Friday, February 17, 2012

Redefining The Office of Diaspora Affairs

One of the exciting and laudable initiatives of President Ernest Bai Koroma when he assumed leadership of Sierra Leone in 2007 was to launch the Office of Diaspora Affairs, which I will henceforth refer to as ODA.
ODA Campaign pictures
The ODA has the stated aim of  laying "the foundation for a productive and mutually beneficial partnership between the government of Sierra Leone and the Sierra Leone Diaspora"(ODA,2007).

The specific goals of the ODA included:
  •  reversing the nation's brain drain by identifying Sierra Leone professionals in the diaspora and encouraging them to come home and engage in nation building.
  •  encouraging diaspora investment by creating a suitable financial and fiscal environment for investment and business start up .
  • educating Sierra leoneans in the Diaspora about the 2006 Citizenship Act which accorded dual citizenship status to Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora that had obtained citizenship in their resident countries, thus legally enabling their participation in the country's governance and development.
Initially the report card on the ODA was fair, but as with most things Sierra Leone, it was soon converted from a national institution into just another mouthpiece for political party propaganda. One of the early mistakes was having this office headed by a relatively inexperienced returnee from America with little experience in public administration with a chiropractic degree that had little or no relevance to what the office intended to achieve. Initially some jobs were advertised and I guess some party faithfuls who went back got jobs, but there was never any meaningful effort to reach out to Sierra Leone professionals in UK and USA who did not go to public events wearing red. Unfortunately those that went back were no great role models either, as they fell into the same corruption trap that they used to vehemently criticize when they were scoffing dollars in foreign lands.

After the 50th Independence celebration fiasco, the ODA has more or less lost its appeal and most Sierra Leoneans in the Diaspora now think the whole office was just a bad joke, as there are hundreds of graduates parading the streets of Freetown, jobless. If we were to give a numerical grade to the ODA for its performance over the past years, it would be the proud recipient of 30/100 or 30%, earning a letter grade of F for failure.

I still believe though that the initiative of the ODA was a great one and I am of the sincere opinion that if the whole focus of the ODA is retooled, it will become a force for good in Sierra Leone, beneficial to both government as a revenue generating entity and to Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora as a one stop shop for anything they would be interested in doing back home.

So how can the Office of Diaspora Affairs live up to all the hype that was generated at its inception. I believe the ODA can still redeem itself by doing the following:
  • Genuinely reaching out to all Sierra Leonean professionals in the Diaspora regardless of shades of political opinion. Though there are many very educated Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora who are APC, there are thousands who are SLPP, PMDC or completely apolitical or independent of party affiliation. So focusing recruitment only on those that wear red shirts and ties on ceremonial occasions severely minimizes the pool of talent that could potentially  be drawn upon.
  • Most Sierra Leoneans I know in America want to one day go back home and build a modest house or even a significant mansion. The corrupt practices of land owners and ministry of land officials have however left bitter tastes in the mouths of not a few Sierra Leoneans and many people I know are now quite skeptical of even buying land in Sierra Leone. The ODA can help solve this impasse by helping Sierra Leoneans acquire legal land in Sierra Leone for an administrative fee.  Most people I know would not mind paying the ODA even $500.00 for  each transaction if only they are guaranteed that the deal is genuine and any land contract through the ODA has the guarantee of government. 
  • The ODA should also be constantly be researching investment opportunities in Sierra Leone,printing brochures and booklets about such opportunities and forwarding them to embassies to distribute to Sierra Leoneans.
  • Education in Sierra Leone is currently on life support. There are many Sierra Leone organizations in the diaspora that are willing to support students in Sierra Leone with scholarships and other educational tools, but identifying students who have enormous potential but are financially challenged has always been a problem. ODA can contact schools to get lists of students who are outstanding and link them to Sierra Leonean organizations in the Diaspora. 
  • ODA need to get its act together and revemp their website. The ODA can work in collaboration with department of immigration, enabling Sierra leoneans to renew their passports and other documents online. ODA can help people get school and university transcripts and provide information to the world about educational opportunities in Sierra Leone. 
The Office of Diaspora Affairs should really be treated with all seriousness. I live in a Jewish neighborhood here in Saint Paul. The relationship between Israel and the Jewish diaspora could be used as a model in Sierra Leone. Israel ensures that Jews all over the world are actively engaged in the nation's affairs and they respond in kind by promoting that country's interest all over the world. Instead of focusing on the Attitude and Behavioral change secretariat which in my opinion is just a political gimmick and a money waster government should focus on revamping, revitalizing and reimagining the role of the Office of Diaspora Affairs.

You can learn more about the Office of Diaspora Affairs from their website
The site is never updated and most of the job posting are from years ago

Segbwema blogger

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