Civil society, good governance and development

Austin Thomas

18 February 2012

Sierra Leone will soon be celebrating its 51 years of independence, yet good governance, democracy and development are as elusive as the civil liberty that many other countries take so much for granted. Despite vast mineral and other natural resources, we have experienced nothing else other than bad economic policies, civil war, virtually no electricity and water supply, abject poverty and poor social infrastructures.

Life for too many, if not the majority of the people is getting worse – especially as elections approach. And so too is the escalation of violence and political intimidation.

Today the country is sitting on a time bomb that is about to explode, because of bad governance.

To make matters worse, president Koroma has done everything possible to get rid of the UN representative in the country – Michael Schulenburg, because he would prefer someone from the UN who will condone his corrupt and violent practices to stay in power.

Former British PM - Tony Blair and President Koroma

Many believe that Tony Blair and DfID officials in the country are supporting president Koroma’s strategy to stay in power by all means necessary. But will the entire world, especially the UN, who spent millions of Dollars to bring peace to the country, sit by and watch as the violence and electoral fraud unfold?

The international community is listening, reading and hearing about the impending catharsis, but the earlier they plan to take appropriate action the better it would be for our fragile peace. We are therefore, immediately calling on the UN to replace Schulenburg; and also call on the US government to take our matter seriously – before it is too late.

As a patriotic Sierra Leonean, I would like to urge the SLPP not to respond to the current wave of political intimidation being perpetuated by the ruling APC party with violence.

I implore and appeal to the SLPP presidential candidate – Julius Maada Bio to continue to follow the path of peace and positive engagement. The people of Sierra Leone have suffered enough.

It has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt by the Asian countries that good governance can definitely bring positive change of attitude and development in any country.

This theory worked in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and China. It will definitely work for us in Sierra Leone and the rest of Africa, if our governments are ready to implement the changes necessary.

Wishing and hoping that changes will come to Sierra Leone will not suffice to get us out of this messy web in which we are currently enmeshed.

The foolishness of the past and the manipulations of our self seeking political leaders that have misled the country, have left us with the legacy of a battered economy, a corrupt culture and a uninformed apathetic civil society.

When the ten year long civil war ended in 2001, we were very optimistic that the political actors will take the moral high ground in paving the way for a regenerated society that will bring positive change to Sierra Leone.

Although much progress was achieved by the previous government, sadly after the 2007 elections, Sierra Leone seems to have retrogressed.

It is now time for Sierra Leoneans – beginning with the government, to take stock of the situation, and firmly resolve to do what it takes to salvage the country from the current downward spiral.

President Tejan Kabbah built roads, schools, health centres and invested in agriculture, but he never sacrificed the economy for these projects. Notwithstanding his investment in social and ant-poverty programmes, he maintained a stable economy.

President Koroma has rightly placed an emphasis on ‘attitudinal change’ as a precursor for economic development; however, it is necessary that he reflects on how development can be best achieved.

It is possible for Sierra Leoneans to collectively enjoy lasting peace and economic development, if the objective of getting every sections of our country to feel and see the development equally and equitably can be achieved.

We cannot sit back and expect the government alone to formulate and implement policies, and hope things will automatically change, no; the lessons of the past bears enough testimony to prove the importance of equal participation and engagement by everyone.

We have seen too much poverty, bribery, corruption, politicization of government and other institutions, which immediately rule out sole dependence on the government to put things right.

As the NGOs and other donor organizations work towards addressing some of the most chronic and difficult social problems the country faces, we expect the civil society to come out and compliment their efforts, by providing whatever assistance they can and also monitor their performance.

An informed nation is of paramount importance if the government is to be held accountable for its actions, and for the people not to be misled about their legitimate rights.

It is crucial therefore, to create an informed civil society that could assume a bigger and more participatory role in the affairs of the nation. The media has a vital strategic role to play in achieving this.

But judging from the current level of involvement of the civil society and the press, it is clear the media has a long way to go in fulfilling its duty to the people in this respect. And it is time that we get our acts together, if we are to rebuild our country’s shattered economy and mend our broken social infrastructures.

We must accept that the private sector is the engine of growth and development. Asian countries have shown how the private sector can change the course of a nation’s history. Japan has no natural resources to count on, but with a very strong investment in developing its private sector, today they are the world’s third largest economy.

Therefore the key players in development are the state, the private sector and the civil society who should collectively work towards solving problems and meeting society’s needs. David Osborne and Ted Gaebler in their best seller, Reinventing Government refers to this process of collective activity, as ‘Governance’.

Much has been spoken about good governance in Sierra Leone, but very little has been done in concrete terms to introduce good governance in the country.

A government that takes development and good governance seriously is one that promotes and instils equity, transparency, efficiency, participation, accountability and predictability.

For good governance to prevail, all three key actors must interact in such a way, as to ensure that development takes place for the benefit of all in society.

Democratic elections do not guarantee good governance as many would like to have us believe. So it is important that we must examine what ails our political and constitutional systems, that have prevented us from achieving both democracy and good governance after almost fifty-one years of independence.

But if we should take a cursory look at the State, the political leadership that is the policy making body must first and foremost take full responsibility for what has befallen our fledgling democracy and the prospects for the future.

More often, we have seen how quickly our political leadership forget the purpose for which they were elected by the people. The lofty principles upon which they were elected and took their oath – vanished into thin air, no sooner they establish themselves in their ministerial seats.

The implementing arm of the government is the public service. It is the role of the public servants to implement policies that are formulated by government, under the watchful eye of the policy makers and the civil society. And by definition a public servant is one who serves the public.

But we only have to take a walk into one of our government departments to witness how poorly the public are being served by their servants.

However, it may not be fair to judge our public servants by their performance alone as there are many reasons for their apparent indifference and apathy, such as the lack of resources and incentives, bad working conditions, and low pay.

It is time that government takes serious note of this situation, and take urgent action to bring about reforms that will enable a more efficient and people friendly public service. The opposition SLPP leader – Julius Maada Bio, ought to ensure that public sector reform is prioritised in his 2012 election manifesto.

The private sector also needs to take a closer look at itself and ask whether its policies and role helping to meaningfully undertake the process of development, job creation and economic growth: whether they are sufficiently public spirited in their policies in furthering the development process.

Good governance is not only the responsibility of governments. The private sector must take cognisance of its corporate social responsibility.

The third partner in good governance is the civil society. It has a very important role to play in shaping government’s policy and holding governments and even the private sector accountable for their actions.

However it is regrettable that civil society has not yet assumed its rightful place in the development and governance of the country. One might therefore ask: how can civil society play a bigger role in the process of governance?

Firstly, an all round change of attitude of the civil society in becoming more civic conscious, liberal and exacting in demanding and holding governments and the private sector accountable.

It is then clear, that good governance and attitudinal change on the part of the political leadership, the private sector decision makers and civil society, coupled with a clear understanding of each of their roles in the development process is absolutely crucial to achieve development in Sierra Leone.

Creating awareness and improving knowledge through effective communication is a vital factor that needs to be addressed in this regard.

It follows that if Sierra Leone is to come out of its present mess and progress towards development and sustainable peace, bold and far reaching administrative, educational and economic reforms need to be strategically worked out and speedily implemented.

What the country needs today, is change. Change in the mindsets of Sierra Leonean society, the political will to put the interest of the people before narrow personal political gain, private sector commitment to development, and civil society participation in the decision making process.

The stage has been set as we prepare for the coming elections. So let a spotlight be brought on what the government has achieved in the last five years under Ernest Koroma, and compare that performance to that which he inherited in 2007, when he was voted into office.

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