By Dr Babatunde Ahonsi
As we put a very challenging 2020 behind us, Sierra Leone like the rest of the world must seek to build forward better from the devastating socioeconomic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and prevent a major resurgence in coronavirus transmission. Getting the country back on the track of accelerated pursuit of its national development priorities has to be the main preoccupation of the leaders, citizens and friends of Sierra Leone in 2021.
I will like to suggest five critical actions that should be on the 2021 to-do-list of key stakeholders in Sierra Leone’s development (especially the government) if this main objective is to be achieved.
First on the priorities list for Sierra Leone in 2021 must be the containment of COVID-19 transmission and the acquisition of Covid-19 vaccines for the vaccination of a critical mass of the population by the second half of the year. We know from the situation of countries like China and New Zealand that when a country is able to control Covid-19 transmission, it is much easier to reboot and revive the economy. In other words, Sierra Leone cannot build forward better without surmounting the public health threat presented by Covid-19. Ongoing Covid-19 prevention and control measures must therefore be intensified throughout 2021. It is also becoming clearer that getting as many people as possible to receive the Covid-19 vaccines will be indispensable to ending this pandemic and Sierra Leone must not be left behind.
Second, the economy must be made to begin to thrive again. This will have to be enabled in spite of the more difficult state that government finances will be thrown into in 2021 including notable contraction of liquidity, and balance of payments challenges. In addition, the devastating effects on livelihoods especially for poor women and youth of the widespread Covid-19-related disruptions and closure of businesses, factories and productive ventures have pushed more Sierra Leoneans into extreme poverty, food insecurity and unemployment.
All hands must therefore be on deck to build forward better by more intentionally capitalizing on the country’s areas of comparative advantage around the agriculture value chain (for cassava, rice and fruits, in particular), the extractive industries, and abundant labour supply. New employment generation, food production and renewable energy production opportunities would also need to be pro-actively harnessed in the blue economy and green economy given Sierra Leone’s bountiful water endowments, and rich forest and terrestrial ecosystems. Now is the time to turn the crisis unleashed by Covid-19 into an opportunity by faithfully pursuing an economic model based on job creation (for the teeming youth population), environmental sustainability, and social inclusion.
One precondition for progress on this front would be accelerated elimination of inefficiencies and leakages in the allocation and management of public finances across all levels of government. Another is the creation of a more business-friendly operating environment for both foreign and local investors, including Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora. Relatedly, given the size of the Sierra Leonean market, a re-branding of Sierra Leone as an investment destination for accessing the larger MRU sub-regional and ECOWAS markets would be helpful. So would the promotion of a ‘can-do’, patriotic and positive ethos among Sierra Leoneans; for, in the final analysis, the destiny of Sierra Leone is in the hands of Sierra Leoneans.
Third, to help leapfrog the hurdles and bottlenecks along the country’s journey to becoming a middle-income country by 2035, 2021 should be a year of boosted efforts at creating an enabling environment (including building the requisite ICT backbone and energy infrastructure) for leveraging the economic growth, job creation and social transformation opportunities provided by digital technology. Without advances in digital finance, Edtech, e-health, and e-commerce, it would be extremely difficult for the country to be competitive within the regional or global economy as well as to achieve the national targets in education, health, poverty reduction, and social inclusion. For a start, much more should be done in 2021 to see progress in the expansion of mobile money services, and to transition from 3G to 4G.
We know that no country can achieve rapid economic growth and social progress without fully empowering its women and girls as both active agents and full beneficiaries of the development process. So, the fourth priority for Sierra Leone in 2021 must be to build on the progress so far made to combat gender inequality and discrimination especially around exposure to sexual and gender-based violence, educational attainment, access to economic opportunities, and representation in decision-making positions. Particular attention should be paid within the Covid-19 recovery efforts to dealing with the crisis-propelled contraction of the informal economy (where women are over-represented), the heightened incidence of domestic violence, and the added care burden women are having to bear at home.
Last but not the least, 2021 has to be a year in which the sustenance of peace, social harmony and political stability is prioritized by all Sierra Leoneans. Without peace and national cohesion, it will be virtually impossible to stay on the track of inclusive economic growth and social transformation in the national journey towards becoming a middle-income country. Given the country’s recent history, 2021 should be the year in which all key players within the political space redouble efforts to help lay a solid foundation for peaceful, free, fair and credible general elections in early 2023.
The foregoing list is, of course, neither exhaustive nor exclusive and some other items may be justifiably suggested for the list. But it should be clear from my highlighted five priorities that a committed pursuit of sustainable development is ultimately the pathway for building forward better from Covid-19. Recovering better from Covid-19 and advancing Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development are two faces of the same coin. As I welcome other suggestions for the 2021 to-do-list, may I end by, on behalf of my UN colleagues in the country, I wish all Sierra Leoneans and friends of Sierra Leone a healthy, peaceful, prosperous and fulfilling new year.
About the Author
Dr Babatunde Ahonsi is the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Sierra Leone