In Baw Baw village, 14 year-old student Ransford Nette-King complains about the lack of running water at his school. His classmate, Abdul Keita, says that most children get sick with diarrhea because of the lack of sanitary facilities. Keita said, “I feel sad about this situation, which sometimes makes little children feel unsafe and fall ill.”
Returning children to school safely is one of the thorniest challenges confronting almost every country during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Imagine how it is nearly impossible to encourage hand washing where there is a lack of clean, running water and, in some cases, a lack of working toilets.
That is a real and urgent problem in the schools of Sierra Leone, as documented by the country’s Supreme Audit Institution, the Audit Service Sierra Leone, which is charged with monitoring government spending. When it inspected a sample of 35 schools, it found an average of only one latrine for every 144 students (compared to the minimum standard of one drop per 45). Only four schools had water for hand washing—and those didn’t provide soap.
“The problem is big and can be clearly seen. We have no water and the enrolment continues to increase. The kids are not growing well with the lack of water. It impacts a lot on their health,” said James Bradshaw, chair of the Community Teachers Association and parent of three children at the school. “We have renovated the well three times but it is still not working. The kids sometimes do come to school late and some are absent because they have to fetch water at home before coming to the school. The government has to come to our rescue.”
It’s obvious what an incubator for disease this creates, but the lack of basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities at schools has even more significant effects.
Independent oversight of what is spent—and not spent—on schools is needed. That’s one of the jobs of the Audit Service. However, the Audit Service often finds it difficult to get governments to act on its recommendations and the agency’s reports frequently are not well known to the general public. That’s where civil society organizations (CSOs) can help.
“About five years ago, we set up a communications unit to deal directly with civil society organizations through town hall meetings, radio programs and a variety of other venues. Our goal is to train them on how the audit process works and how to use our reports to monitor the public services important to them,” explains Adama Renner, deputy auditor general for the Audit Service. “Without public engagement with our audit findings, they are just reports packed up and stuck on a shelf.”
Generating that engagement hasn’t always been easy. It’s not always obvious to activists focused on issues like health or education that government budgets influence the quality of teachers or medical staff. Real-time audits during emergencies like COVID-19 help cultivate citizen action. Renner says the Audit Service discovered the power these findings could have during the Ebola epidemic in 2014.
“A lot of people, who before that time didn’t know about our office, became aware of our office and the respect for our work grew—especially because they were publicized on TV and our audit results were immediately taken into consideration by the government, given the urgency. And for the first time in the history of Sierra Leone, action was taken against individuals who were found to be culpable.”
The Audit Service has found highly engaged partners among CSOs that focus on government accountability. The Budget Advocacy Network (BAN) brings many of them together, focusing on ensuring greater inclusiveness in government spending decisions—with a particular emphasis on gender and poverty.
To supplement the focus on WASH in schools by the Audit Service, BAN fielded a public-expenditure tracking survey. It reinforced one of the agency’s key findings: The main problem is not lack of funds. Schools already account for 21% of the national budget in Sierra Leone. Rather, the challenge is that funds for water, sanitation, and hygiene are not prioritized and protected.
“We need to make sure water and sanitation are protected by a stand-alone allocation,” explains Abu Bakarr Kamara, BAN coordinator.
BAN created a series of scorecards for each school district, dramatizing the facilities’ WASH deficiencies with illustrations supported by statistics. Each scorecard concludes with a set of recommendations, including that the government should ensure that WASH becomes a stand-alone focus in the allocation of school subsidies, with at least 15% of fees committed to these needs.
“When schools receive their subsidies, they use them in whatever way they want,” explains Kamara. “But if we want WASH to be addressed, funding has to be protected.”
In May, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) issued a draft of a new guideline governing the use of school fee subsidies. WASH needs were identified but still were not prioritized to the degree sought by BAN and other prominent CSOs. Thus, BAN has opened a dialogue with the MEST.
Much to their delight, the ministry was open to public inputs. “There is a recognition we are all working toward the same goal,” observes Kamara, adding that the ministry’s inspection directorate even introduced coalition members to local school inspectors.
Among BAN’s feedback to the government is a recommendation to ring fence funding for WASH, instead of lumping it in with funding for other necessities. BAN is now trying to engage with MEST on its proposed revisions and bring more actors into the discussion, including the Audit Service.
BAN is partnering with two existing networks: Education for All and the Water and Sanitation Network. BAN works with them to educate and mobilize parents with school children, as well as journalists. A key tool in their work is the series of illustrated, district-specific scorecards.
“We are trying to give the WASH problems a human face, so people can actually visualize what we’re talking about,” says Kamara. “Even if you cannot read, you can look at the pictures and be able to understand the condition of the schools.”
The scorecards are also useful in the meetings scheduled by BAN with government ministries and parliamentary committees, such as those focused on education and water resources.
“At the beginning, everyone was going to public hearings, screaming about their own problems, saying. ‘Give me, give me.’ What we’ve been teaching in our coalition is that the budget is not rubber that can be expanded. We need to work with the resources we have. Firstly, we teach our coalition members to fully understand the budget.”
Then, the coalition teaches the members how to prioritize the really important issues, put others on the back burner for a time, and even give the government recommendations on how to fund those top priorities. “We’re teaching them to have a conversation together, prepare together and give each one a role. Before it was chaos. Now we have a strategy.”
Although the coalition has notched many successes, and now includes 50 NGOs and other groups dedicated to the cause, there is still plenty of work left to be done. “Health care services should be free and accessible for everyone. We have a really poor population and people are selling their houses to cover their health care expenses,” Batma said.
The coalition is currently working to harness new technology to monitor the public procurement process, increase the efficiency of budget analysis and is finalizing an application, baa.kg, to use analytical models in real time. “It will allow fast analysis and understanding of the budget. We need information to have proof and conclusions. In the past, we had to go to the portal and make an official requisition for information and then wait to hear back. With this model, we get the information much quicker,” Batma said.
One key audience is the parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), chaired by the deputy speaker and charged with monitoring government expenses and revenue. The committee has received the audit report and recommendations, but it initially ignored them.
Now, with the onslaught of COVID-19 and greater public attention to WASH, the PAC finally appears willing and able to act. The government rightly sees WASH as critical to overcoming the pandemic and serving communities’ needs.
“The schools are still closed, but WASH facilities are crucial to reopening,” Kamara explains. “Now, both PAC and MEST are open to discussing the issue, providing an opportunity to deepen discussions with the Audit Service and civil society to ensure that the funding is ring fenced and that national standards on water, sanitation and hygiene are met.”
Kamara’s optimism is welcome news for students like Ransford Nette-King and Abdul Keita, who are scared by the outbreak of disease, and who are imploring government to swiftly provide clean toilets and running water in their schools.