Our case for change in Sierra Leone

A boy walks through the river in Kroo Bay slum looking for scrap metal to sell. The river is effectively a giant sewage and everyday new garbage arrives in the water from the hills around. Kroo Bay, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Sulaiman Banja Tejan-Sie

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 16 February 2017

Sierra Leone, the motherland has had its share of tragedy in recent years. It suffered an eleven years internecine war and lately an Ebola epidemic that has today resulted in an unprecedented economic hardship that has further deepened poverty and unleash anger against a failed vision.

We are in this current state of penury because of an uninterrupted nine years of mismanagement of state resources, a complete lack of foresight and vision to diversify a mineral dependent economy and the absence of a genuine and sustained fight against the scourge of corruption that continues to deter our progress and cloud our dream.

Further, the current state of our social services is even more disheartening as our school class sizes are perhaps the largest in the sub region. Maternal and child mortality rate continues to be high despite the partial free health care for a few vulnerable groups.

Clean running water for the majority is still a major delinquent. And youth unemployment is at its highest since the war with adverse effects for our economy and the security of the state.

The question then is “Where do we go from here: chaos or community” (Martin Luther King)? The answer can only be the latter, as we have tried the former with devastating consequences.

In building a new community, a new Sierra Leone, which is pillared on the principles of democracy, good governance and free enterprise; we must advocate and implement change, genuine change from the mistakes of yesteryears to a devoted vision to transform our country by making it more competitive in every aspect of development in the sub region.

The case for such a change is glaring to all in the country and my summary above is by no means exhaustive as the list of things to be done that have not been done is too long, and can only be comprehensively listed in a serialized piece for the print media.

Therefore, let me just highlight the most gripping challenges that have hindered our efforts in three major areas lately:

The Economy

The economy is weak and its sustainability is highly dependent on the international market as our minerals are our major export today. Extra budgetary spending, inflated costs of unplanned urban infrastructure projects, payments of questionable claims and unwarranted overseas and local travels by Ministers and other public officials have also kept public expenditure on the increase.

With growing public spending, often a time on unplanned items, the budget deficit (excluding grants) has remained high – accounting for about 11.8% of GDP in 2011 and growing.

Therefore, maintaining macro-economic stability, promoting growth and reducing poverty, constitute the principal challenges in our economy.

Specifically, this entails reducing inflation, raising revenue to meet growing expenditure, ensuring fiscal discipline and improving expenditure management, reducing trade deficits by increasing exports and reducing imports with a view to sustaining a stable and competitive national currency; improving weak capacities in economic management institutions and improving debt management, curbing corruption and reducing poverty.

Also, diversifying our economy by encouraging the development of our potential in the fisheries and marine industry, tourism, agriculture and agro industries, sports, arts and entertainment, financial services and ICT are crucial to building a sound and sustainable economy that can meet the challenges of the 21st century.

These changes in the structure and scope of our economy to address the inadequacies and present predicament in our finances, are a compelling case for change in our political direction and persuasion.

Education

A good education is the cornerstone of success at the individual level and the foundation for resurgence, and ultimately, national prosperity. Sierra Leone needs an educated and professionally well-adjusted workforce to harness its human capital, yield and fully exploit the country’s economic potential.

Whilst the current Government has failed to make positive strides in education over the last 9 years, future Governments attitude to education must change. Our leadership must now work assiduously to achieve or lay a solid foundation for the realization of free primary and secondary education.

There is a lot to be done with regard to adjusting the country’s human skills base to cope with the next level of our national development.  Also, our classrooms remain overcrowded, schools underequipped and the entire education system underfunded.

Disadvantaged regions lack enough schools, while some host unacceptable classroom numbers as high as 80 and above. Furthermore, nearly a quarter of primary school children drop out of school before they complete primary school.

Changes in this sector should witness a commitment to opening up secondary education for every Sierra Leonean child willing to learn.

The overwhelming number of young unemployed people do not have the skills necessary to compete in the workplace. Therefore, every child should be in education or training until the age of 18. Sierra Leone has over 5 universities and university colleges.

