International vs. National Affairs: Of Emergency & Policy Articulation

By Victor A. Massaquoi, Ph.D.

The current health emergency in Sierra Leone has disentangled many already identified and bluntly, other critically inscrutable aspects of our health, education, economy, culture, external relations and policy construction systems in the country. The Ebola scourge is assaulting our cultural beliefs and traditional practices; slowly destroying our economy; the latest World Bank economic outlook for 2015 and beyond is bleak for Sierra Leone; the Finance Ministry has warned of massive revenue loss; students are not in school; some engaging in unsavory conducts and other social deviance behaviors; thanks to the new instructional and learning media program by the Ministry of Education to engage the minds of students; the frailties of our health system has been exposed, hence the President’s promise to focus more sharply on health system strengthen, post Ebola, is welcomed. I would say not post Ebola, but plans to strengthen our health system must start now.

One bright spot though of this acerbic exposure of our comparatively puny post-war governmental systems and structures, is that, if we are honest with ourselves, we can, as a country, recoil, review, hopefully learn, plan and implement development strategies that would be apolitical, and speak to the identified issues, and clearly, constructively, analytically prioritize and articulate internal development policies and utilize proven external policy communication strategy, with the understanding that the language of national development issues and international policy articulation are diametrically differing.

This short piece offers general comments on gravely challenging issues in our country, and nothing specific, to avoid being labeled. It seeks to identify, briefly analyze and posits suggestions that might be applicable in our contemporary health emergency and future diplomatic interactions with our international development partners and foreign friends. The emergence of Ebola, has clearly exposed the incongruence of our overall national social development and policy analysis structures and systems, and that the lesson is lucid, the messages we develop for national consumption must be relatively and tactically different from that slated for international consumption. President Obama was resentfully scolded by the Republicans for mentioning the Fergusson issue at the just concluded UN General Assembly. Interpretively, the Fergusson issue was internal; the UN General Assembly was external.

The Ebola Emergency

It is now apparent that the initial handling of the Ebola situation was questionable, hence the current change of strategy with respect to social mobilization and communication (messages), case management, contact tracing and overall administration of the emergency. The Emergency Operations Center has alluded to the past mistakes and some existing minor/major glitches. The arrival of needed assistance from the international community has been uplifting. The colossal support from Sierra Leonean nurses, doctors, businesses, NGOs and others has been heartwarming. As the Ebola crisis winds down in the next three months (maybe too optimistic), according to the UN in Sierra Leone, policy makers must now capitalize on the existing goodwill of Sierra Leoneans, and by extension, the International Community, to mobilize resources, redesign new systems and structures to address, and thoroughly plan for future eventualities.

Policy Research and Articulation

There is vast distinction between foreign policy and national policy, although national policy can influence foreign policy, and the reverse too is possible. Researching, analysing and articulating national issues in foreign spaces must be done with tact, finesse and exceptional diplomacy. In Sierra Leone, I have observed, with dismay, that when a social development issue emerges the language we use to ask for help says a lot as to whether the help might come or not or might come with strings attached or modified.

Few days ago, a friend of mine who works for the UN observed that the Sierra Leoneans would always ask for help with the phrase “we need this, we need that”. I immediately interjected and said not all Sierra Leoneans or local Sierra Leone organizations do that. Basically what he was suggesting, and which is true from my international diplomacy class, is that, before we ask for assistance, we want first of all to clearly and adequately describe to the donor what the problem is, what we are doing, this is key, and how they could intervene. Rather than saying we need this, we need that, simply, tell the donor what you are doing to salvage the situation and itemize the things that are yet to be done. It is up to the donor to say, I will support you with this or that.

In sum, the language and policy articulation within and outside of Sierra Leone must be carefully tailored to meet the expectations of the targeted audience. The Ebola crisis will go away very soon, but we know the recriminations will linger. Our focus now come post Ebola must be on how to restructure and (re) systematized critical health and education functions to meet future challenges, because the Government has a social contract with the people of this country.

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