Thank you all very much for this great initiative and for organizing this conference on ‘Community engagement and convergence in Sierra Leone’. It could not have come at a more opportune time. We are now in second Phase of our recovery journey after the devastating Ebola epidemic.
The Ebola outbreak disrupted every aspect of life in our country. Mistrust, fear, and stigmatization reigned. Economic growth throughout the country suffered a severe setback. But ‘every cloud has a silver lining’. This public health emergency brought Community Engagement to the center stage as an essential component of any multi-sector response. It demonstrated the power of solidarity and resilience of our communities. All communities had to be fully engaged, even when cooperation meant going against centuries-old cultural beliefs and religious practices. The spread of the disease took a turning point once communities, specifically community leaders and village headmen, were placed at the forefront of the response and took ownership of the fight against the disease.
We have therefore learned from our fight against Ebola that when citizens are effectively engaged, when they play a meaningful role in the deliberations, when they contribute to decision-making and implementation of projects or programmes affecting them; solutions will be more widely accepted. This is because drawing on local knowledge from a diverse group creates solutions that are practical and effective. And it is because when people from different areas of the community work together, they often find that they have much in common. We are aware that community engagement has been fragmented and followed different reasoning and causes. The structures used for this vary from beliefs, culture, secret societies, religion, and responses by sectors such as health, education, Agriculture. While it may not be helpful to be prescriptive on how such community engagements should be followed, the basic concepts for promoting transparency, accountability and equal opportunity cannot be over emphasized. The emphasis is to ensure that effective community engagement becomes an integral part of our development process.
This warrants greater focus and more effective community engagement to consolidate our reforms, promote diversity of voices in our media, strengthen community based structures and bring in more youth and women into the decision making process. It requires leaders of government and organizations to broaden the way they see their responsibilities, to see their roles as facilitator, supporter, collaborator, who empowers citizens and stakeholders. The more people know what is going on and are willing to work toward a goal, the more likely a community is to be successful in reaching its goals.
We have a very limited time to deliver the huge task we have set for us. And we cannot do it without the support of the people of Sierra Leone. Each and every citizen of this country has an equal right and should have an equal opportunity to voice their concerns and share their opinion on its development.
My Government remains committed to this and to the transparency of the process. This is why all the paramount chiefs in the country have been provided with chiefdom specific information packs on the President’s Recovery Priorities. This is the first time ever this level of detailed information has been shared with the community stakeholders to enable them to track delivery of initiatives planned, identify and escalate any challenges which might delay the recovery process.
It marks a significant change in the way we engage with our communities and in this new approach, we must continue to change attitudes, language and the way we view the world around us.
Often, we hear of political leaders and organizations claiming that they are sensitizing the people. Others often claim to be implementing public education programmes as if they alone have all the sense and the education. No one knows it all. In fact, many people in government, in civil society, in the development community, in the media need more education and sensitization about community needs and aspirations. This is why we must come to the communities with open minds; not necessarily to ‘sensitize’ and to ‘educate’ them, but to share our experiences as to how, together, we could move the communities forward. This is the true meaning of community engagement; working together as partners for the common good.
We are told that communities are most successful when true partnerships exist and power or control is delegated and vested effectively within the community; when those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process; when the public’s contribution is included in making the decision.
So don’t just come to the community and talk down on the people, listen up and get their own perspectives on the issues that affect them.
This National Conference should therefore be used as an opportunity to reflect, discuss and fine tune our endeavors for a stronger and resilient Sierra Leone by mobilizing leaders and communities, and reinforcing their capacity to participate, engage and advocate for their own development and well-being. Let the deliberations at this conference establish a framework that can guide community engagement and convergence in Sierra Leone not only for the recovery phase but going forward, it should be a prominent feature for rall development programmes in the country .
Ebola don go; Salone for grow!
Thank you and I wish you all a successful conference.