Friday, 8 March 2019

To all you men who still use religion as an excuse to mistreat women. Young religious leaders are correcting our society’s wrong perceptions about gender inequality.

Two weeks ago I attended a Friday sermon at the mosque in the local university here in Port Loko and was so happy to see a young imam leading the Jumuah prayers that Friday admonishing the congregation about the teachings of the Prophet Mohamed (s.a.w) about the responsibilities a man has towards his wife. This sermon was among the best I have ever attended, especially since many men still use wrong interpretations of religious teachings to continue to keep women behind.
The sermom stunned the congregation, you could see people's faces! As we left the mosque that Friday everyone (men and women) was chatting about how stunned they were about the Islamic teachings related to marriage and how men should treat their wives especially when it comes to household decision making. The following Friday the lead Imam told us that word reached out about the great sermon and that he has received several requests from other communities who would like the sermon to be delivered to their congregations.

Among the teachings of the sermon some that stuck to my mind were the following:
That it is forbidden for a man to beat his wife. According to the prophect (s.a.w) the worst you’re permitted to do when your wife has really angered you is to take a soft hand kerchief and tap it on their back no more than three times.
It is forbidden for a man to make decisions about his home without consulting with his wife and getting her agreement on the matter
It is forbidden for a man to take a next wife without the willing consent of his existing wife (yes!)
A man must strive to be his wife’s best friend and confidante. It’s great to see a man and his wife playing and having fun together.
He went on to say the prophet (s.a.w) teaches us that a man must share in household chores like cleaning the house, cooking and washing clothes.

This sermon was revolutionary, since then I have promised myself to never miss another Friday sermon. It is great to see one of the strongest social institutions in our country taking centre stage in the fight for a world where women are treated equally and with the respect they deserve.

Religion is one of the most important aspects of any society. It’s role in guiding us to live in a way that respects our body and soul and in a way that respects the lives of those around us cannot be overstated. Across the world, our country is known for its uniqueness when it comes to different religions living together in peace and harmony.Yet, many people continue to use religion to make excuses to justify why it is ok to continue to keep women behind.

I was once in a vehicle travelling from freetown (this was close to the national elections) and the conversation about whether or not a woman should stand for president came up. It was a very difficult conversation as almost everyone (including most women in the Poda poda) agreed that Sierra Leone cannot have a female president citing that women, when given power become arrogant and that women themselves always refuse to support their fellow women when they stand for leadership. A man went on to argue that even religion justifies women should be behind men because in the creation story Eve was said to have been created from a man’s left rib. These kinds of arguments, especially when people misuse religion, make me very sad.
These attitudes on a national scale continue to stifle girls’ and women’s potential and thus lead our poor countries to miss the great opportunities we all know are true when women are empowered and encouraged to take up leadership and actively participate in their homes and communities. These attitudes keep women from being able to bring forward contributions that can make their workplaces and communities better.

The ideal woman is seen as the woman who is quiet, who does not voice out her opinions, as the woman who must obey every word of her husband. What ends up happening is that most young girls and women in our offices and homes make every effort to obscure themselves and their views as much as possible. It is often seen as sign of a weakness in a man when the man actively participates in undertaking home chores and consult his wife in matters of decision making.
The difficult thing for me is that I am still not able to see the benefits that come to us as a society for keeping women behind, and from being active and fully contributing participants their homes, classes, offices and communities.
Even more confusing for me is that when you look at statistics on gender, the poorest countries are too often at the top for not empowering their women when some of these countries (line ours) has more women than men. Poor countries like ours (especially) cannot afford to continue leaving women behind. We cannot afford gender inequality neither in our homes nor in our offices.
This Friday sermon has completely updated my understanding about the teachings of my religion when it comes to gender issues. I feel well armed to face any of you crazy men (and women!) out there who still think it is ok for us to continue to keep women behind.
Happy women’s day to all the great women (especially my beautiful mother) in my life and to all women out there striving to make a difference. Well done to all of us forward thinking men striving for a more equal world. For the others, why not join us!

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Why the Commissions of Inquiry hold great promise for a better Sierra Leone. Inspiring Sierra Leone’s next generation of young leaders.

The commissions of inquiry, which according to the ministry of justice are a means "to combat corruption, bring accountability in governance and foster economic growth for the people of Sierra Leone" will remain a remain a land mark in Sierra Leone’s national future. These commissions of enquiry have attracted varying and often divisive opinions across our country. However, most of this attention has been mostly centred on political lines: What I want to share my thoughts on today is not based on politics, but the positive side effects I think this inquiry will have on the mindsets of Sierra Leone's future leaders; the youth.

