Governing for Sustainability in Sierra Leone: A Bad Application of Good Science

By Abu-Bakar S. Massaquoi

The reason for our interest as Environmentalists, or Environmental Scientists in engaging with the thorny issue of mass consumerism is to clearly show our respect for the much promoted freedom of consumer choice and to persuade people about our responsibility and role in directing consumption to improve societal economics, and to create future communities in which we are able to co-exist with ourselves and nature. Our appeal is simple: consume responsibly, more efficiently, or just consume less.

In this context, are we simply making a case for sustainable growth, or sustainable development, or sustainability? Is sustainability the right word to use? How badly has this good science been used for common politics? This commentary uncovers the different ideas, objectives and understandings that are embedded in the concept of sustainability, and unpacks the extent to which it may have been wrongly applied for the right reasons in Sierra Leone. The essence practically is to examine the numerous perspectives and competing opinions that exist, and use these viewpoints to characterize governance in Sierra Leone.

Sustainable development has become the catchphrase for development agencies, the jargon of development practitioners, the premise for development conferences and learned papers, and the slogan of politicians and civil society activists. Few development interventions or research initiatives these days can effectively mobilise resources without a mention of the terms ‘sustainable development’, ‘sustainability’, or ‘sustainable growth’ in the funding request. Although many have probed the motive behind this popularity, it is irrefutable that sustainable development is now a very dominant theme. A myriad of publications are available in which scholars even go as far as stating that everyone agrees that sustainability is a good thing. Still, others think it is an empty concept, lacking firm substance and comprising fixed conceptual opinions that are, under the finest analysis, condescending and paternalistic. In my opinion, the main driver of the popularity over the years is the Rio Earth Summit held in 1992. The popular consequence of the summit- Agenda 21- primarily discusses the significance of using indicators to gauge the sustainability of development initiatives. This idea of using ‘indicators’ for evaluating sustainable development has become more widespread, with many governments and agencies allocating substantial resources to indicator development and testing. This practice has been adopted by policy makers, researchers, international development agencies etc. For urban planners and architects, it is a brand new world, as prizes are now awarded for their contribution to the development of ‘sustainable cities’ and ‘sustainable communities’; two apparently contradictory terms that this commentary will not examine. In general, indicators, as this review does, are designed to provide a response to the simple question: How can a country or community or institution objectively know whether things are getting better or getting worse? How might a Sierra Leonean know whether things are getting better or getting worse?

To understand the term sustainable development, it is critical to disclose the meanings embedded in the term and the unusual interpretations that exist. In its broadest sense, the sustainable element of the sustainable development paradigm suggests that whatever is done now must not harm future generations, dubbed as ‘don’t cheat on your kids’. The precise meaning of sustainable however, varies depending upon who is using it and in what situation. While this confusion indicates that earlier characterizations of the term have been tenuous, it equally exposes the fact that the concept is broad and lacks a broad consensus. Few definitions that I would like to consider for this review include: ‘…maximizing the net benefits of economic development, subject to maintaining the services and quality of natural resources over time’ (Pearce and Turner, 1990); ‘…development that meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs and aspirations’ (WCED, 1987); and ‘…development that improves the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems’ (IUCN, 1991). While these definitions effectively express the bond between development and environment- to adequately put it, the dependence of development on the environment and natural resources- they miss a distinct description of ‘sustainable’. Can it be shocking therefore that an expression so imprecise can be so well-liked? A decent clarification has been provided by Schaller in his work ‘the concept of agricultural sustainability’ (1993): ‘as a destination, sustainability is like truth and justice- concepts not readily captured in concise definitions’.

The inference one can safely make from Schaller’s work is that while we all want truth and justice, the meanings we attribute to these concepts can also vary significantly from individual to individual and between cultures. Perhaps, this failure to attain a universal and concise definition of sustainability rests with what is meant by the term ‘define’. If by ‘define’ we mean to summarise in a single sentence what is meant by sustainability, then it is reasonable and permissible to examine the different perspectives and competing views only; if the meaning of ‘define’ however is to be expressed in a sketchier sense, then we should consider relating current analysis to practice. I will take none of these routes, but will draw upon the directions they give at different stages of this review. While I agree strongly that a simple and concise definition may not be available, or even conceivable, knowing where current understandings lead is a prerequisite for presenting a good argument. Consequently, I will rely on existing research, discourses and best practice guidelines to evoke your interest and possibly, initiate a discussion around this topic.


