You Should be Excited by the New National Youth Policy in Sierra Leone By Chernor Bah

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At a historic event in Freetown this week, His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio will launch the new revised National Youth Policy for Sierra Leone. The new policy offers an analysis of the major challenges facing the young population of our country and a set of policy and program prescriptions for addressing them over the next five years. I know many do not generally show interest in “these government documents” but there’s much about the process and product in this case that we should be proud of, excited by and mobilize around.

I am not a neutral observer.  I was the lead consultant hired by the Ministry of Youth Affairs to lead the review process of the last policy and draft this new document. But my views are not just because of my role in the process. I have been in the youth sector for many years- as an activist, youth leader, consultant, researcher and programmer in Sierra Leone and in at least 3 continents around the world and I am genuinely proud of the unprecedented nature and scope of the work produced here.

At the event announcing the start of the process, the Youth Minister, Mohamed Orman Bangura committed to an inclusive, transparent and progressive process and product. As the consultant, I invited Sierra Leonean young people to join us and write their own future together. I committed to only steer the process and allow the voices of young people to author a new groundbreaking document. At the risk of immodesty, I dare say we delivered.

To kick start the process, the Ministry of Youth Affairs commissioned a UNICEF U-report survey asking young people about their views of the last Youth Policy and what they would love to see differently. I was shocked that 90% of the thousands of respondents claimed that they had never heard of or did not know anything about the last youth policy. We were determined to change that. In partnership with Volunteers Involving Organisations Network (VIONET), we directly interviewed over 15 000 young people in every single chiefdom of Sierra Leone. In addition, we worked with DSTI and other development partners to create a novel National Youth online portal that served as a consultation and discussion hub that informed the process. An additional 15 000 young patriots in Sierra Leone and around the world logged on to the online platforms and shared  views that have shaped this document.

As a researcher and a former youth leader, I knew that we needed to go beyond solicitation of views and create forums for “activist” youth to also shape and own the process. Despite the limitations of the COVID Pandemic, we organised physical regional consultations that brought together chiefdom and district youth leaders to discuss and debate draft positions of the new policy and produce their own regional positions. I learned a lot more about the underbelly of youth challenges in Sierra Leone and came to appreciate even more the fierce urgency to unleash the human capital of young people in Sierra Leone.

Alongside this ambitious undertaking, we invited and received numerous position papers from professional groups, youth associations, formal and informal groups across different sectors in the country. Officials of the Ministry of Youth, the National Youth Commission and the National Youth Service constituted a robust technical reference group that provided scrutiny and critical guidance to the process. 

On top of all of this, we felt it was important to create a team of expert youth reviewers, to guide the process, make professional inputs into specific sections of the document and provide critical feedback. The Expert Youth Advisors included fifteen of our finest young leaders from diverse fields including law, education, medicine, business, arts and entertainment, the development sector, innovation, the differently abled, advocates and even informal groups known as cliques. In many ways, this was our own “Medici’ convening’s that enabled us to bounce new ideas, interrogate old ones and ensure that what was written in this document would be reflective of the true diversity and quality of the youth of our country.

I believe that richness is portrayed in the new document. The theme is “an empowered youth leading the development of a new Sierra Leone”. Its provisions are encapsulated by three guiding principles- access, inclusivity and impact. Each provision of the policy and interventions that would follow must not only be available to young people in the country in tangible ways, but must be “radically inclusive” – in ways that reflect the true internal diversity of the youth cohort in our country and must particularly make special provisions for historically marginalised groups including female youth, youth with disability and those living in rural areas. And of course, youth must not just know of these programs but must be part of assessing and judging their impacts.

We tried to avoid what I referred to as a Christmas shopping list. Not every problem Sierra Leonean youth face is covered in this policy. That would be an unreasonable request and in my experience, that approach means everything is priority and nothing is. So while we summarised the major issues youth reported that they faced, the policy provisions are broadly divided into three clusters. The first cluster is about investment in hard and soft skills, supporting the human capital development of youth in all fields, especially in priority areas of innovation, information, Communication and Technology (ICT), the creative sectors including music, film, sports and general entertainment; and the productive sectors with a special focus on agriculture and fisheries. The second cluster addresses safety, lifestyle and sustainability, prioritising safe social and physical environments for youth. It is about the safety of youth and non-violence, healthy lifestyle, including sexual and reproductive rights, and youth contribution to a sustainable physical environment and ecosystem, including sanitation, forest protection and biodiversity. The final cluster tackles participation, partnership and patriotism, focusing on increasing youth participation in the nation’s political and socio-economic trajectory (yes we recommend some affirmative action including for female youth!), strengthening patriotism and fostering partnerships with youth, government, civil society, communities and other stakeholders to achieve higher level objectives of the state and specific objectives relating to youth.As we say in Sierra Leone, “soup sweet, na money kill am.” All of these provisions would be mere dreams if they are not accompanied by the right structure and resources. For the first time, the policy recommends the creation of an exciting Youth Empowerment Fund to serve as a central pool for all development investment in the youth sector in the country. To make the fund sustainable, we recommend that the government designates a proportion of tariffs/taxes paid for all the country’s minerals – which belongs to the youth anyway – to be paid directly into this fund.  It also recommends that a minimum percentage of taxes from specific sectors, for example gaming industry, which are mostly patronised by young people, be earmarked for the Fund. I believe that these provisions would guarantee youth funding and would strengthen the structures working with and for youth leaders across different levels in the country.

The process and the document were certainly not perfect. We encountered the usual administrative challenges in working with a government bureaucracy, we were given a good dose of the youthful cynicism of government processes  and I had to make personal sacrifices to make this work. One substantive regret for me is the inability to lower the youth age – it is my personal opinion that 35 years is too old and we should reduce it to  at most 30.  But that view was rejected by an overwhelming number of youth leaders across the country, who argued in pretty much all of the consultative processes that it must remain 35 for now. We however managed to include language that we hope lays the foundation for the next review to change the age downward and to make sure that investments and opportunities adequately target younger youth.

All these notwithstanding, as the document is finally being launched and handed over to the government and youth of our country for implementation, I am filled with pride and gratitude for the privilege of being part of such a breathtaking process. My hope is that the platforms we have created through this process and the new progressive National Youth Policy will be a bedrock and a model that moves the sector and the lives of the young people of this country, significantly forward. And most of all, I hope that more young people will commit to these provisions and hold the government at all levels accountable for implementing them.

Chernor Bah is the lead consultant and CEO of the Ceebah Policy Group – the consultancy firm that led the process and produced the new national youth policy for Sierra Leone. Chernor is also Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Purposeful and the outgoing chair of the Renaissance Movement, Sierra Leone.