While Sierra Leone is proud to be known as a religiously tolerant nation and for it’s beauty and possession of rich natural resources, however we have to little to show in terms of the progress we have made in exploiting these vast resources to make life better for the daily Sierra Leonean. You go check any statistics and you’ll see Sierra Leone at the bottom rung of the ladder for most of the desirable attributes a country can have and at the top for most of the undesirable ones. Life expectancy, standard of living, effectiveness of national institutions, education, justice, gender equality, corruption, health, you name them. Among these attributes, corruption and the justice especially have unique impact on the rest of the others. The reason is simple, humans (especially humans in public office!) respond to incentives and the justice system is the incentive backbone of any country. The extent to which citizens holding public office are accountable for their conduct and decisions has a lot of impact on how they will conduct themselves while working for the people of Sierra Leone. A culture of not holding public officers to account deeply undermines the country's economic and social progress.

For too long our justice system has been too silent when it comes to holding public servants to account for resources under their leadership. This has clearly led to a waste of the great potential this country has. I think it is time for us as a nation to take bold actions for improving national institutions ( When holders of public resources are not held to account the result is nothing less than the difficult challenges we have faced as a country. What’s more is that this state of affairs seriously affects the extent to which young people growing up in our schools and communities end up behaving when they soon become leaders in their communities.

I don’t know for you, but for me as a young person, seeing fellow citizens who have been in charge of public resources being called upon to answer questions about how they managed those resources leaves me with great hopes for the future, this includes future governments leading our country. This is why I feel sad when people talk about these commissions of inquiry only on political grounds. I think this enquiry is more a lesson to us as young people that yes, people in public office in this country can be held accountable for their conduct while in public office.

This remains true even if the impetus of this inquiry was done along political lines. Future governments and leaders of our country have been taught a lesson and for the rest of the country we now know that we can hold leaders to account. This will have a strong ripple effect on what happens from our ministries to how the local Head Teachers and Headmen (women) my village manage resources put in their care. When the minister knows he will be held accountable, it is natural that he/she in turn will hold everyone under their leadership for managing national and communal resources responsibly. This is obviously good for our country.

We all want a different Sierra Leone, a Sierra Leone where the system works in the favour of every Sierra Leonean, a Sierra Leone where young people can rely on national institutions and processes and inspired to work hard in schools, sports fields, music studios etc. to use their potential to achieve their best and by doing so improve their communities and the country as a whole. To get there won’t be easy, it requires bold moves like these and a commitment to improve the lives of all Sierra Leoneans.

The commissions of inquiry may be politically difficult to swallow, however I think we must not forget the positive impact it will have on the future conduct of all leaders of public office (no matter the political party) and inspire a new generation of Sierra Leoneans who are aware of the importance of public accountability. For us young people of Sierra Leone, I hope we have been inspired by seeing former holders of public office sitting in front of Sierra Leoneans answering questions about how they used the resources under their care.
For me, this inquiry’s benefits have more to do with shaking up the mind set of Sierra Leone’s current and future generations of leaders on public accountability than it’s short term political ramifications for opposing political groups.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Bold moves for transforming institutions

Our president Bio made an iconic visit to the Connaught hospital and gave many other such unannounced visits to key public offices soon after being elected president in March of 2018. His new government took a bold move when it passed a bill authorising a commission of inquiry on the conduct of the past government, thereby putting itself in greater scrutiny of the watching public and future governments (since what goes around surely comes around). He is the recent of African leaders taking visible action to wake up public institutions and drive accountability. In Tanzania, Magifuli’s actions have been marked by a commitment to curb corruption and drastically cut public spending[1]. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has also orchestrated great moves towards transforming Rwanda; among other things, he’s especially known for his gender-balanced cabinet[2][3]. The Ghanaian president is another iconic leader in Africa who has been driving efforts towards an…‘Africa beyond aid’. These moves and actions show a greater number of African leaders angry about the state of their countries. These individual actions hold much greater promise for transforming the state of African countries when they become institutionalized.
Institutions are the foundation of any country. Indeed, there are stark institutional differences between the developed world and underperforming countries.  Institutions are the incentive system of a society. They provide a framework that determines how people will and should behave. This means, institutions are just about formal rules and regulations (should behave) as they are about the informal customs and ways of doing things (will behave). Indeed, informal rules and social customs of behaviour and action are often stronger compared to formal rules.
Institutional change from within has often been very difficult and slow to come about. This is often because, changing institutions requires changing a society’s incentive system. The people who are in a position to refuse change are often those benefitting from the system’s poor performance, undermining efforts towards change. These people hold great power, and institutional change appears synonymous to taking power away from them. Institutional change is difficult because a dynamic process of change happens through time and current institutions are a product of the past. The beliefs and attitudes people have are a function of the experiences they have had and these experiences vary with different cultures and environments. With this view we see that every society has its own unique set of challenges and opportunities that are formed through time by the cultural and environmental experiences of the people making up that society. This also means that changes that may have worked in one context may have to be thoroughly adapted to fit other socio-economic contexts. 

