EU Ambassador to Sierra Leone calls for greater accountability for public funds

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 5 November 2020:

European Union’s Ambassador to Sierra Leone – Mr Tom Vens, last week called on the government of Sierra Leone to demonstrate “heightened standards of transparency and accountability” in the management of funds received by the government to help fight the COVID-19 virus epidemic in Sierra Leone.

His statement comes on the heels of political parties and the media in Sierra Leone calling for an immediate audit of the Covid-19 funds, to which the Attorney General said that the government is not obliged to undertake such audit until after the end of the pandemic.

But speaking at the inauguration of the Government Civil Society Dialogue Series on the topic: “Government Interventions to address the COVID-19 Pandemic in Sierra Leone,” in Freetown last Friday, the EU Ambassador said that: “Public accountability has always been critical. But now even more. Not just as an essential element of the social contract between state and society but also in the broader framework of the partnership with the international community”.

He told president Bio that there should be “no space for politically motivated distortions or the pursuit of narrow personal interests by those with a say in allocation of resources”.

Public funds during State of Emergency “are often regarded as potential sources of financial malpractice and corruption,” Tom Vens said.

This is the full statement delivered by the EU Ambassador:

I am delighted to join you for the inaugural high-level dialogue between Government and Civil Society. Today’s event translates into action the commitment made by you, Mr President, to enhance consultation of and collaboration with Civil Society Organisations in addressing the crisis engendered by the COVID-19 and on broader governance and developmental issues.

It takes leadership to rethink and take affirmative action to reinvigorate the state-society social contract. Even more so during difficult times.

Your excellency, Fostering economic development and strengthening peace and democratic rule is not only your priority but has been the principal aim of the European Union from its very outset 70 years ago. As a community of like-minded States, the EU promotes the pursuit of peace and democracy both internally and in all its external actions, political and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world.

There is no one democratic model that fits all. The model as such is not the point – the participation in decision-making is; the opportunity for the citizens to take and be part in the governing of society; the opportunity to voice opinions through channels that do not undermine stability and the very foundation and principles of the state; that is what matters. And this is where civil society can play an often underestimated role.

I have no hesitation to state that strengthening the role of national civil society organisations in democratic processes, and promoting social accountability models based on transparency and sustained trust-building dialogue between State and non-State Institutions have always been at the core of the EU engagement with its partner countries.

The prospect of a global economic recession and social instability has driven the EU to widen and intensify its efforts. In Sierra Leone, as elsewhere in the world, we have front-loaded our budget support, repurposed our cooperation programmes, committed all available funds to support Government’s efforts to contain the pandemic and ensure prompt economic recovery.

And along with that, we have reinforced, widened and deepened our partnership with civil society organisations to become an effective force not just in the fight against COVID19 but for deepening democracy, social cohesion and public accountability.

Your Excellency, Honourable Ministers, Esteemed colleagues, we all agree – enhanced public participation, through active involvement of civil society organisations in public policy planning, implementation and oversight can significantly accrue the benefits and potential for development as well as peace and social cohesion. This is even more so in the COVID-19 context, and for a number of reasons:

Firstly, the speed and magnitude of the global crisis, with one-third of the global population under lockdown mean that we are entering unchartered territory. These have led to a new vision for action revolving around the concept of ‘resilient societies’ based on the mutually reinforcing pillars of peace and democracy and enhanced social accountability through the active engagement of civil society.

It became evident to what extent a vibrant and digitally-enabled civil society can be a crucial asset for disseminating vital information and ensuring public accountability.

Several examples attest to the positive role of CSOs in helping shape and implement Government response to the pandemic, ensure that this addresses the needs of the most vulnerable segments of society.

In Sierra Leone as elsewhere in the world, CSOs have proven critical in supporting the good implementation of COVID-19 support packages, facilitating outreach to potential beneficiaries.

Secondly, the amount of financial resources mobilised and the extraordinary measures adopted to respond to the crisis raise expectations, challenges and risks which call for heightened standards of transparency and accountability.

