During a recent visit to Sierra Leone, I was fascinated by the country’s rich history, friendly people and the beautiful beaches of the Freetown peninsula, with miles and miles of white sand – albeit almost empty. I was also inspired by the resilience of the people of Sierra Leone and the commitment of their government, development partners and other stakeholders to harness their synergies in rebuilding Sierra Leone, a country still affected by the legacy of civil war, an Ebola epidemic and a major mudslide in the decade just ended. In addition, there are worrying levels of hunger and poverty, resulting in deserted villages, limited food production due to the lack of basic agricultural tools, and few motorable roads. More is certainly needed to expand sustainable solutions for the country’s long-term economic development.
Demographically, Sierra Leone is a young country. Out of a total population of 7.4 million and a population growth rate of 3.8% per annum, 42% of its population is under the age of 15 years. The country’s large youth population struggles with a high unemployment rate, under-employment, and low literacy levels. About 60% of the youth are believed to be structurally unemployed, among the highest unemployment levels in the sub-region. It also has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, with a health system still weakened following the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic. Inevitably, the most vulnerable demographic segments are children, women and young adults, hence the need to prioritise interventions that target these groups.
It is against this context that Sierra Leone convened its first social protection conference, held in Freetown in January 2020, bringing together participants from governments, international experts, academia and other stakeholders. The purpose of the conference was to promote a more informed dialogue, using evidence to support targeted investments and positive changes in relevant social protection policies and programmes in Sierra Leone.
The conference was not only timely, it also gives new hope to the people of Sierra Leone and underscores government’s commitment to investing in sustainable and inclusive social protection interventions. Deliberations brought to the fore the importance of using evidence to support targeted investments in social protection and learning from other countries—Kenya included—on best practices in financing social protection; implementation methodologies such as single registries; as well as targeting and payment mechanisms. Cited in the conference was Kenya’s Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP) that has evolved over a decade and today delivers cash transfer programmes to over 100,000 households in the remotest and most complex parts of the country, and subsequently laid the ground for the design and successful implementation of the Inua Jamii programme, a government funded cash transfer programme targeting the most vulnerable populace and senior citizens once they attain the age of 70 years and above.
However, like all projects, particularly those ones focused on low income and vulnerable populations, creating additional fiscal space remains a key challenge for Sierra Leone, a country that is at its infancy in implementing free quality education, while simultaneously trying to address inequalities, and with limited tax revenues and income per capita.
That notwithstanding, the institutionalisation of programmes such as child benefits, social transfer and emergency funds are evidently among the key focus areas for the Sierra Leone government. These are the principal elements of the social protection policy that was launched during the Freetown conference, creating a legal framework for sustainability.
These reflections underscore the fact that in a world in which life is aggravated by natural hazards, ill-health, and social volatility—determining the level of, let alone defining vulnerability—is today at the core of development and academic discourse. Nonetheless across Africa the tone is comparable and resonates around an inclusive, broader and integrated approach to social protection interventions. Looking through this lens, education, health and agriculture become like the three-legged African stool: each single leg is crucial to the overall stability of the stool.
Dr. Milkah Chebii is Government Social Payments Specialist at FSD Kenya. Twitter: @MilkahChebii
 2015 Sierra Leone Population and Housing Census.