Ideas for transforming institutions. 
First, we need enlightened leaders who are motivated to transform the lives of their people. This is where it starts; we need leaders who are out –in –the – field’s role models showing the way forward through their actions. The enlightened leader is willing to set politics aside and get both hands and feet dirty in making the lives of the people better.
In this regard, getting the justice system right is first and foremost. A rule of law must prevail – there is no substitute for a justice system that assures fairness and equality. Even if nothing else changes, getting the institutional processes and leadership of the justice system in line with the needs of a better nation will tackle most institutional challenges we face. Fighting corruption and holding public (as well as private and non-governmental) actors to account is a necessary step in the right direction.

A free press is also necessary. This is one of those areas in which I think we have made significant strides as a country. While there’s a lot of room for improvement, the fact that Sierra Leoneans engage in national discourse through television, radios, Ataya bases, and social media platforms every day, means the daily Sierra Leonean, even if indirectly, has the chance to guide national outcomes. By putting our leaders and their conduct in the public’s eye also serves as a factor in making sure elected members or otherwise are careful about their actions and take their responsibilities seriously.
An interesting idea for accelerating institutional change is the creation (or political and financial support for the creation) of new institutions and hubs that are out of the reach of main government. Silicon Valley in the USA and such other tech hubs budding in different parts of the continent such as Kenya and Ghana are great examples of this. In all these, the most the government might have done is to lay the necessary policy foundation and give political support to encourage the birth of such hubs and communities that end up accelerating institutional change. For instance, decisions made in Silicon Valley affect and shape institutional trends and daily life in the USA and in fact throughout the globe. While change in current government institutions is necessary and imperative, to increase the speed of progress requires new institutions of innovation and growth that can seize new opportunities to accelerate change.
In the end, strong institutions are necessary to transforming any nation. Institutions are important because they are the incentive system of a society and they give the framework through which change happens. It is wonderful to see our president joining other African leaders going out there and taking proactive action to revive institutional accountability and responsibility.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Words are powerful. ‘A promising boy’, she wrote.

At the time of our birth we don’t know just yet what school is or what purpose it will serve in our lives, we do not know the meanings behind the numerous expressions on the faces and sounds of people surrounding us, we do not have a sense of limits or boundaries. For us, the world is a fascinating sea of possibility, constantly feeding our curious minds.
Soon we start school; we meet a new world with its own rules and processes. We learn to see our teachers like our parents. Their approval can bring us smiles, praises and tight hugs from adults at home and from our peers. They seem to know more about what we are capable of and what we should and shouldn’t do. Their words get to echo throughout our lives, shaping our thoughts and choices in ways we can't imagine. When they show up, they can either give us a sense of possibility or a sense of limit. Their words and emotions become the foundation upon which our self-esteem and self-image are built.
I don’t remember much about primary school. However, I do remember the words ‘A promising boy’ a teacher once wrote on my school report card, as they somehow continue to show up in my mind. I was in year 5, and the teacher was a young Mrs Lation (we called her ‘Si Fatty’ – a short way of saying Miss Fatmata). She knew I came from a poor family and she would always treat me kindly and often chatted with me during breaks. It is a long time since I left primary school, yet her words on my report card at the end of that year have always stayed in my mind and reminded me that I was capable of things. This is especially true when I try new things or when I faced challenges (or when the words of other adults and peers show up in my mind).  Her words and those of others have influenced my self-belief, the way I see the world and my sense of what is possible.
A decade after these words, I worked with teachers across the country, helping improve the quality of teaching and learning received by thousands of children. Mrs Lation had grown to become the head teacher of the school and she and some of my other teachers in primary school were participants in the trainings. She expressed how proud she was to see the work I was doing. She may not even remember she wrote those words 15 years ago or understand the extent to which they may impact my life, but they did. This is the power of words.
I have had the opportunity of meeting many people whose words have profoundly impacted my life. I have learned that words can be very powerful. I have become particularly conscious of my words to others, especially to children, helping them see a sense of possibility and encourage them to continue to be curious.
Our words give us a great opportunity to inspire others. When we use them to encourage and empower others (our colleagues, friends, family and students), we do not only help those people, we make society better. You do not have to be a teacher to use the power of your words to empower others. This opportunity to make a difference is readily available to us in many forms throughout the day. As adults, we have to be especially careful of our own emotions and reactions, as they impact the words and actions we use. These words and actions often go on to impact others in profound ways. Your words are powerful; they can change the course of someone’s life and impact society. Choose to empower someone.
The last time we met, Mrs Lation told me she was soon going to retire from teaching, but her words will forever continue to live. Thank you Si Fatty. 