Public accountability has always been critical. But now even more.

Not just as an essential element of the social contract between state & society but also in the broader framework of the partnership with the international community.

Citizens’ quest and expectations for effective and efficient implementation and tangible outcomes are high, with no space for politically motivated distortions or the pursuit of narrow personal interests by those with a say in the allocation of resources. The call for sound financial management, fiscal transparency and public accountability by development partners is also strong. This is notably the case for those – like the European Union – providing direct budgetary aid to partner countries.

Esteemed representatives of the Civil Society, the challenges and expectations are high – but so is the potential to make a meaningful contribution. Civil Society can make COVID-19 response more effective, just and transparent.

It is our expectation the Civil Society Organizations will continue to help tracking and monitoring the implementation of measures, ensuring they target and reach the most vulnerable segment of society, providing Government and Development Partners the much-needed input on possible corrective actions.

Sierra Leone, like many countries in the world, has adopted extraordinary measures to respond to the crisis. Of all interventions two mechanisms call for particular attention: the national flagship cash-transfer programme and the Covid-19 extra-budgetary fund.

An extra-budgetary fund dedicated to COVID 19 has been established in view to overcome complex processes and delays and streamline the budgetary response to the crisis.

While the exceptional situation justified the creation of COVID-19 Emergency Funds, lessons learnt from the past and from elsewhere in the world indicate how they can also create significant vulnerabilities. Extra Budgetary Funds can fragment policymaking and implementation and cloud citizens’ understanding and trust of government operations, as they are often regarded as potential sources of financial malpractice and corruption.

It is against this background that I welcome and encourage all efforts aimed at heightened standards of transparency and social accountability, with a potent role for CSOs to endeavour to contribute collaboratively to oversight mechanisms.

Your Excellency, I know we can trust your leadership to excel in this respect.

The secondment of staff by the Auditor General in Sierra Leone  to facilitate an interim audit of the special fund was quoted by the IMF as a global best practice. Such effort must be recognised, praised and pursued, and additional oversight mechanisms can be considered to enhance public accountability of crisis-related spending.

These can include (as it has been done in Togo or Honduras) dedicated portals to publish information on the execution of COVID-19 related expenditure and updates on payments made by the flagship social transfer program; or the establishment of hot-lines and grievance mechanisms for citizens to voice their questions and concerns over the distribution of relief packages.

Civil Society organisations – along with the Supreme Audit Institution and the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament – can be a powerful catalyst for enhancing the accountability of COVID-19 related spending.

Going forward, echoing the recommendations issued by the IMF and the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency, I wish to call upon CSOs and the National Authorities – notably the ministry of finance – to agree on practical steps to improve the transparency and accountability of COVID-19 related spending programs and tax measures. These can include i) enhanced reporting on emergency spending, stimulus plans and revenue sources and their impact on the economy and social development, ii) transparency over the beneficiaries of these measures and  iii) disclosing information on procurement tenders and contracts.

Here is an opportunity to create new transparency and accountability tools that will build citizens trust and confidence in Government action and yield benefits way beyond the lifetime of the current crisis.

But I want to end on a more general note: in the past months, I have followed how your government’s decentralisation policy has been shaped. A few weeks back, representatives from civil society were given an opportunity to comment on the draft policy and to engage on the same. This opportunity was embraced with the right attitude and has provided inputs that allowed for a stronger and better articulated policy. It is a clear example how this engagement with civil society can be and should be a force for good.

In the same vain, Mr President, I wish to finish by paraphrasing what you said when on Wednesday you signed the repeal of criminal libel provisions in the Public Order Act: You said “We can be united to do the right thing.” Mr President, I dare add that to do the right thing, you have to be united. The opportunities are there to seize. You are blessed with a vibrant civil society that stands ready to support you in this. And in doing so, you can be assured of our unfettered support. Thank you!”

