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SIERRA LEONE: Building Peace

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Sep 2 2008 (IPS) - Sierra Leone has been a major recipient of foreign aid since the end of a devastating 11-year civil war in 2002. But government, donors and citizens are all questioning how effectively this aid is being used.

Patients in a Freetown hospital: civil society is demanding an end to conditionalities on aid needed to build badly-needed social infrastructure. Credit:  Manoocher Degati/IRIN

Patients in a Freetown hospital: civil society is demanding an end to conditionalities on aid needed to build badly-needed social infrastructure. Credit: Manoocher Degati/IRIN

The West African country, battered by years of civil strife and a plummeting economy, relies heavily on bilateral and multilateral aid – according to the ministry of finance, 44 percent of the national budget comes from external assistance.

Allegations of misappropriation of donor funds, both by government actors and NGOs threatens this inflow. One of the government's principal partners, the British Department for International Development, withheld aid in protest against such anomalies, for most of 2007 and early 2008.

The lack of accountability and coordination is felt by Sierra Leone's most vulnerable people. The country’s educational and health sectors are in dire straits, despite being priority areas for both government and NGOs.

The government is currently conducting a verification of to weed out so-called "ghost" teachers and non-existent schools that account of misappropriation of donor as well as state funds.

At the end of the civil war, dozens of NGOs sprang up, many lacking adequate monitoring mechanisms or accountability. The questionable performance of some of these NGOs led the government to review its NGO policy. The Sierra Leone Association of Non-Governmental Organisations also introduced new oversight and monitoring mechanisms.

Fatmata Kamara, 23, is a double amputee who spends her time daily begging on the streets of Freetown, the country's capital. She lost both her legs in January 1999 when rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) invaded Freetown and committed horrific atrocities against civilians, including mass amputations.

"Before my amputation, I was being trained as a hair-dresser and was hoping that after graduation, I would open a salon of my own and train more youngsters," Fatmata says.

She has not yet given up that hope. In her small village of Kosso on the outskirts of Freetown, where she resides, Fatmata solicits clients who pay small fees to do their hair, money she uses to supplement income – normally not enough – she accrues from begging.

"This is what I use to take care of myself, two children and the kid who moves me around. It is really difficult and all my hopes that I will be assisted by philanthropists to set up my own business have been dashed."

Apart from tiny mud houses for a few amputees in Kosso, built by the NGO Norwegian Refugee Council, the bulk of them rely on begging to upkeep their families. It is the case of the amputees, for instance, that the effectiveness of aid is been questioned, even by implementing partners.

John Caulker, the executive director Forum of Conscience, which works to support the rule of law and respect for human rights, told IPS: "With the lack of proper accountability and monitoring of donor funds, a lot of the NGOs folded up as donors quickly withdrew funding for a good number of these NGOs some of which were described here as "briefcase NGOs" because they were centred around one individuals or a few with just the motive to make quick cash."

The Paris Declaration commits governments and donors to meeting certain standards of public financial management, open procurement policies and transparent assessment of the effectiveness of aid.

Sierra Leone's government has set up a public procurement unit and established regional budget oversight committees to improve aid distribution and effectiveness. The impact of these measures is yet to be fully measured, with a change in government barely a year ago.

However, according to Tennyson Williams, the country director of international anti-poverty group ActionAid, the current aid architecture as a whole needs revamping if it is to have a positive impact on the recipient nation.

"The aid packages come along with conditionalities such as ensuring the recipient – government – gets 37 percent for its reserves, another 37 percent to finance its debts and only at liberty to spend just 26 percent of the total package. This does not give the necessary flexibility for the government to spend," Williams laments. According to him, donors emphasise macro-economic stability at the expense of social stability.

Williams says that with limited spending, the recipient falls short of delivering the targeted services and this, he says, could lead to unrest and social strife. He also questions donors' insistence on bringing in technical experts for implementation of projects, and asks: "Has technical assistance done us any good?"

Williams also believes the sizable chunk of funds going to servicing the experts eats into the value of the package itself, sometimes rendering projects a disaster.

The problem here, though, is that the government lacks both the technical teams and the necessary credibility to make aid effective. Corruption in public offices has seen the misappropriation of foreign aid to the extent that donors insist on flying in their own personnel to help with implementation.

Matthiew Dingie, the director of budget at the ministry of finance, acknowledges that resources generated domestically are not enough the run the economy and state machinery. Nonetheless, he blames the conditionalities and benchmarks set by the donors for the ineffectiveness of aid.

"The major problem is the timeliness for disbursement of the aid package. For instance, if money meant for infrastructure such as construction of roads comes in at the rainy season, work won't go ahead," he says. This timeliness, he opines, impacts negatively on distribution.

Dingie adds that the aid received as budgetary support is most effective because it comes straight into the government's coffers and can be spent with flexibility.

"The government will have a free hand to spend it more effectively in areas like health, education and other social services. Where I see the ineffectiveness of aid is the bilateral disbursement. Here, the government does not have control of the recipients who are mostly NGOs and UN agencies, a situation that sometimes leads to duplication in distribution," Dingie adds.

His argument is that the government may have budgeted for a specific project, something the NGOs may also have received funding for, but they proceed with their work independently of the government.

The government established the Development Assistance Coordination Office in 2004 with the task of tracking development assistance coming into the country from various sources, both bilateral and multilateral as well as through NGOs. But this too has been less than effective because of the lack of transparency, reporting and capacity at both the donor and government level.

The government has also set up district budgetary oversight committees throughout the country with the task of monitoring projects. Dingie says this is working. "This is the best way of tracking anomalies and ensuring projects are thoroughly implemented."

However development economist Jacob Saffa says a lot more needs to be done. "Development assistance has to be well coordinated to ensure equity of distribution among sectors and regions and proper monitoring mechanisms put in place."

Saffa agrees that "channeling pledged resources through NGOs and UN agencies without the knowledge of the recipient country is problematic because the bilateral players decide where to spend and on which activity." Saffa also questions the wisdom behind the "flying in of experts" which he says is unacceptable and "must be resisted" by recipient countries.

He also urges that the government must have in offices strong technocrats capable of articulating the views of the government, both at the level of negotiating aid and its implementation, instead of relying exclusively on "imported experts."

Saffa concludes by saying that the monitoring of development aid continues to be a major challenge for Sierra Leone and that a thorough framework of monitoring both recurrent and development activities must be put in place. "Strong institutions for such monitoring must be set up at district and national levels and citizens allowed to report on project effectiveness in their communities."

The real failures – and some successes – of aid effectiveness are the subject of a major gathering of donors, governments and civil society organisations taking place in Accra, Ghana at the beginning of September.

The High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness aims to bring new voices into a review of how aid is managed, and to sketch out a course for greater transparency, accountability and ultimately impact on the lives of the world's poor.

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