Thursday, 15 November 2018

The dilemma leaders of poor countries face; share the cake or bake a bigger one? Who can give them a hand?

The poorest countries of the world are more likely to be corrupt, disease ridden, warring, and have majority of their people living in poverty. Governments in poor countries would need to increase spending to boost their economies, but you cannot squeeze water from stone. Institutions are more likely to be weak, education more likely to be poor, and the impact of inequality more dramatic. This creates a poverty loop that leaves poor countries plodding behind while the rest of the world zooms ahead.
This leaves poor countries and their governments in a very difficult situation as they face the double-edged problem of stabilizing as well as rebuilding their economies at the same time. They become overly preoccupied with making short term fixes with little chance to move out of poverty. Elected governments get overwhelmed in this situation. Investment in long term solutions become more challenging and secondary.

Short term fixes won't help poor countries much. From an economic perspective, economic growth is ultimately driven by productivity growth. This includes making more efficient use of available human and natural resources as well as creating new ones. To be able to do this requires policies to be significantly oriented towards long term investments, investments whose real benefits are often not realized in the 5-year window governments have to have to convince their poor people to re-elect them. However, feeling better in the short term is not the same as being better, although the nature of poverty makes it difficult for poor people to raise their heads beyond their current situation. This creates immense pressures for government. Furthermore, a highly unpredictable international climate have poor countries sailing in even tougher winds.

What long terms investments increase productivity growth? To increase productivity requires investment on key areas. Improving education is one of the best. When a nations has a highly skilled and educated population, this sets a great foundation on which so much can be built. Education puts better skills, and ideas on the hands of the people. Improving infrastructure; better roads, improved electricity supply and access to better hospitals and transport systems all make the process of development faster. Furthermore, a healthy population is obviously a more productive one. Better health (esp. better nutrition and disease prevention) and access to adequate health facilities increase productive capacity and reduces time and financial loses due from ill health. Prioritising entrepreneurship and creating a better investment climate helps countries create new goods and services, and thus increase income that can create a positive loop that keeps feeding on itself.

The tangible returns on long term investments; education, infrastructure, health, and entrepreneurship are often not felt within a 5 year period. This contrasts strongly with a myopic focus in short term macroeconomic stabilization policy. Also, the huge capital necessary to make these investments are often out or reach of poor countries.
Poor countries (and their governments) need help to move out of this situation. In my view this comes from three major sources.
First, as difficult as it is, populations in poor countries must understand that the changes that are going to take them out of poverty are not going to be short term fixes, they need to encourage their governments and give them the chance to also focus on real fixes. Poor populations need to make this sacrifice if they want improved standards of living.
Second, structures of international development and cooperation like the UN, World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organization (WTO), and other continental and sub-continental platforms need to appreciate the difficult situation poor countries find themselves and thus direct technical and financial resources towards relieving these stressed economies.

And finally, because poor countries lack the necessary resources and institutional capacity governments of developed nations need to provide proactive technical and financial support to fund these long term endeavours. They can also help build structures that improve private sector investment in poorer countries. Investors are often not confident to invest in poor countries for fear of losing their money. Without this capital however, poor countries remain in poverty. Developed countries can work with poorer countries to develop structures that make investing in poor countries safer.
In the end, we have to realise that poor countries are trapped in a situation that is difficult for them to transcend alone. Though difficult, poor countries need to recalibrate the criteria for measuring their governments' effectiveness, toward the extent to which they make long term investments. Perhaps poor countries also just need enlightened leaders aggressively fighting poverty, less preoccupied on exploiting conditions created by poverty. The international community and developed countries also need to understand that eradicating poverty means a happier and safer world for everyone.

Monday, 12 November 2018

"Teachers are the most important people in our society. Only God can pay them." Yes, but we too can do much better.

