Can Sierra Leone's private sector be a public partner?

In developing economies such as Sierra Leone’s, the private sector’s role as a public sector partner will only become more important. As Hilary Clinton has said: “… you cannot have development in today’s world without partnering with the private sector; that has been our mantra ….” At it’s best the public/private partnership is a two-way street, which generates opportunities for both to flourish and learn from each other, giving rise to important subtleties that can drive the development of a nation or the success of an organisation.

In Sierra Leone however, a common private sector complaint is that instead of being a key player in the policy-making process, it finds itself invariably relegated to a bit part. It is more than an accidental oversight; it is our recurring Achilles heel. It might be partly due to the perception that a good chunk of our private sector are loot-toting carpetbaggers. Goodness knows we have our fair share, but most of Sierra Leone’s business community is made up of dedicated businesspeople who have taken a long-term view and painstakingly built their companies up from the ground, remaining committed to Sierra Leone through some very tough times.

Take the issue of the private sector’s participation in the Ebola response – national and international attention repeatedly portrayed it as profiteering, when in fact there is more than enough evidence of the business community’s willingness to step up and be counted. In small and big ways, Sierra Leonean companies contributed. They provided information, funded health care, offered time, expertise and manpower, and donated considerably to the Ebola response fund in very lean times. The country’s success and stability is important to them.

At the time, Ismail Mykay Kamara, managing director of A&A Investments and Services, was prompted to write of Sierra Leone’s SMEs: “SMEs, like local healthcare workers, might not be getting the international acclaim, but are at the forefront of the battle against Ebola …. Even as they face acute business challenges themselves, these SMEs have contributed out of their own resources, without coordination or external prompt”

While the business community’s pro bono services were publicly appreciated, it was noticeable that they weren’t called to the strategy-making table. Their role in the Ebola response remained throughout as occasional suppliers of goods and services.

In the same piece, Mykay Kamara also wrote: “The hope is that businesses will take a more active role in the development agenda, particularly as it relates to Private Sector Development (PSD). The private sector has ironically been largely absent in discussions and initiatives related to PSD in Ebola-affected countries. Consequentially, governments and development agencies have driven the agenda. When involved, businesses are invited late into projects and typically respond in a lukewarm fashion. This must change.”

Late and lukewarm remains the norm. The national discussion now is overwhelmingly focused on our post-Ebola economy; and the private sector are still only an occasional guest.

Part of the problem is our own lack of organisation. If the private sector is the engine of sustainable economic development, macroeconomic stability and poverty reduction; effective employer’s and business organisations are its mouthpiece - with the ability to help create the necessary conditions for economic growth. Their primary role is to ensure a positive business climate, by influencing government policy and advocating for regulatory change. They can play a decisive role in collective bargaining, training the workforce, setting professional standards and promoting best practice. In developing countries, where enabling business environments are still in their infancy, the role of employer’s and business organisations should be absolutely central.

Empirical research for the Research Programme Consortium on Improving Institutions for Pro-Poor Growth (IPPG) covers several countries and indicates a direct positive correlation between economic growth and effective business associations, in South East Asia, East Asia and Sub Saharan Africa. Another IPPG paper examining the Zambian business climate, found that membership of a business association enhanced the performance of Zambian firms.

Unsurprisingly then, building the capacity of employer’s and business associations in developing countries is seen as a priority. A 2011 report into employers’ organisations in West Africa argues that “the restructuring of the Federation of West African Employers’ Associations is critical in vamping up the West African private sector as African economic development is related to the existence of a dynamic and world class competitive private sector.”

Unfortunately, the same report went on to say that West Africa’s “employer’s organisations are ill organised, lack resources, poorly execute their mandate and hardly deal with the challenges they face.”

One of the areas where the private and public sector should come together sooner rather than later, is in the discussion of Sierra Leone’s skills shortage. The mismatch between what our educational establishments are delivering and what Sierra Leone’s commercial sector actually needs is the source of ongoing frustration for employers and employees. Skills development has to be labour market oriented and this requires the equal input of both the private and public sectors. Developing our educational establishments to deliver this is critical, but while we wait for the educational sector to transform itself to meet new demands, the government should consider focusing resources at the sharp end – and help businesses improve the training they presently provide for their employees.

Just as their Ebola response efforts went largely unrecognised, so too do their efforts to upskill their employees. The misconception that the private sector in Sierra Leone does not invest in developing the workforce is perhaps one of the most pernicious. Sierra Leone has a long indigenous tradition of on-the-job training and informal apprenticeships. It is the method by which most tailors, farmers, fitters, mechanics, painters, carpenters, as well as office workers in Sierra Leone learn or develop their skills. Supporting the business sector’s capacity to deliver quality training to its apprentices and employees would help drive standards up in a system which currently provides most of our workplace skills, and should be a priority.

Sierra Leone is not an easy place to do business and our business community is nothing if not a product of its environment – rough, tough, hardwearing, frequently falling just shy of international standards. But the men and women who have guided their companies through one national disaster after another are the very definition of resilient. They know the terrain and understand the issues. Their experience would bring a different and undoubtedly valuable perspective to our economic issues.

Several years ago when Barak Obama addressed the Ghanaian parliament. He said: “Africa doesn’t need strong men; it needs strong institutions.” He is right, Africa does need strong institutions. It also needs strong leaders; and as we work on developing Sierra Leone’s institutions, we need men and women with the strength, vision and resilience to see the private and public sectors combine their expertise and contribute real solutions to Sierra Leone’s economic sustainability.

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