To do this effectively, I have decided to use Sierra Leone to illustrate sustainability and sustainable development both spatially and temporally. The spatial scale corresponds to a farm, village, city, country etc, while the time aspect implies an intergenerational scale (that is doing good now to serve present-day and future purposes). Using the above representation of ‘scale’, if the goal is to change agricultural practices in Bombali or Kono District from what is considered to be unsustainable to sustainable, can we use the farms, villages, people etc as the units to gauge sustainability? What time scale will be most suitable? I think we can, but because these are difficult scales to define and thoroughly analyse in a short review like this, I will propose another widely applied and even simpler way to evaluate sustainability and sustainable development. This technique uses an assessment of ‘system quality’ to depict development across a particular space and time. While I won’t worry about getting into the relevant viewpoints on the subject (of system quality), I will go ahead to state that initial analyses focused on the environment and natural resources only.

However, an increasing body of literature is forming, and there seems to be a growing consensus that perceiving sustainability as a process about people and their quality of life, or well being is a more realistic option to consider. Indeed, there may be little value in trying to achieve a sustainable system that reduces the quality of life of people in that system. For this reason, I will be drawing upon WHO’s description of quality of life to leave you with the thought of whether sustainability theory and practice have been effectively bonded, linked and bridged in Sierra Leone.

The World Health Organisation Quality of Life Group (WHOQOL, 1995) defines quality of life as ‘an individual’s perception of their position in life, in the context of the culture and values in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns’. While I am aware that the definition is full of subjectivity and says very little when closely examined, it presents the very elements that we would want to have every sustainable system enhance- the people’s standards, concerns, identities, visions and priorities. How do you think Sierra Leone has performed in this respect?


Going back to Schaller’s work (1993), I would like to point out that although sustainability may have much in common like truth and justice, its focus and results are chiefly shaped by value judgments and ethics. As such, a country’s drive for sustainable development should depend upon the government’s particular vision of sustainability. Do we clearly know our government’s vision already? If we do, and we know the goal is clear, it is important to also know whether the targets are achievable, whether the possible results are measurable and whether the outcomes are scalable or replicable. As Heinen (1994) notes, ‘sustainability must be made operational in specific contexts, at scales relevant for its achievement, and appropriate methods must be designed for its long-term measurement’.

This kind of practice absolutely applies to every aspect of governance- the social, economic, environmental and institutional aspects. Though I don’t want to be tugged into providing an explicit account of the current development situation in Sierra Leone, I will not refrain from asking the following apposite questions to draw attention to certain matters and guide the conversations that might stem from this commentary. First, does good performance in the health sector end with implementing a free healthcare programme (assuming it is very effective)? Does it extend to continually gauging sustainability with respect to different practices, challenges, choices and consequences, such as quality of care, patient satisfaction, adequate and fair financing opportunities, administrative efficacy etc? By improving access to healthcare services for instance, do we seek to only make the services available, affordable, and adequate, or should we care about the fiscal relevance of the steps that are taken to enhance access (providing the means through which users can increase their purchasing power such that they are able to self-organise and access services with little or no government assistance? Second, does energy security end with a smart grid (assuming we have adequate and reliable power, smart technologies, smart people and undertake smart planning), or does it consider whether the grid and its management are able to guarantee ‘just access’?

Furthermore, using medical care as my example, I would add that there is value in examining the adequacy of time a patient spends with a physician and the quality of care that is available and accessible. I also think that power generation goes beyond making power available…it is practically about making the power provided usable (by reducing fluctuations, expanding service delivery, focusing on accelerated access etc). Additionally, do we say our transport sector is sustainable because we have built roads and procured buses? Does it extend to a continuing, comprehensive and cooperative process of regularly forecasting future population and employment growth, assessing current and possible future land use, rolling out fast-track, smart and long range transport management plans etc? At the local level also, can we say our government is building sustainable communities? Is the process meeting the needs of the people whilst avoiding insupportable social or environmental impacts? I have chosen not to quote the politically sensitive matter of land lease deals to illustrate this issue more clearly. For obvious reasons also, I have consciously decided not to mention the agricultural sector and their food security programmes in this piece. The questions posed above can be taken together as follows: have our leaders and governments wholly politicised the use of the term ‘sustainable development’ or unacceptably misused it? Is Sierra Leone a good example of a bad application of good science?