6 Comments

  1. I couldn’t recall such development during the past government, the issue of accountability of Ebola funds was never raised nor heard by neither donor nor any citizen but rather the erstwhile president Koroma himself. But today we have seen and heard the EU Ambassador demanding for proper accountability into the Covid-19 funds. Yet those guys are the champions fighting corruption.
    Like I have always said to this government, you can’t give what you don’t have.
    Was that the reason why the Bio and his government was so moved by their believes that this will be the last COI? Is it not that a delusion?

  2. Thanks to you Dr Santhkie Sorie for finally nailing the nail through the coffin in your explicit narratives of what is perpetually causing Mama Salone’s abysmal socio-economic demise and moral decadence by previous/current led executive parties administration. My advice to my prezo and team is to practise what they preach especially in their response of the recommendations of the learned judge Justice George led Commission of Inquiry.

    One of the recommendations rebutted/refused by the CURRENT SLPP led government is the banning of the accused from holding public office depending on the gravity of the alleged crimes after they pay back the stolen financial and other resources of the state. The current government emphasis is on the repayment but not the termination of the accused from holding public office positions. This is good and the current SLPP govt should set its own precedence among its supporters/members that they are not above the law and are NOT SACRED COWS but answerable to authorities if asked to give account of their stewardship.

    If they are found wanting then they MUST REPAY BACK TO THE STATE THEIR LOOT FROM THE CONSOLIDAITION FUND, BACK TO IT. By doing this in-house cleansing, the great party of the SLPP is subject to accountability and transparency and this will limit their opponents from finding lucrative grounds to win back the TRUST OF THE populace, that the APC party had neglected, abused and looted, leaving them in abject poverty and destitution.

  3. The post White Paper question put forward by government functionaries, against the other side, under investigations before the ACC for accountability was, why should the other side not come forward to face the ACC, if in fact, they believe they are innocent of the allegations of financial crimes they stand accused of committed against the state? The functionaries or auxiliaries question and argue, for the accused people to grab the opportunity to prove they did nothing wrong. It sounds a logical way to look at it. But, in reality, it’s easier said than done.

    Now, the pole has shifted. Can the public ask the same question of the government and make the same argument? Evidently, there is no better time again, to ask the same question, than in the current allegation of a seeming reluctance by the Corona Emergency task Force, to be audited by the constitutionally mandated Auditor General obliged by law, to check the flow and expense of the International Corona money in the country, meant to support the fight against the spread of the virus. To the extent of the Task Force’s dragging of feet and tightening of lips is the AG who has, through a letter correspondence, now come to the rescue with a bogus legalese and unsound argument aimed at justifying the Corona Task Force’s buying of time tactics to doctor the books?

    Otherwise, it’s illogical and suspect, the same way they question the motives of the partners in crimes, to fear to be audited or not to surrender the books upon request, if in fact, the Corona funds accounts are balanced and the international money is well spent in the right way. The questions, Didn’t the Task Force know it, right from the beginning that, they will be audited at any time of the Auditor General’s choosing to check how the funds are managed? How come the AG is now involved in rationalizing for a delay of the audit? My God! Rescue our land. A government that is transparent must not only talk the talk but must walk the walk, openly.

  4. The European commission ambassador to Sierra Leone Mr Tom Vens, called on president Bio and his government to “heightened standards of transparency and accountability” in the management of funds received by his government to fund the COVID19 pandemic. The definition of these two words are not by themselves a criminal offence, but it spells out openness to public scrutiny. This is a desperate call and a warning shot by the EU ambassador. That Bio needs to shape up or the EU and the international donor community, will turn off the tap of easy money that his government is receiving from our international partners.

    Mr president you better pay heed to this call. In other words the EU, and other donor partners are at their wit’s end with Bio and his corrupt government. Rarely, those are the ones posted on diplomatic duties involve themselves or make a statement of that candour to their host government. It seemed to me in the absence of a strong opposition and lack of transparency and accountability, by this corrupt Bio government, Mr Tom Vens has gone native. It is clear from his statement, that Bio and his government have fallen far from what our development partners expect of him. He couldn’t have put it any other way.

