Families: The Original Social Safety Nets

Sick? You’ll be taken care of by the province. School-aged? Your school fees are paid; you only need to attend. Lost your job? You can apply for the government to help you manage your living costs. Forget about social assistance, health care, and education fees — the government will take care of your bills.

As Canadians, many take these luxuries for granted, but in most of the world, these social safety nets are rarely found. However, there are other ways that people adapt. Working with and living in a small community in Sierra Leone for the past year has allowed me to better understand the everyday lives of local people. One of my immediate observations was the way in which individuals prioritized their community interests over their own. Most live with little or no support from their government, which contrasts greatly with the way in which many Canadians live, and often places great demands on the family’s earners.

Without government support for social safety networks, many individuals and families in Sierra Leone look to their extended family system when in need of assistance for anything from housing and meals to school fees, childcare, and hospital bills. At times, this is not only limited to blood relatives; friends and neighbours even rely on each other in this capacity. This is more evident in smaller communities, where neighboring families have supported each other for generations.

In Sierra Leone, students may attend government-funded school ‘for free’ until class five (the equivalent to grade 5 in Canada), beyond which they are charged school fees. However, many families struggle to pay the school-related costs, such as uniforms and school supplies (as little as $10 per term). For some families with youth of school age, finding the money for these fees is a challenge. Many of these families seek the assistance of family members or friends that can afford to help support them in this regard. Those children unable to secure school fees, will often be put to work, supporting their family, until the means are found for them to attend classes.

However, those that ‘can afford to help’ is quite subjective. For those able to provide, how much is too much or too little, and how do the providers feel about their donations? Are they proud to be able to help? Or perhaps frustrated that their earnings are not entirely theirs? Coming from a culture where individuals are prioritized, I wondered if this ever creates feelings of resentment towards those that they help; that they are not able to help themselves. Speaking to my colleagues at HELP-SL, I was informed that yes, the expenditures associated with providing for the extended family can be quite large, but the positive effects usually outweigh the negatives. Many people are happy to support those that they can with the understanding that they too will be helped if or when the time comes. The collective or unity of the community is thought to be far more important than the earnings of the individual.

I was also interested to know what this educational investment means for those that are providing the necessary fees. Is there some sort for debt repayment scheme for those accepting the provision? Many parents invest in their children with the understanding that the children will provide for or take care of them in their old age. Once those who received the support are earning an income, they will continue the tradition of supporting others. The responsibility does not only fall on the individual that supports or was supported, but the family of that individual. Both the benefits and the ‘debt’ are seen as collective.

Unfortunately, there are times that this ‘safety net’ is not enough. With a high unemployment rate and low-wages, even pooled resources may be too little to provide enough for a large family to be educated. Or, in the case of an expensive medical procedure, for example, that may not be available in-country. These problems are faced by a great deal of Sierra Leoneans and contribute to the persistent cycles of poverty and disease in the country.

Megan Boyles has recently completed an 8-month CIDA-funded internship with Toronto-based Street Kids International, wherein she traveled to support Youth Livelihood Programming at Sierra Leonean NGO Hands Empowering the Less Fortunate (HELP)-Sierra Leone.