Thousands of our best and brightest graduate from our universities each year, but thousands more do not, either because they lack fees or places. In 2010, only 6.5% of secondary students were admitted to university. Meanwhile, access is still skewed against women with less than 40% of university students being female.

Also, to further facilitate this change in the provision of education we must:  increase the number of schools in disadvantaged areas and restrict class sizes to a maximum of 40; increase the student-teacher ratio to 1 teacher for every 40 students; encourage Local Governments  to boost central Government’s funding of the education sector with additional local resources; work with international partners to provide solar powered lap-top computers equipped with relevant content for every school age child in Sierra Leone; ensure that learning institutions adequately safeguard the rights of pupils with special needs; invest heavily in disadvantaged districts by providing textbooks, teaching materials, stationery and teachers; increase education funding by 2% each year so that by 2023 it reaches 25% of Government spending; use education fund to introduce school feeding programmes in disadvantaged areas.

Health

Our major challenge in Health Care Delivery is that our hospital services must be improved, with better pay and improved conditions of service for healthcare professionals and a higher standard of care and treatment for patients being central to a future health sector reform agenda.

Easily preventable illnesses such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS still claim too many lives each year.

Very few Sierra Leoneans have health insurance and our public health facilities are stymied by inadequate management, insufficient medical supplies and poor procurement procedures.

A pitiful less than 10% of current Government spending on health goes to running services; the balance is eaten up by bureaucracy and corruption. We are paying for a swollen bureaucracy that is not delivering the healthcare that Sierra Leoneans deserve.

Besides, we cannot afford to waste huge investments in the training of health practitioners, especially, doctors who later leave the country and work abroad. Strategies must be developed to stem the brain drain to ensure the maximum possible utilization of the skills of Sierra Leonean – trained doctors for the benefit of our own citizens.

Changes should ensure that every Sierra Leonean have access to high quality healthcare.  The primary focus should be on preventive healthcare, as it is less expensive and it is easier to prevent illness than to cure it. Our preventative health strategy should be based on networks of village level community health workers and midwives, among others.

We should roll out universal healthcare through local primary healthcare centres. In this regard, we must also recognize the urgent and immediate need for more public health officers, provision of access to clean water, and protection of the environment to create a disease-free environment.

At this juncture of our development we must also aim to lay a solid foundation for the medium and long term plan to make Sierra Leone an international medical hub with an increase in medical tourism by adopting the successful Indian or Ghanaian model.

Specifically, to facilitate the much desired changes that will revolutionize the health sector we must encourage and support : the achievement of  free primary healthcare for all Sierra Leoneans, starting with women, expectant and breast-feeding mothers and persons with disabilities by increasing health financing from 6% -15%; increase the number of physical facilities at community level and providing  mobile health clinics services; reform the National Health Service to uproot corruption and bureaucracy, and to ensure accountability and efficiency, by transforming it into an independent outfit run by contributors with a Board including Government, businesses and elected contributor representatives; guarantee that every family has access to a fully equipped health centre within 5 miles of their home, with a national network of local community health workers promoting preventive health based at the centres.

We must upgrade and equip previous provincial hospitals to referral hospitals, supported by a network of District referral facilities and community level public health centres; encourage private sector investment in health care delivery service; establish fully-fledged low-cost diagnostic centres and provide adequate screening and treatment facilities for persons with chronic or terminal conditions, including cancer, diabetes, and kidney failure, in every District.

We must ensure improved pay packages for doctors and other health care practitioners; continue to distribute free mosquito nets to all families who need them; promote better nutrition by encouraging exclusive breast-feeding, eating  traditional foodstuffs and cultivation of kitchen gardens; promote medical research, including indigenous medicine; promote e-Health as a strategy to reach remote and marginalized areas with health services.

All of these changes are predicated by an apparent desire and a compelling need for change; a change that must come now more than ever before.

Therefore, as we look forward to March, 2018 let the debate for change and continuity commence, as we reflect on 10 years of the Koroma administration and the future we all want to fashion for our beloved Sierra Leone.

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