If you have spent a bit of time around educational and policy gatherings in this country, then you may have heard the saying that "Teachers are the most important people in our society", [but]  "Only God can pay them." While this common saying, may at first sight seem to patronise teachers and highlight their crucial task in making our country possible, more often it hides the reality teachers have continued to endure in our country, and easily drives away the attention of those in position to do something about the situation. Today, our policy makers deliberate on the government's budget, a great opportunity to bring the concerns of teachers to the front seats.

For a country to do well requires its people to have the necessary skills and education to be able to generate new ideas and be able to staff its private, public and non-governmental sectors. We can easily see how the work of teachers and what happens in our schools influences the daily decisions made in our hospitals, courts, public offices, and the performance of businesses operating in our country. When we have a highly trained and skilled workforce, foreign investors have more confidence to invest needed capital and resources that will create new businesses, heal our economy and bring jobs to our people.

We want good doctors who can keep us healthy, we want good politicians and policy makers who can think critically and creatively to formulate and effect laws that will make our lives better. We want entrepreneurs, innovators, and highly skilled graduates who can use their advanced skills and knowledge to solve our problems, staff our offices, and run our businesses successfully. But how can we achieve any of these without motivated teachers to give them the necessary attitudes, skills and knowledge? It's impossible to imagine a future without our nation's teachers. Yet, when it comes to being rewarded we are happy to put the teachers in the bottom of the pile.

While it's true that teachers want God's blessings, they also want to be able to afford the average means that will make it possible for them to do a good job for our country. In the long run, what tells a country apart is the productive capacity inherent in its people. Education is the primary means by which we give young people the tools and knowledge to be resourceful. This makes improving the lives of teachers so important in reviving our country.

The free education drive started by the new government holds great promise to bring new life to our weakened economy and educational system. While we wait to see what real impact this brings, we cannot foget that quality education requires much more than greater numbers of teachers and children in our schools. Yes, more children, more schools and more teachers are great, but better happier teachers make the real difference. We want the education sector to be able to attract the best talent this country can offer. We want energetic young people to be able to proudly raise their hands and say, 'My life dream is to become a teacher'.

It is undisputed that every sector we take for granted is heavily impacted by the quality of teaching and learning happening in our schools. The performance of our government and economy directly mirrors the quality of what happens in our schools and universities. If teachers are poorly paid and unmotivated, the result (as we currently have it) is continued dismal examination results, extra financial and administrative resources spent on re-seats, poorly trained graduates and profesionals who cost the country and drive investors away. We end up spending multiple times more on recovering from the symptoms of poor education than it would require us to improve the condition of our teachers and avoid the disease in the first place.

Happy and hard working teachers make a happy and successful nation. Well trained, well paid and well managed teachers is what Sierra Leone needs. Valuing education is a strong indicator of our commitment to move out of poverty and transform the lives of Sierra Leoneans. The government's renewed attention to education is a good beginning, though much more has to be done for the country to feel its real impact. 
No country is better than the heads, hands and hearts of its people. Improving the lives of teachers will only make our country better.
What needs to be done? 
And yes, while teachers want God's blessings for the great work they do, they also want to be paid well for it.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Success is a daily experience, do not postpone it to the future.

Many of us have set up our lives such that we can only be happy in a fictitious 'one-day' place called success. Success, however, is not some place at the top of a mountain we reach and everything is over. Rather it is a set of evolving daily experiences and feelings we want to have in our lives.
While it's crucial to have goals to aspire to, you do not want to tie your current happiness and fulfilment to some fictional future. The challenge that brings is that we lose motivation in the present as we get convinced that we must shuffle away our present happiness and fulfilment to feel happy and fulfilled in the future. This makes achieving goals very difficult because achieving goals requires us to continue to be movitvated in the present. Better instead to tie our happiness and fulfilment in the small daily steps we take towards achieving our grand goals, the process. 
We don't achieve success once, dust our hands and relax on a hammock swinging in the cool breeze never to worry again. It is about enjoing every passing day, to be proud that we did our best to be the kind of person we want to be. 
You don't have to wait to be rich to make a difference in others' lives; you can give encouraging words, take a small action, pick up a phone and call to ask how someone is doing and to tell them how much you love them. 
Bring your success closer to you, to your daily thoughts, words and actions. Instead of postponing it to the future, achieve it in the small day-to-day steps you take towards your goals and desires.

To all you men who still use religion as an excuse to mistreat women. Young religious leaders are correcting our society’s wrong perceptions about gender inequality.

Two weeks ago I attended a Friday sermon at the mosque in the local university here in Port Loko and was so happy to see a young imam leadin...