On the West African nation’s Independence Day, Azimo talks to Foday Swaray, ActionAid’s Acting Executive Director in Sierra Leone, to find out how the country is moving forward in the wake of the Ebola crisis.

Some 4,000 people lost their lives in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis. How strong is the danger that the disease could re-emerge?

The World Health Organisation declared Sierra Leone Ebola-free in November 2015, but the country remains on high alert as the virus could well come back in the future. There were a large number of survivors from the crisis and it has been shown that the Ebola virus can live on in semen or eyes for several months after recovery. Caution is key.

Nurses and ActionAid staff were crucial in stopping the spread of Ebola. © ActionAid UK

Nurses and ActionAid staff were crucial in stopping the spread of Ebola. © ActionAid UK

If and when Ebola does re-emerge, how will Sierra Leone be better prepared to cope with a new crisis?

The Ebola crisis exposed just how weak Sierra Leone’s healthcare system had become in the aftermath of the conflict. The government’s National Ebola Recovery Strategy is now in place and one of the primary aims in the plan is to restore public trust in the national health system by improving early virus detection facilities and border screening, introducing vaccine trials, and opening more labs for rapid testing. Community-level mobilisers – local volunteers trained by ActionAid and other NGOs to lead awareness campaigns and flag up early warning signs of the virus – are vital in the response.

There’s been talk of millions of pounds of promised Ebola funds having been squandered or not delivered. Is this just an inevitable side-effect of trying to bring aid to African countries?

There was a huge international fundraising drive for the Ebola crisis across ActionAid programmes globally and the money raised is helping those who need it most. However, we do know that there are some issues with money promised internally or by other international donors that hasn’t made it through, which is disappointing for the people of Sierra Leone. We continue to do lobbying work to try and ensure that the money promised is not forgotten.

Malaria has been in the shadow of Ebola in the last couple of years, but it kills thousands each year. How are the government and aid organisations trying to control the malaria epidemic?

The National Malaria Control Programme has expanded its free malaria treatment and prevention scheme and that has made a huge difference, especially as people were scared to go to hospitals during the Ebola crisis. The number of children under five sleeping under treated mosquito nets has jumped from 10% in 2005 to 69%, and the number of people with access to artemisinin combination drug therapy has risen from 36% to 84%.

Separate toilets and a water well mean strong attendance from girls at Jaiama School. © ActionAid UK

Separate toilets and a water well mean strong attendance from girls at Jaiama School. © ActionAid UK

Lack of education has long been a major issue in Sierra Leone, with huge class sizes and secondary school fees putting further education beyond the reach of many. Do you feel the government is doing enough to improve the situation?

Education is still a major problem in Sierra Leone, but things are set to improve. Part of the National Ebola Recovery Strategy is to make secondary schools free and get rid of fees for primary, junior and senior secondary school children taking public exams, which means that kids who were at risk of missing out can now continue their education and get decent qualifications. ActionAid also helps through its Child Sponsorship Programme. It’s an integrated community approach where western sponsors support community programmes to improve the environment where the child lives – for example, through equipping schools with water and sanitation facilities, providing learning materials and campaigning for increased government investment in the education sector. There are currently around 9,000 children covered by the programme in Sierra Leone. Age-old problems still exist, though, such as many teachers not being on the public sector payroll.

The African Union declared 2016 the ‘African Year of Human Rights with Particular Focus on the Rights of Women’. Do high-level declarations such as this help to change opinion where it really matters? Or is it grassroots projects that really matter?

Both are important in their own way. I believe that the root causes of poverty and inequality often lie outside where the symptoms are at their most destructive. Grassroots campaigns are crucial for raising awareness on subjects such as violence against women, but you also need to hold the government to account – without an official policy, it’s much harder to make a difference at a community level.

Amie, one of 1,200 ActionAid volunteers, with members of the Bumpe Mother's Club. © ActionAid UK

Amie, one of 1,200 ActionAid volunteers, with members of the Bumpe Mother’s Club. © ActionAid UK

International Women’s Day highlights the issues of gender inequality across the globe. How is ActionAid helping to promote diversity and end gender bias in Sierra Leone?

Sadly, gender bias is alive and kicking in Sierra Leone. Women make up 51% of the population, but their presence in leadership roles is still tiny. We’ve been lobbying the government to fully implement the gender equality bill, which would help to reduce poverty and boost economic growth. It’s an ongoing process, but progress is slow. Even after all our lobbying, the first draft of the national constitution still had some strongly gender-biased clauses in it. ActionAid will continue to lobby to ensure that women’s voices are heard.

The country is blessed with hundreds of beaches, a stunning interior and amazing wildlife. Can tourism play a major role in the rebuilding of Sierra Leone and its global image?

I would say yes, definitely, tourism can play a big role in the future of the country. The country needs a rebrand, but more local private sector investment is required for that to become a reality. The new Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs has said that, post-Ebola, the government simply doesn’t have all the funds required to invest in developing tourism infrastructure.

Every day, one in eight people in the world goes to bed hungry. Yet the world produces more than enough food for everybody. How can this imbalance be redressed in Sierra Leone?

Sierra Leone has suffered a great deal of hardship in recent years, but it has one major natural advantage in its favour – fertile land. In order to make the whole country food-secure, investment needs to be ploughed into helping small farmers, by giving them easy access to seeds, tools, fertilisers and the like. Well over half the population depend on farming for their livelihood, so that’s where the help needs to be directed.

ActionAid can’t solve Sierra Leone’s problems single-handedly. Do you have a good working relationship with the government and are you able to rally help from local communities?

We have a decent working relationship with the government here and we collaborate well. I’m a strong believer in the importance of connecting the public with its duty-bearers. You need to have policymakers at the top, of course, but by bringing in accountability at local and district level, you can start to create policy engagement. We’ve been working in local communities for many years and we know that mutual trust is essential for the successful future of Sierra Leone.

We are doing our bit to help Sierra Leone. If you need to send money to Sierra Leone, we are still offering zero fee transfers.