by Laura Mulvey (MALD 2017)
In May 2017, the International Development Association (IDA) convened leaders from across Sierra Leone’s private, public, and NGO sectors at its first Development Finance Forum in the capital city of Freetown. The forum was an effort to engage stakeholders in identifying opportunities to unlock private investment in the country. The IDA, a branch of the World Bank focusing on the world’s 75 poorest nations, had recently pledged a $2.5 billion Private Sector Window aimed at mobilizing business development in fragile and conflict-affected states by de-risking private sector investments.
Sierra Leone’s President, Ernest Bai Koroma, opened the meeting on an optimistic note and invited participants to think through constraints and opportunities in business investment in the country. The plenary session soon broke out into a number of focus groups, where I found the tone was decidedly less optimistic.
I was attending the conference through my role as a policy fellow with Innovations for Poverty Action, a research group working to enhance the role of evidence in policymaking. With support from the Institute for Business in the Global Context at the Fletcher School, I was working in Freetown on a project mapping the formal and informal institutions governing the education sector in Sierra Leone.
In the focus group, I was joined by participants representing the energy, manufacturing, consulting, and tourism sectors. The group walked through a host of issues they faced while operating in Sierra Leone. Several participants mentioned infrastructure issues, especially in the electric grid and transport systems. Others told anecdotes about constantly shifting permit policies which required numerous sign offs and had delayed some construction projects by years. All of the participants in the group were eager to use the IDA pledge to jump-start investments in Sierra Leone, but one issue soon came to dominate the conversation: the lack of workers educated at a level necessary for employment in many job categories.
One participant shared his frustration in how expensive it had been for him to re-train entry-level engineers at his plant. He shared his disappointment in the number of international companies hiring expats to cover administrative positions, even in the environment of chronic unemployment plaguing Sierra Leone. The lack of quality education systems, which continually keeps talented men and women out of the labor market, is of critical concern not only to policy makers, but certainly to individuals determined to drive private sector growth in the country. Unfortunately, education initiatives have been predominately focused on access to primary education without developing a strategy to connect education with employment opportunities.
The education system in Sierra Leone is in a state of crisis. Many schools were destroyed during the 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002. The Ebola crisis in 2014 shut down schools for the country’s 1.8 million children for eight months, resulting in delays of cognitive and social-emotional development and creating a spike in teenage pregnancy. Sierra Leone has some of the lowest rankings in the world for both access to education and student academic achievements in literacy and math.
A host of international organizations and NGOs can be seen across the country working to make gains in these areas. While some wonderful work has been done on expanding access to education, so far there has not been significant improvements in educational outcomes.
A number of private ventures are beginning to appear in Freetown with the potential to help build the schooling-to-employment pipeline. The Rising Academy Network, a group of private schools in Sierra Leone and Liberia, is focused on the issue of student achievement and teacher quality in schools. These schools are delivering high-quality education at low costs and are committed to allowing access to quality education for all children. To that end, students for these schools are not selected based on ability. Their model has shown impressive results and has gained the attention of several international organizations interested in the prospect of scaling Rising Academy’s success across the country.
This year, a group of local entrepreneurs founded the Freetown Business School with the goal of developing Freetown’s first accredited business university. The founders recognized the gap in quality business education in Sierra Leone. Most students looking for advanced business study move abroad, a costly venture well outside the means of most local students. The Freetown Business School is currently focused on leadership, marketing, and accounting training in a blended learning environment. The founders are working with local businesses to build in-country executive training programs.
It will be critical for players in the public and private sector to recognize that moving the needle on economic issues in Sierra Leone requires a long term vision that connects students to work opportunities. Improvements in the education system is essential are creating a workforce capable of powering private investments. Inclusive growth in Sierra Leone will require educators and policymakers to use the insights from the private sector to build curricula which matches educational content with the skills demanded of Sierra Leone’s evolving labor markets.
 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)-Dakar (2013) Sierra Leone: Education Country Status Report. Dakar, Senegal: UNESCO-Dakar, available from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0022/002260/226039e.pdf