By Amin Kef Sesay
During a panel discussion held on the margins of the 33rd African Union Heads of State and Government Summit, that took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, President Julius Maada Bio dilated about his Government’s efforts at combatting poverty and inequality in Sierra Leone.
He first thanked OXFAM for their great work to reduce social and economic disparities and to enhance the quality of life among the world’s citizens.
“You have persistently challenged us, world leaders, to think through problems of development, set goals, outline and pursue commitments to attaining those goals, and to also measure outcomes,” he further extended his appreciation.
The President intimated how stable governance and development must be inclusive and sustainable. “These aspirations are central both to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063. But both are unattainable if we fail to address inequality and poverty,” he enjoined adding that with this year’s summit dedicated to “Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development,” it is but fitting to have such a deeper conversation around the two most cited causes of bloody insurgencies on the African continent – inequality and poverty.
His Excellency said there are three key questions that are germane to the conversation which, he said, have guided his Government’s thinking about inclusive and sustainable development and informed their bold and intentional agenda as a Government:
“How do we break cycles of intergenerational poverty and persistent inequality in my country – where poor parents give birth to poor children who in turn go on to beget even poorer and unhealthier children? How do we generate sustainable development within a peaceful, stable, and resilient milieu? How do we take pole position as a nation, (to borrow a metaphor from motorsports), in this new global economy so that our children are competitively more educated, healthier, and better prepared?” he asked.
President Bio told the audience that Sierra Leone sees its 2018 ranking (153/157) in OXFAM’s Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index (CRII) as an incentive to undertake further progressive action to address thorny development questions.
Explaining how they have mapped out their bold agenda to tackle the problems of poverty, inequality and national development the president mentioned what he referred to as Eco-system strengthening. “Ours is a stable and open democracy that we are strengthening even further with a permanent Commission for Peace and National Cohesion while opening up even more spaces for civic participation and dialogue,” he revealed noting that we are no longer the poster child of a failed State struggling to shake off multiple stigma of bloody civil conflict, disease pandemics, natural disasters, and corruption.
He said they have strengthened public financial account management and closed off loopholes for fraud, waste and abuse of public funds.
“We have clamped down hard on corruption because we see corruption as an existential threat. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has acknowledged our sustained progress in the control of corruption and our multilateral partners who had abandoned the previous administration have reengaged ,” the President outlined furthering that by cracking down on tax fraud and illegal duty waivers, and consolidating revenue collection, they have increased domestic revenue mobilisation.
“We have introduced progressive tax codes that minimise the tax burden on the lowest income earners while substantively increasing the minimum wage and pensions right across board,” he underscored.
President Bio underscored how they are improving the ease of doing business in Sierra Leone from registration, operations, to aftercare saying he co-chairs the National Investment Board because they believe greater levels of investment in the economy will open up more opportunity for citizens.
“We are diversifying our economy in order to make it more productive and more resilient. With a long compendium of business incentives, we are encouraging greater and new investments in tourism, fisheries, infrastructure, agriculture and agriculture value chains, renewable energy, and even in old sectors such as the extractives where datasets from an airborne geophysical survey show great prospect,” he went on giving assurance that they will continue to review laws and regulations that constrain business and national development.
“My argument, essentially, is that inclusive and sustainable development is possible only when we expand and grow the economy within a stable democratic space with the right laws and policies that facilitate and support that development,” he argued.
Dilating on Data, he said, they recognise the power of data and make it central to planning and policy making as a Government stressing that relevant and accurate data (disaggregated by gender, region, age, socio-economic class, disability etc as necessary), will help ask the right questions, identify the right problems, assess the full dimensions to those problems, and plan bespoke solutions that are both effective and sustainable.
He stated that education resources on providing safe spaces or WASH facilities for girls, for instance, can be better targeted and better spent in solving that problem. Micro-credit or social safety net interventions for the most vulnerable can be better targeted with data also revealing how they have increased and expanded cash transfers to the most vulnerable households.
With regards Planning , he said, they have developed a fully-costed Medium Term National Plan that lays out development priorities in neat clusters. Central to that national development plan is the flagship programme – Human Capital Development that proposes elevated investments in quality education, quality healthcare, and food security.
On the area of Specific Human Capital Development Interventions, the First Gentleman said a nation’s greatest resource is its human capital pointing out how a well-educated and healthy population is a future skilled and resourceful population that will propel our nation along the path of sustainable national development.
“As a consequence of my Government’s heavy investment (21% of Annual Budget) in free quality education policy, 2 million children (most of whom could not afford the $20 school fee) are now in school.
We have created safe spaces for girls in school and we have passed a new Sexual Offences Act to protect women and girls from rape and sexual and gender-based violence,” he intimated adding how he has also engaged women’s civil society groups to discuss how they can collaborate on bigger questions beyond education and SGBV to women’s constitutional and human rights, representation, and all historical and cultural forms of discrimination.
The President maintained that the First Lady’s vigorous campaign against early child marriage, sexual exploitation of girls, and other seemingly entrenched cultural attitudes (including taboos on menstruation) that lead to the exclusion of girls from school has resonated across the country.
“My Government (through the Minister of Basic and Secondary School Education) has set up a taskforce to guide policy on radical inclusion especially on teenage pregnancy. Students also receive free teaching and learning materials, bus transportation, and in some districts, receive free school feeding.
Children whose parents are teachers, police officers, soldiers receive free tertiary education and women who enrol to study STEM disciplines in college automatically get scholarships,” he furthered.
He informed that they have maintained the Government’s grants-in-aid programme but they are also looking at new financing models that will grant even more access to students from poorer homes who would otherwise not receive a University education.
According to him these interventions level out the perceived poverty and inequality disparities for acquiring an education. He said ultimately they believe that a skilled labour force is attractive for foreign direct investments and entrepreneurship, and it increases national productivity.
He said in their aspiration toward inclusive development, they have also deployed block-chain technology to develop a national digital identity platform that will support financial inclusion and access to credit.
“We are developing rural renewable energy mini-grids to expand access to energy and to improve on the quality of life in otherwise inaccessible off-grid areas. These rural mini-grids support additional development imperatives in healthcare, education, entrepreneurship, and agro-value chain development.
We also continue investing in training, recruiting, and retaining more nurses. We have introduced a free national ambulance service and we are building more Peripheral Health Units and Community Health Centres to expand healthcare to hard-to-reach places,” the President stated.
He said they are thoughtfully planning to improve access (geographical and economic) to ante and postnatal care for women and to address nutrition and stunting among under-fives adding how the expansion of outpatient healthcare services is consistent with their vision of having a healthy population within the next five years.
“Inasmuch as our plans, policies, and interventions touch on the three clusters of social spending, tax reforms, and labour rights evaluated by OXFAM in their Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index, our effort is to develop a broader, more comprehensive, and more holistic ecosystem that is conducive for inclusive and sustainable national development,” President Bio pinpointed.
He said when the new data points reflect their investments and progress through 2019 and into 2020, they are confident of making progress on the index.
But more importantly, President Bio pointed out they would be much gratified that they would have taken one more little step in changing the lives of Sierra Leoneans and narrowing gaps on poverty and inequality.