On the questions asked above, it should be noted at this point that sustainability in these settings could have two distinct, interrelated, and perhaps even conflicting meanings. The institutions responsible for delivering these services may be sustainable in the eyes of the donor (in the sense that they may not induce further injection of resources to keep them working), but what they are doing now may not be sustainable in the longer term. This is to say that the sustainability of an institution charged with facilitating development can be quite distinct from the sustainability of a development process. Because sustainability is the continuing availability of the means required for long-term attainment of goals, one may be right to conclude that our systems are not sustainable, and fundamentally, cannot engender sustainable development. Governance in our country, and anywhere, cannot deliver sustainable development, unless there are plans, policies and programmes for development that are focused on ensuring an integration and co-evolution of different growth elements (economic, social, physical and environmental), which guarantee the local population a non-decreasing level of well-being in the long-term. I am stressing here that there are different elements, but highlighting equally that they should hang together, since they continually affect each other over time and operate toward a common purpose. This emphasis in particular, and the examples above, maintain that our aspirations for sustainable development connect with a country where citizens are happy (happiness used in this context to embody the different categories of a National Happiness Index), feel safe, and have access to good homes, local shops, lots of jobs and opportunities for young people to get a good education. In fact, we can only say we are achieving sustainable development when we are able to safeguard and enhance natural ecosystems and resources, are economically productive and can provide appropriate and adequate social infrastructure, such as jobs, housing, education, health care and cultural opportunities. Moreover, sustainable governance, or governance that causes sustainable development, involves a process that results in well-run communities within a country that create platforms for effective and inclusive involvement, representation and leadership; a process that ensures that there are transport and communication services connecting people to jobs, healthcare and other facilities; a system that guarantees that individual and institutional processes are conducted in environmentally friendly ways; a process that fairly engages  the citizenry and considers the well-being of tomorrow’s communities; and a thriving and vibrant local economy. What is underscored here is that sustainability is people-oriented and should therefore be people-led. It is about enabling citizens to identify what they value and allowing them to prioritise those values; it is about allowing citizens to hold individuals and groups accountable for attaining and not attaining goals they identify and set for their development; and it goes beyond encouraging and practising democracy for the sake of it…it is about allowing citizens to measure what is important and to work with governments to make decisions based on the results they get. I will make time to examine these different issues in detail in separate reviews.

To close, I will emphasise that sustainability, as has been conceived and applied so far to governance in Sierra Leone, is very empty and lacks firm technical substance. The processes have been top-down and technocratic, as the system still lacks a consensus on how to approach the principles and characterisations of sustainable development in the context of the people being governed. Even more striking, is the fact that indicators for gauging sustainable development are more commonly designed by outsiders (international development agencies) who hardly can perfectly tell the stories of the people that the processes are meant to benefit. As a citizen, I would dare say that our politicians continue to see us as fish. Essentially, our government officials and all those directly involved continue to see themselves as being separate from the fish (the people that they should serve). They have taken new identities, with the result that their actions are effectively depleting the resource upon which their jobs depend- the people of Sierra Leone. It is clear that what we need is an urgent and strategically planned and implemented emotional and institutional re-orientation. The question that I will pose again is whether or not our leaders and governments have fully politicised the use of the terms ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ or exceptionally misused it? Does our government and country make a perfect example of a bad application of good science?

The Author, Abu-Bakar S. Massaquoi is a Human Environments Researcher based in England, UK. His research interests include: greening aid, green grabbing, REDD+, waste-derived businesses, climate change, sustainable energy, ecological resilience, sustainability, tenure and livelihoods. Abu-Bakar holds degrees in Energy, Environment, Development and Carbon Management. He was the Communications Coordinator for a regional natural resources management programme implemented by USAID West Africa and the US Forest Service- International Programmes. Prior to commencing a doctoral-level study, he served as National Programme Coordinator for the UNDP/Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme (SGP) in Sierra Leone.


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