5/29/10

Turbulent times and bad policies

We’re very busy at the moment. Monday last week was the first workday for our new manager. So besides continuing on all our normal projects and plans, we also needed to make sure that Emmanuel got to know about, yeah really, everything about REACT and the work we are doing and want to do in the future.
But it has been a massively good process. Emmanuel is a very clever, analytical and innovative figure, who has already been able to contribute with many ideas and a lot of energy. And I have no problem being busy, if I feel that it is moving something – and I really feel we are moving a lot at the moment.

My stay in Masanga is indeed entering a new era. When something new is added something will also disappear. In this case the thing disappearing is most of the Danish volunteers. Tonight we are having a goodbye party for like half of the people here, which will all leave during the next weeks. So hostel-life will really change a lot, with only like 6 people remaining to live here for some time.

But we’re not the only ones keeping busy. I’m quite positive that also goes for the Sierra Leonean government these days. Sierra Leone’s public sector has long been suffering from low payments. That is good in the sense, that the government can keep expenditures low, but bad in the sense that you have a very real brain-drain from Sierra Leone to other countries. The best educated personnel simply find employment in other countries, where they can be paid decently.

The answer: to increase salaries.

The government realised that the right move to keep the working force in the country would be to cater to their needs and increase the salary. Another benefit from this would be to lower the need for health personnel to engage in corrupt practices, as it should be less needed for them in order to make a decent living. And this actually comes on top of new policies ensuring pregnant women and children under 5 free treatment and medicine (to battle the frightening percentage of child mortality), so a lot is really happening in Sierra Leone. The government is certainly taking responsibility – which is great.

The only problem was the way they decided to do it. Instead of giving gradual pay raises over maybe a five to ten year period, they decided that it needed to be done; and needed to be done now. This meant that the salary of most health personnel was raised by between 100-200 % and for some even 6-doubled over night!

This has resulted in three apparent problems.
Firstly, the government will have used all of the money allotted for the scheme (over a five year period – coming from DFID (the English pendent to DANIDA) in particular) in just three months.
Secondly, it has really alienated the other public sector employees, which has also suffered from underpayment for decades. The college professors has thus already been striking, and rumours has it that the teachers’ union is also threatening to make every primary and secondary school teacher go on strike (that is class 1 to class 12 so to say). That will paralyse the education sector.
The exact same thing goes for the health personnel in the military, which could spill over into the military ranks themselves. And if there’s any lesson which is apparent in Africa south of Sahara it is this: don’t get on bad terms with your military – they will coup up.
The police are threatening to strike and so are the road workers. Where the money for all of these people should come from, I for one have no idea.
Thirdly, more than half of the revenues of the Sierra Leonean governments’ revenues come from international donors and development aid (!!). That makes Sierra Leone the country receiving most aid-money pr. capita in the entire world. A place like Masanga Hospital is included in these statistics. Here, all of the employees have come together to form a union, that can make demands for the hospital to raise the salaries in accordance with the government hospitals. But believe me, when I say, that can’t be done. The money is simply not there. And I could imagine that goes for a lot of places. Few organizations will be prepared to simply double or triple their salary budget. Will that cause some to leave or concentrate on projects in other countries?

The good thing about all of this must still be remembered. This is really grassroots democracy working. People are organizing to make demands and hold employers and the government accountable. That is a beautiful and important thing. Hopefully things won’t escalate into violence, which will serve no good. If not I think the whole event can give birth to useful structures and empower certain organizations to become credible voices for the groups they represent. That is a sign of health in my eyes. But for now the government really has created a giant mess of things and will surely need to do a lot of cleaning up.

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