In a recent discussion I had with one of our donor partners, I argued that the view that Sierra Leone suffers from capacity weaknesses and therefore needs to build capacity; in short train more people and give them more qualifications, is rather simplistic and in some cases just plain wrong. This is not to say that we have adequate capacity. We do not. For example, we could use more doctors and health care workers to respond to the current overwhelming demand. The solution to our problem can be found in our ability to use and retain capacity built. This note is about using existing capacity.
In a study commissioned by the UNDP in the early 1990s, capacity challenges were considered manageable when conceived in three forms; building, utilizing and retaining capacity. The underlying assumption being that there is a desire superseding other consideration to resolve the challenges. Sadly this desire is not always present.
Building Capacity. The basic skills for manning a developmental state are found in trained university graduates, and products of tertiary institutions. With a university that is one of the oldest in Sub-Saharan Africa we have trained thousands in various fields. The presence of many unemployed graduates suggests that the problem is not one of volume. So we suffer the paradox of plenty. In a crises situation, as when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, supplementary capacity can be bought or borrowed from friendly countries and groups.
Utilizing Capacity. In a country I was asked to help recently, the Head of State asked for a description of the attributes of the person to head an institution that I had advocated to be set up, and whether I knew of suitable people from the country. I got back to him with two names of world-class repute. Neither was selected and I later found out that the reasons were political. Afterwards the President found someone who needed several months to learn the ropes and he has turned out to be good. However the country lost about 18 months as he came up to speed. When political considerations inhibit the use of existing capacity, the cost to the country can be enormous.
There are also cases where existing capacity is not used simply because the authorities do not know of their existence within the country. Many come back home and do not make their presence known. Why? There is a perception of the risk to their reputation being tarnished. Whatever the justification may be for this perception, the choice is a no-brainer. No one can build a wall around her life; a malaria laden mosquito will infect you at the supermarket, neighbours will dump foul smelling garbage on your access road, the din of the generators will force you to close your windows, etc.
Retaining Capacity. This is a more difficult task because a person’s expertise is like a commodity traded both nationally and internationally. It will go where the price is highest. This is not only measured in terms of salary and conditions of work. There are emotional and psychological factors that influence how the seller perceives the price. Just like a fish seller will sell at a lower price to his/her customer or relative, so will the expert decide on what price he will accept and be ready to relocate, or stay where he/she is. The simplest example is where someone is trained for a particular job, returns home and spends less than 6 months before moving to a higher paid job elsewhere. I must stress here that this is not a complete loss to the economy, but an example of inability to retain capacity.
After 50+ years of independence, most African countries have built capacity. Unfortunately, the willingness to use capacity is often diluted by politics, and the ability to retain the capacity built, rendered ineffective by a variety of reasons.
When discussing capacity weaknesses in Sierra Leone it is important to diagnose whether the problem is:
- A complete lack of capacity – in which case the remedy is to build or buy capacity;
- A reluctance/inability to use capacity – in which case only our administrative and political leaders have the answer or there is a system in place to access the capacity;
- Inability to retain the capacity once it is built – in which case we need to study carefully what it will take to retain trained staff.
Turning to our current crises, do we have the capacity in terms of people trained or experienced in managing complex crises? I believe we do. If they are not being used, the reason must be due to one or both explanations listed above: No appetite to use them because of political considerations, maybe no one knows about them, or no one recognizes their expertise; after all “…a prophet hath no honour in his own country”.
How can I help? Produce a list of experienced nationals available locally, and hope that if certain names are not politically correct, at least donors would use them rather than bring in motivated by inexperienced outsiders who learn on the job.
I am sure that somewhere there is a list of trained Sierra Leoneans in the Diaspora. What may not be available is a list of trained and experienced Sierra Leoneans that have worked in complex crises conditions with distinction, and who are now back home and could be called upon in times of crises.
I will therefore compile such a list.
I am launching an appeal for readers to send me names of such people and their contacts as well as a short brief on their experience for me to compile that list.
In 1995, as the UN Representative in newly independent Eritrea, I was charged to help the government bring back over 100,000 refugees from Sudan. When I got to the border to meet the first convoy, imagine my pleasant surprise when the person leading them turned out to be a Sierra Leonean. To manage that number of people with the status of refugees is no small feat. You contend with food distribution issues, social issues, crime, communications, and a host of other challenges. I am sure there are so many more examples of other Sierra Leonean experts in so many more fields.
I hope this will be one small step to deal with the problem of capacity utilization.