Andrew Keili: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 4 October 2019:
Who serves the beer? I recall while at Sierra Rutile, a complicated friend of mine was in a group being taught about writing job descriptions. The instructor started off with simple questions like, what does a driver do? what is the main duty of a cook? Just when everybody have got the thrust, my friend was asked: What does a barman do?
Complicated as ever and wanting to impress, he answered-“washes glasses for sanitation purposes”. The instructor asked probingly – ”But who serves the beer?” This was a man who, whenever he saw light at the end of the tunnel, dug more tunnel.
What we should do about abject poverty in Sierra Leone, with its concomitant ramifications for all aspects of life, has become an issue that seems to defy any answers.
A review of Statistics Sierra Leone’s main findings from the 2018 Sierra Leone Integrated Household Survey, basically indicates that from 2011 we have been “running to stay in the same place” with poverty. The official poverty rate at 56.8% in 2018 is clearly unacceptable.
The figures for extreme poverty at 12.9%, and a food poverty rate of 54.5% – are alarming. The fact that poverty rate at 73.9% in rural areas is twice as high as in urban areas at 34.8% is also not surprising.
Despite all the squalor and deprivation we witness in Freetown, the city has a significantly lower poverty rate at 22.8% than other urban areas. Little wonder that the tide of urban migration seems huge.
I have known for a long time that when you bring a young boy from Pidegumahun to Freetown and he gets into the habit of watching Manchester United ( however hopeless they may be now) versus Arsenal, he is unlikely to go back. Despite the fact that he may live in squalor and sleep rough, he can, through hustling and probably menial employment, get his full blown plate of “cookery”.
Those of us who come from the provinces only have to visit our villages to realize the extent of poverty there. Many of us have had to “escape” at unexpected early hours to avoid long queues of relatives with all kinds of demands.
I recall the embarrassment at a family event in my village at which impatient relatives told to stand in a queue for food “stormed” the food table, as they considered the pace of service too slow, especially as those who had already been served were chewing in such a gluttonous fashion they could have been in seventh heaven. My wife took a jab at me – “Bo we civilize pass dis na me yone village, Moselelo”.
The poverty results also indicate that the North is the province with the highest rate of poverty; and districts like Tonkolili, Pujehun and Falaba have the highest rates per District. Although poverty may have decreased slightly since 2011, extreme poverty increased in rural areas by 5.3 percentage points and food poverty by 8.4 percentage points.
Little wonder then that in IGC’s SIERRAPOL–“Stop the blame game: Take responsibility” the polling seems to indicate that unemployment, shortage of food and rising prices of essential commodities are the greatest worry for a majority of citizens.
Not surprising however, respondents had a positive impression of government’s handling of education (84.4 percent), promoting the increase of women and girls (84.7 percent) and fighting corruption (75.8 percent). These positive results clearly give accolades to a government that has put human development at the front of its agenda.
This is the good news. Now for the bad news. Only ten percent of citizens believe the government is doing well in managing prices of goods.
Similar low percentages were recorded for government’s ability in making food available (14.5 percent) and providing jobs ( 24.7 percent). These are alarming figures that bear out the poverty statistics.
Clearly, President Bio’s “talk and do government” has to get to grips with this alarming situation. People have tended to “finger” the Finance Minister and Bank Governor, perhaps unfairly as having the greatest responsibility for this state of affairs.
Cognoscenti of the Sierra Leone economy have however opined that despite their best efforts and the yeoman’s effort of the NRA in collecting revenue, it will all come to naught if it gets increasingly difficult to do business in Sierra Leone. As the Bank Governor has often said before, dishing out his stock of economic remedies.
“You can take Panadol to ease your pain temporary, but it does not take the ailment away”. He has however been forced to give us Panadol, as there are many other players in government not meeting their side of the bargain.
Some actually do, out of inexperience, megalomania or an unwillingness to collaborate with others and see the bigger national picture that encapsulates the need for ease of doing business, employment, simpler regulations, or out of pure incompetence or other unsavoury reasons, thwart the efforts of government in solving problems that may address the poverty situation.
The fact remains that the private sector is hurting, and its cries seem to be in the wilderness. Despite all the pronouncements about new mega investments in the offing in various sectors, the private sector seems to be hurting for a host of reasons.
The business sector seems to feel that the government is not speaking with one voice and that many MDAs seem to be operating in silos with many heads behaving as if their little “fiefdoms” are the only game in town.
As a sceptic has voiced out, – “Sierra Leone needs to be seen as business friendly. Many businesses are hurting and investor confidence is at an all-time low. Investors are jittery and potential ones apprehensive. Even SLIEPA is sleeping. There must be security of tenure, consistency of policies and stability of the fiscal regime. Many people heading major institutions that influence the ways in which businesses function and the private sector thrives are pure political appointees; and as the Americans would say – have never made anything ”sh-t”.
The government needs to engender dialogue with the private sector meaningfully and listen to their concerns. It is the private sector that grows the economy, and they must not be seen as the enemy”. Better heads have made several recommendations such as setting up an Economic Council, new competition laws, etc.
Kudos to the government for its strides in the human development areas, however, if poverty is to be tackled, they must have a hard look at what is being done now, that is deterring the growth of the private sector and sapping the economy.
The concerns about the cost of living, unemployment and poverty must be addressed. Until this happens, we will always ask of our poverty situation – “But who serves the beer”, because we have missed the bigger picture of how we can go about tackling it, like my complicated friend.
Ponder my thoughts