31 August 2012
“Sierra Leone’s councils face collapse under the weight of expectation; and six years since the return of local government many councillors and citizens don’t know how they work”, says a Report conducted for the British Department for International Development in May 2011.
Rising poverty – especially in the rural communities, compounded by a catastrophic outbreak of cholera, which has so far taken the lives of an estimated 500 people, has left thousands hospitalised. Local councils are unable to respond.
The British government has this week announced its £2 million support to help Sierra Leone tackle the deadly outbreak of cholera and to improve sanitary services throughout the country. Is this too little – too late?
It is not simply a question of money and how it is spent, but the sheer lack of human resource capacity affecting local councils’ and central government’s ability to properly manage their statutory functions, let alone respond to life threatening emergencies.
With over 98% of the country’s qualified and experienced public sector administrators and mangers employed across government departments in the capital Freetown, the problem of brain drain is biting hard in the provinces.
There are no incentives for qualified and experienced mandarins to relocate to the provincial towns and cities.
Many of those left behind to run the affairs and monitor the effectiveness of their rural towns can hardly read and write. Yet they are filling the chambers of Local Councils as elected representatives of their communities.
They are the ‘nuveau-technocrats’, making critical decisions about the needs of their communities; producing spending plans, prioritise services and deciding on the allocation of limited resources.
But few in Sierra Leone would deny that, since the reintroduction and empowering of local councils by the 2004 Local Government Act, after they had been suspended in the 1980s by an APC government, life in local communities have changed very little.
However, most citizens would agree that the experiences of the last eight years of experimenting with the introduction of local democratic authority have been polarised by an equally weak and corrupt central government, determined to usurp the powers of elected local councillors.
Despite talk of progress in devolving powers to local councils, central government continue to have a stranglehold on the delivery of vital services, such as the provision of clean water, quality health care and infrastructure development.
The DFID investigation commissioned last year and conducted by Campaign for the Voiceless (Campvo), also found that ‘councillors are failing to organise community meetings to discuss development, provide updates on needed services or to solicit the views of constituents on issues affecting them.’
‘six years since the return of local government, many councillors and citizens don’t know how they work’.
When the World Bank and the European Union together announced early this year, that they are to provide over $32 Million funding to the government to assist in tackling poverty in local communities by strengthening the country’s devolution programme, policy analysts questioned the rationale for paying the funds directly to central government.
Critics argue that after a decade of policy experimentation, the international community ought to be able to think more innovatively and outside their comfort zone, if they are to ensure that grant-in-aid is efficiently and effectively spent by the government.
Many in Sierra Leone have called for donors to pay the money directly to Local Councils via contract, with stringent monitoring and accountability measures put in place. But this may not be the panacea either.
This huge funding support to the Government of Sierra Leone is aimed at up-scaling the delivery of basic services by local councils. And the head of the EU delegation to Sierra Leone – Jean-Pierre Reymondat-Commoy did not mask his enthusiasm for the programme, when he said that;
“The European Union has been a long-standing supporter of the decentralisation efforts in Sierra Leone. I am pleased that we can now build on the achieved successes in capacitating local government by providing additional support focusing on service delivery. I am convinced that through this programme, the quality of services in the key areas of water, health, education and waste management will significantly improve to the benefit of the citizens of Sierra Leone.“
The World Bank said that together with its earlier contribution of $26 million, the EU’s $6 million grant will pay for improved basic health, education, water supply and solid waste management across all 19 Local Councils in the country.
With vital questions being raised about the capacities of local councils to deliver devolved services and the commitment of central government to give up control of those services, expectations on the ground are very high.
Poverty is rising and deaths from diseases are growing.
The funding is expected to strengthen central and local government capacities to manage decentralized services; improve availability and predictability of central government funding to local councils; and strengthen the current fiscal transfer system between central and local governments.
The World Bank said that the $6 million EU funding will go directly to local councils as grants. But there are serious doubts, as the government is now being accused of favouring local councils located in the north of the country – the power base of the ruling APC party.
Both ministries are being accused of political partisanship and gerrymandering, in the face of a national outbreak of cholera, which has so far taken the lives of over 500 people, with millions at risk.
In its statement last week announcing the allocation of a paltry – Le3 Billion to Local Councils across the country, the ministry of finance and economic development said that; it “would like to remind the general public that these funds are meant for implementing programs in local council’s approved annual work plans for improved service delivery consistent with their statutory obligations.”
Is the government simply giving the impression that it is taking the issue of devolution seriously and honestly?
Its statement went on to say that; “devolved ministries, departments and agencies are requested to liaise with local councils through their assigned staff to ensure that agreed sector priority activities are implemented with the funds disbursed.”
The World Bank says that its $32 funding is aimed at strengthening local democracy and improve the delivery of devolved local services. But the government is now conveniently saying that it is having difficulty holding local councils to account.
In its statement last week, the ministry of finance and economic development warned that local councils must transfer all allocated funds “to the various devolved sector accounts and further ensure that details are displayed on councils’ notice boards, and other public places in order to provide access to this information by the general public”.
For local people, the problem is much more profound. It is about the reluctance of central government to accept that local government can and must be empowered to take responsibility for delivering local services and improve the quality of life for local people.
But with elections just twelve weeks away, there are suspicions that the government is diverting funds meant to support the devolution programme to its electioneering campaign chest.
Many observers believe that the outgoing World Bank’s Country Director for Sierra Leone – Mr. Vijay Pilay has been pandering to the whims of the government.
They say that Mr. Pilay has been too weak and ineffective in holding the government of president Koroma to account for World Bank’s funds in Sierra Leone.