    Mr. Tom Vens, a representative of EU 27 member states, does not want to dish out their citizen’s tax payer’s money to buttress a corrupt government, because more than anything else, he knew what it meant when a government is answerable to it’s citizens. It is easy to assist a LIZARD to climb a high wall than a TOAD. PLACE THE LIZARD BY THE WALL AND IT WILL SCALE It WITHIN A BLINK OF AN EYE. PLACE THE TOAD AT THE SUMMIT OF THE WALL, HE WILL ALWAYS FALL ON THE FLOOR.

    I think every day under Bio, Sierra Leone is mimicking the TOAD, rather than the lizard. Almost sixty years after independence, we have nothing to hold up, and say since the British left, this is what we achieve. If anything we are sliding backwards both economically, socially, and unashamedly corrupt. May God bless Sierra Leone.

  5. If it is true as per another article that is based on another leak from the Auditor General’s office, that the Sierra Leone Government run by Maada Bio has refused to have the Covid-19 funds audited, the people should not wait for the monies to be eaten before they take action. This is the kind of things that I would like to see the citizens come out in their numbers to demonstrate and or riot. For far too long we have been a reactionary society instead of a proactive society. I am an SLPP member but I will be the first to join if other is willing to come out and demonstrate. We need Transparency.

    Monies were received (not $400 million as said by this paper – but monies were received and it was all smiles when it was announced. So why should it be all frowns for the auditor General to audit the funds while some of the monies is still there so that we the people in behalf of whom the monies were received to know the true state of the money.

    These are the monies received since the start of the Covid-19 Pandemic. We want to know how it has been expended. The donors need to know how their monies have been expended. Please Bio, do not let some of us stop supporting you if you cannot come out clean. Be it emergency or not period, accountability should not be hindered. In fact accountability for the covid-19 monies should be the real emergency and should take primacy.

    https://www.thesierraleonetelegraph.com/imf-approves-disbursement-of-143-million-loan-for-sierra-leones-covid-19-response/

    https://www.thesierraleonetelegraph.com/eu-e10-million-budget-support-for-sierra-leones-covid-19-economic-response/

    https://www.thesierraleonetelegraph.com/world-bank-approves-100-million-to-support-sierra-leones-economic-resilience/

    https://www.thesierraleonetelegraph.com/covid-19-pandemic-imf-approves-21-13-million-to-help-stabilise-sierra-leone-economy/

    https://www.thesierraleonetelegraph.com/imf-grants-15-million-debt-relief-to-sierra-leone-to-help-fight-coronavirus/

  6. Quoting back at President Bio, verbatim, what he (Maada Bio) said in repealing the libel laws by the EU representative should ring in Bio’s ears for eternity; it should even follow him into the hereafter. It should be a source of perpetual national embarrassment for foreign representatives to tell us what to do for our own good. The implication of EU representative‘s speech is that when it comes to designing financial policies to advance the nation Maada Bio and his team are brain dead, but are exceptionally intelligent in disappearing funds meant to help the country. President Bio could well be another disaster in the making for the country just like his predecessor (Earnest Koroma) was – maybe even worse.

    And the attorney-general? He is beginning to wrap himself with criminal tendencies, otherwise he would not be part of any effort to block any audit . A lawyer is supposed to uphold the law, not break it. A lawyer should be of exemplary character and integrity unless he is driven by emotions which undermine his credibility, displaying him as a crook first before anything else.

    The reluctance of the Bio government to open an audit investigation into Covid-19 funds is akin to Earnest Koroma’s reluctance and fear to face ACC to answer questions about his wealth . Too much filth would be unearthed. The woes of our country will continue for as long as we continue to alternate SLPP and APC in power. The only successful thing they will continue to do is to hold us at the gates of hell. As a people we must find it in ourselves to try another way. Let us give NGC and KKY a chance if just for the sake of it. APC and SLPP are the devil. They’re only angels when either of them find themselves in opposition.

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