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Sierra Leone at 60: charting a new course for a better future

Sierra Leone at 60: charting a new course for a better future

After 60 years of existence as an “independent state”, the progress report of Sierra Leone is anything but satisfactory. The country is bottom of the pack, ranking 182 out of 189 in the latest Human Development ranking.

On health, the country has some of the worst records on the planet. More women die during pregnancy and child-birth in Sierra Leone than in any other country. Sierra Leone is in the top six of countries with the highest infant deaths in the world. An assessment of the health workforce in 2016 found there were only 1.4 doctors, midwives and nurses serving 10,000 people. The Sustainable Development Goals set a target of 44. This year, the country’s only medical school graduated a total of 398 doctors, nurses and pharmacists. At this rate, it would take 80 years to meet the SDG target.  Drugs to treat common diseases like malaria are perennially in short supply and government hospitals lack basic equipment. Life expectancy for its population is 55 years.

Poverty in Sierra Leone is intense. More than half of the population suffer deprivations in health, education and standard of living with an additional 20% a breath away from such deprivations.  Nearly half of the country’s population is food insecure.

Access to clean, safe water for all has always been a pipe dream for the approximately 7.5 million people. Children in search of water with repurposed yellow gallons on their heads are a common sight across busy streets and hilltop settlements in Freetown. Only 10% of the population can access safely managed drinking water. 87% of the population do not use properly managed sanitation facilities and only 19% have access to basic hand washing facilities. 

Sierra Leone is among the 10 least electrified countries in the world with a national electrification rate of 26% and rural electrification of just 6.4%. This is far below the average of 47% in Sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the lowest electrification rate in the world. 

In other critical areas of human development, the country has performed poorly over the last 60 years. Access to justice for example remains limited despite findings that the perversion of justice was a driver of the country’s civil conflict. Small steps like establishing a national legal aid infrastructure are undermined by inadequate public funding. Jails and detention facilities remain oversubscribed. Local courts that approximately 70% of Sierra Leoneans access, have been poorly managed and become the victim of a powerplay between the executive and the judiciary. Public confidence in the judiciary and police has been consistently low, with the latter regularly accused of violence and extra-judicial killings.

The country’s get-out-of-poverty card, natural resources, have been predatorily managed leading to massive environmental destruction and increased poverty for communities directly affected. Original forest cover plummeted from 60% to below 5% in the last 50 years. Unrestrained mining has killed off rivers, flattened mountains, and decimated coastal areas. Fish stocks are perilously low. Sierra Leone is now particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 

In the last sixty years, the country has stuck doggedly to an exploitative and oppressive political economy script inherited from its colonial past. Its agenda is parochial, it eschews alternative opinions, expects unquestionable followership, regards citizens as minors, incapable of making decisions for themselves and uses police powers to whip errant bodies into line. Even with the façade of multi-party democracy, these features are still evident.  Unsurprisingly, this approach has resulted in some notorious milestones: a 24-year one-party dictatorship, half a dozen coups d’états, a bloody, decade-long civil war, the worst Ebola epidemic in history, recurring natural disasters, environmental degradation and a permanent, bottom-of-the-lot ranking across development indices.

As the country commemorates its independence landmark in 2021, two things are clear: first, Sierra Leoneans still aspire for a good life. Second, no one wants a repeat of the last six decades. Someone however once said that “to get something you’ve never had, you’ll have to do something you’ve never done.” To flip the horror script of the last 60 years and guarantee the faintest chance of realising a better future, the nation must be prepared to act differently.      

Since independence, development planning has always been centralised, top-down and short term. It became more inconsistent with the reintroduction of multi-party democracy in 1991. A haphazard cycle of party-based development planning has now become the norm. Political parties will formulate their “development agenda” called manifestos on which they ostensibly contested elections. These usually poorly drafted mishmashes of promises become the basis of the development plan of the nation if the party wins power. When the party loses power, its “development agenda” is thrown out with it. A new one is set by the victor, until the next round of elections. The country’s development programme changes with every turnover of government and can swing quite dramatically across priorities. The result is that Sierra Leone continues to “develop” in a haphazard way with little progress on many of the key human development fronts.

To set the country on a new course, development planning needs to be long term, people-driven, devolved and supported by research. First, planning for the long haul ensures consistency and sustainability. Benchmarks and milestones will guarantee that there are no erratic swings across issues.

Second, the planning-for-the-people approach in the last 60 years has clearly not worked. Treating the population as mere recipients of government programmes is a mistake that should be avoided. The people themselves should be the architects of their development, not a party-in-power.   

Third, formulating a long-term national development plan from the centre has on hindsight proven to be cosmetic, shallow, and ineffective. One hardly gets a comprehensive picture of the situation of a country by directing affairs from the capital. For development planning to succeed, it should be devolved to the lowest practical level.

Fourth, planning blind is as bad as not having one. Apart from population censuses and household surveys, other vital research in aid of development has been limited or dated. For a country that is as reliant on natural resources as Sierra Leone is, little is known of the state and distribution of those resources. Information only surfaces when investment is projected or when the returns from the resource plunges. Research on soil quality, surface and ground water availability, coastal and marine life, deforestation, ecosystem resilience, among others, are critical for effective development planning, particularly in this era of climate change.

So, as the country reflects on its journey of the last sixty years, here is a proposal for the next sixty. Each of the 16 districts (including Freetown urban and rural) should be supported to prepare detailed development plans that are long-term, people-driven, and supported by research. These plans will reflect the unique context of each locality and allow the inhabitants to explore for in-community solutions and development strategies. Such an exercise can be undertaken within a two-year time frame and the aggregation of those plans will lead to a truly national development programme. Sierra Leone’s independence was founded on aid, debt and hope. Six decades on, the country has not weaned itself off that dependence. Perhaps, it is time for the small nation to do something it has never done, to get its people to where they have never been.

By Sonkita Conteh, Director, Namati Sierra Leone

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