In one of the world’s poorest countries, should research and higher education be a priority?

I was lucky enough to spend a week in Sierra Leone at the beginning of September, and it was a great opportunity to reflect on what we do – and what we could do – in the context of an entirely new country. INASP hasn’t worked in Sierra Leone before, but with a new body of programme work, we’re now in a position to think about introducing our work to a few new countries. But this post isn’t about that new work, but about some broader impressions – of Sierra Leone and its development needs, and why our work matters.

In the fourteen years that I’ve travelled in, worked in, and briefly lived in parts of the continent, I’ve been privileged to explore many countries, and to have had my thinking repeatedly challenged. But in recent years I’ve come to spend much of my time in relatively comfortable hotels and conference venues, in rapidly growing cities where you’re not far from a cappuccino, a decent wifi connection and the chattering of prospering business and political elites. Aside from the shock of an early-morning Freetown arrival – hustled through the airport, down a muddy track, and onto a pitching jetty to board a speedboat for the journey across the bay into town – Sierra Leone was a stark reminder about why we’re really doing this work.

Sierra Leone sits tenth from the bottom of one of the world’s least sought-after rankings – the worst places to be a woman – captured by the Gender Inequality Index, with deaths in pregnancy 970 for every 100,000 births. The average adult has had just 3.3 years of schooling, and adult literacy rates are around 43%. The average life expectancy at birth is just 48 and 60% of Sierra Leone’s 6 million people live below the national poverty line. The rebel war of 1991-2002 devastated the country and while considerable progress has clearly been made since then, it’s set Sierra Leone back a long way. Speaking to the staff of one donor agency, they estimated it to be roughly 30 years behind Ghana as a result.

Working with universities and research institutes we’re almost always dealing with the more prosperous members of any nation – or at least those who stand to achieve greater prosperity in the future. When undergraduate enrolments are only around 7% of the population for that age range (the Sub-Saharan African average) you’re often relatively protected from the realities of poverty when working with universities. Poor sanitation and a lack of clean water, or poor access to quality healthcare are the subjects of innumerable workshops, journal articles and student theses. But these very real limits to the health, prosperity and livelihoods of most people are usually several steps away from where we do most of our work.

In Freetown this poverty seemed even more visible than usual, heightened by the torrential rain and the brown water coursing down the street, the shacks clinging to the sides of gullies choked with waste and rubbish, and the poor state of so many roads. The work that we and our partners do is so important precisely because the opportunities of so much of the population are so seriously curtailed by poor health, education or insecure livelihoods. Many of the problems that people in Sierra Leone face daily have been problems for many decades; the new knowledge, technologies and ideas developed through research, and the skills held by graduates when they complete a university education, have a vital role to play in helping to tackle seemingly intractable social problems, directly through service delivery, and indirectly through developing better policy and managing public spending more effectively.

And if universities have a key role to play in development, then they also need to be up to the task. This means adequate facilities, decent collections of books and journals, and – when so much is now online – reliable internet connections. The third floor of the library at Sierra Leone’s oldest institution has been vacated because of a badly leaking roof, while most of the journal volumes run only to the early 90s. A recently refurbished computer room was silent because despite being wired up, the bills hadn’t been paid and the internet had been cut off.

The good news is that in many of the countries with which we work, these once common stories are being replaced with examples of much stronger library collections, steadily improving ICT facilities and internet connectivity, staff who are determined to ensure that their students and academics have the best access to the materials they need and the skills to use them, and their own journals which publish regularly and are progressively improving in quality. A week in Sierra Leone certainly showed that the energy and ambition existed to achieve this there too, and with so many serious problems to be tackled, it’s clear that its universities need to be supported too.

Jonathan Harle
Jonathan Harle is Director of Programmes at INASP.

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