By Jeremiah Sawyer, Child Health Campaign Manager, World Vision Sierra Leone
In the aftermaths of the devastating Ebola outbreak which first hit Sierra Leone in May 2014, entire communities are still bearing the scars of the disease. While Liberia was officially declared free from Ebola virus transmission on 9 May 2015, Sierra Leone is still recording cases of infected people in treatment centres in Kambia and Port Loko districts as well as the Western Areas. In spite of the precarious situation, civil society organisations together with communities decided to mobilise to accelerate progress on improving maternal, newborn and child health during the Ebola recovery and beyond.
On 19th May 2015, World Vision and Save the Children brokered a very constructive dialogue between policy makers and citizens to assess progress made on MDGs 2, 4 and 5, and draw on lessons learned for a successful and accountable implementation of the next set of goals. As we gear up to end of the MDGs, we realised we had the opportunity to engage with our government leaders to understand why our country is far from reaching the goals. The Ebola outbreak, which could have been prevented if the health system in Sierra Leone had been stronger and more resilient, exacerbated the need to organise a citizens’ hearing. This was an opportunity for us, as citizens and civil society, to take stock of progress made towards the MDGs, and the impact Ebola has had on their achievement, discuss the next set of development goals, have a say on the way they should be implemented, and help ensure that we are better prepared in case of another outbreak.
The success of the citizens’ hearing, which brought together over 800 participants from community-based organisations, women groups, children and youth groups, disabled people’s organisations, media and faith-based institutions, lies in the early engagement of policy and decision-makers. In the weeks leading to the gathering, World Vision Sierra Leone and Save the Children supported CSOs to organise briefings at the district level with multiple stakeholders, including government representatives, CBOs and media, to run through the gaps and achievements in the health sector and assess progress made on the MDGs in the light of the Ebola outbreak and make recommendations for the future. Thanks to this pre-engagement, we managed to galvanise support around the event, including from the Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs.
Although wary at first, government representatives progressively opened to citizens’ recommendations, acknowledging the challenges that remain, and pointing out to the government’s 9-months implementation plan as a first step to stabilise key sectors including health and education after the outbreak. Amongst many other issues, citizens – including children and youth – raised the need to be involved in the development planning, coordination and decision-making processes; to implement the Free Healthcare Initiative; to ensure the rights to safe water and improved sanitation; to ensure adequate and timely distribution of medical supplies; to ensure the delivery of results to the intended beneficiaries; and to ensure transparent and mutual accountability.
Civil society organisations will deliver a presentation to the coordinating body implementing national and international agreements, including the Sustainable Development Goals. We certainly realised that the Citizens Hearings can be a very effective social accountability approach at the community level where elected representatives engage with the citizens. Yet efforts need to be pulled together to build on this first experience and replicate constructive dialogues across the country. We now more than ever need to push for deeper engagement and commitment from all actors if we want Sierra Leone to be free from epidemics and relieved from preventable maternal and child deaths.
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