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Much remains to be done Mr. President!

Abdul R Thomas
Editor - The Sierra Leone Telegraph

4 July 2010

Sierra Leone’s economy may not be grinding to a halt, but the dark spectre of rising youth unemployment remains stubbornly at the top of the country’s political agenda. The UN Chief – Ban Ki Moon told President Koroma during his visit to Freetown last month:

“Mr. President, much remains to be done. You have to find jobs and create opportunities for an increasing number of young people. You need to improve education and to reduce rates of maternal and child mortality. You will also have to provide electricity, build roads and establish sound state institutions.”

President Koroma was elected in 2007. Three years on and with every month that passes, new strategies and policies are being launched, joining the plethora of new initiatives that are yet to see the light of day. The President’s portfolio of economic policies are yet to begin to make a difference in tackling rising joblessness and poverty that are poised to threaten the country’s hard won peace.

In 2007 President Koroma presented his ‘Agenda for Change,’ which was endorsed by over 50% of the electorate. Many in Sierra Leone now say, ‘change he wanted, and change he was given. But what has he achieved with that change?’

In 2008 President Koroma launched his ‘Attitudinal Change Programme’, which is predicated on his ideological belief that sierra Leoneans are poor because of their attitude. But most Sierra Leoneans disagree with this notion.

After two years, not much has changed, as those in power are failing to show the expected good standards of behaviour in public life. Corruption at ministerial and senior public administration levels continue unabated. The Anti-Corruption Commission is still without a Czar. This vacuum, many commentators say, is a recipe for ‘the mouse to play whilst the cat is away’.

In 2009 President Koroma launched his Private Sector Development Strategy, which was to have been the blue-print for kick-starting the country’s beleaguered economy through the expansion and starting-up of new indigenous businesses that will create jobs. In the last three years, the percentage of businesses that have failed or struggling to survive has increased with an alarming rate.

In February 2010 and after two years in planning, the Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency (SLIEPA), in collaboration with the ministries of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, and Trade & Industry, unveiled a three-year investment strategy aimed at attracting foreign direct investments that will create 25,000 new jobs across the country. Five months on, not a single job has been created.

Just two weeks ago, in June 2010, President Koroma launched the National Export Strategy of Sierra Leone at the Miatta Conference Hall in Freetown. Delivering the keynote address, the President said that on assumption of office in September 2007 he had committed himself and his government to “a strategic change in our national focus, a change in our strategic thinking, a change in the way our national resources were managed, and a change in the fundamental way we undertook business as a nation.”

But there are serious doubts as to whether this new export strategy will ever achieve its stated aims and objectives, without firstly ensuring that the country has a comprehensive and practical strategy in place that will develop the manufacturing sector.

Critics say that the government will soon start to suffer from ‘new initiatives fatigue’, as the delivery of existing strategies and policies that have been unveiled in the last three years, continue to be hampered by implementation paralysis.

Others say that the government’s economic policy is riddled with misplaced priorities. They cite government’s plan to establish a Youth Commission that will take responsibility for planning, designing and delivering youth training and youth employment creation schemes, as an example. This they say is evidence of a government that has lost its sense of purpose.

Whiles few will ever doubt the need for a Youth Commission in Sierra Leone, especially with respect to the implementation of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Report, many however will not accept the politicisation and mis-use of volatile and vulnerable young people in the pursuit of party political agendas.

The need for a Youth Commission that represents and reflects the diversity of the nation, and one that could help in promoting social harmony, by bridging tribal lines and gaps in social representation is what the nation now requires.

But it would be plain wrong for any government to secure international donor funding or a massive $4 Million external loan, under the pretext of supporting the formation and administration of a Youth Commission, whose role and functions are still unclear and controversial.

If media reports are to be believed, that the purpose of the Youth commission is to create jobs for the young unemployed, then the government stands accused of failing to understand the basic principles of development economics.

The Youth Commission when formed will no doubt become a part of the machinery of state. The state cannot create sustainable jobs that would uplift young people from abject poverty - only the private sector can.

Thus, it is rather disingenuous of the government to pretend to be elevating the role of the Youth Commission beyond that of acting as advocate or champion of the interests of young people in society, whose needs in any case ought to be clearly understood by those in power.

If the World Bank has got $4 Million to spare the poor people of Sierra Leone, should that money not be better spent funding the creation of a Fruit Canning Co-operative Enterprise, involving young farmers? This could directly create hundreds, if not thousands of jobs. This could also stimulate the formation of viable fruit farming, processing and packaging supply chain that would meet the needs of export markets.

Indeed it could be argued that the need for a Youth Commission in Sierra Leone today is superfluous to requirement, given the current status, democratic role and constitutional functions of the Civil Society Movement and opposition political parties, who invariably are doing well in challenging government policy and performance in meeting the diverse aspirations of all groups in society.

There are those that would advocate for the formation of a Manpower Services Commission (MSC) in partnership with the private sector, instead of a Youth Commission.

The role of the MSC would be to assess and analyse the skills needs of existing business, and the labour market requirements of the new modern industries that the government expects to be established by foreign direct investors and indigenous entrepreneurs. For example; building construction, retail, tourism hospitality, are just a few of the sectors where such national training strategy ought to focus.

Furthermore, the Manpower Services Commission would establish National Vocational Training and Skills Development Programmes that will prepare the unemployed, especially young people, for the world of work and new enterprise development. The private sector should be contracted and funded to deliver such training programme.

With over 70% of the country’s youth out of work, government has to really think seriously about private sector led measures and initiatives that will make a difference in alleviating joblessness and poverty in Sierra Leone.

There is a serious need to avoid wasting public money that the nation can least afford on social programmes that are predicated on achieving political agendas, especially as the Presidential and local elections are just less than two years away.

Creating political capital by exploiting the miserable economic conditions and poor social status of volatile young people is a dangerous policy that will not only backfire, but will have the potential to derail the country’s hard won peace.

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