On Tuesday 30th August, the Government of Sierra Leone collaborated with UNICEF to hold our first national community engagement conference. The event was intended to reframe our thinking on the subject, and develop a shared commitment among all stakeholders, so that meaningful and sustained community engagement becomes embedded within our development agenda.
Community engagement has figured in our country’s history, largely during periods of turmoil or in an ad hoc and piecemeal fashion. Twelve years ago, it was a notable feature of the post-war peace and reconciliation process, and of course it played an invaluable role in turning the tide of the Ebola epidemic.
Health remains an important area for community participation and UNICEF’s recent survey on the subject of community engagement found that 25% of the overall respondents reported being actively engaged in the health sector, followed closely by education (20%) and WASH (19%).
The need for genuine community participation and ownership also applies across all the other sectors that form the President’s Recovery Priorities - education, water, social protection, governance, energy and private sector development - and we have made it core to the planning, implementation and evaluation of the process. Regional consultations, a commitment to transparency and accountability and most recently the appointment of a Community Engagement Officer (CEO) within every district is evidence of this and has been widely welcomed by local government representatives.
We recognise that gaps remain, and we are committed to addressing them. For example, there is an urgent need to fully engage our large and increasing youth population. Over 40% of our population is under 18; and young people have the potential to become either a source of economic and social instability, or a significant opportunity for growth, innovation and transformational change. However, no one who witnessed their contribution to the Ebola response can be in any doubt about their commitment and potential value to our society. The roles they played included manning check points, conducting house to house temperature screening and distributing health and hygiene information.
This community mindedness was also highlighted in a survey of youth populations carried out in the Commonwealth countries, in which Sierra Leone came out top in the area of civic participation. This augurs well for their role in Sierra Leone’s future. Engaging them fully in our future development would also build on their abilities to meet their own needs; promote their ownership of youth-targeted interventions and build mutual trust.
Unlocking our agriculture potential through responsible commercial agriculture is another focus of the President’s Recovery Priorities and a critical component for the structural transformation of our economy. Changing from a tradition of subsistence farming will require the confidence and participation of our rural communities – both men and women, as well as transparency and accountability between leaders and citizens.
The lessons of our past teach us that change has to come from within, and that when local people are engaged in developing and implementing community-led actions plans that are adapted to their local needs, conditions and available resources, they are more likely to be successful.
To meet the challenges of our future, community ownership of our country’s development must extend to all stakeholders and sectors. The strategy that will emerge from last week’s conference is an important step towards making our recovery a sustainable one.