflict and foreign domination impacted the minds of Sierra Leoneans. As time goes by, the negative effects can be relieved, but not necessarily cured. Since we know that, information is carried on in the genes, there must be an intentional effort to recover. Foreign domination has taken on a different shape, but it’s still present in the form of mining and other foreign corporations. Although the root of internal conflict in the country appears to swell with governments taking a bigger share of the profit, and not scaling down to the people.

Focusing on the inner power of all people, rather than on any technique, methodology, or external assistance might be a wiser way to go to the root of those wounds. Without that clearance, it can be difficult to move forward. The spiral just keeps spinning, with Sierra Leoneans growing passive while individual interests and foreign influences stick to their own way of doing things in the country.

If we apply the findings of social neuroscience (which investigates the neural organization and function that underlie social processes and behavior) on the one hand, and neuroplasticity (our brain’s capacity to change itself) on the other, to the Sierra Leone case, it might be reasonable to say that people can rewire their brains to use their resources more efficiently toward a healthy society. If their mirror neurons — that is, empathetic tendencies — are working well, foreign companies, donors, and investors can also give a better hand in this process.

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