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OPINION October 24, 2018

Investing in people to build Human Capital and improve productivity in Sierra Leone

Human capital and skill-based technology differences account for the overwhelming share of inter-country variation in income – as much as two thirds. Without addressing the quality and quantity of Sierra Leone’s investments in human development, human capital will become its most important binding constraint to the country’s goal of economic advancement. These constraints become even more acute in the digital era, and neglecting investments in human capital can dramatically weaken a country’s productivity in a technologically advancing world.

In recognition of the importance of investments in human capital as a means towards economic growth and poverty eradication, the World Bank has launched the Human Capital Index that links forgone economic growth with weak human capital outcomes, and benchmarks productivity using measures of education, nutrition, health and survival. Launched in Bali, Indonesia on October 11, 2018, the Human Capital Index allows countries to systematically track their progress on human capital development.

Sierra Leone has joined voices with other countries to blaze a trail in accelerating the development of human capital. As part of twenty-eight “Early Adopter Countries” that have committed to boosting performance on human capital across various sectors, Sierra Leone is set to improve the level and quality of investments in her people, build the country’s human capital and improve its productivity.

Human capital encompasses education and training, medical-care and well-being, and accumulation of work and habits that contribute to knowledge and health of the population. Investing in people has also been shown to improve social cohesion by improving trust, civic participation and political awareness in the society. The specific indicators included in the Human Capital Index measure the probability that a child will survive until age five, the average quality and length of schooling such a child might have, and the probability that adults survive and become productive.

The Human Capital Index is coming at a unique time when the Government of Sierra Leone―under the leadership of His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio―has committed to investing in people and building the country’s human capital. To this end, the country has for the first time based the development agenda on investing in people. Using a “whole society approach”, the government is engaging the private sector, development partners as well as households to align their investments and efforts in support of this agenda. The government has reinforced its commitment to investing in people with the launch of its flagship program, the Free Quality Education Program. This program will expand access to education for all Sierra Leonean children from pre-primary to senior secondary. History is replete with examples of how expanding access has come at the expense of quality, and hence the emphasis on “quality” education in the government’s flagship program.

This renewed effort on human capital development is also timely given Sierra Leone’s relatively low human capital. At a Human Capital Index of 0.35, the estimated productivity of a future worker is abysmally low at 35 percent, with 65 percent lost in future productivity given the poor education, nutrition and health outcomes in the country. Sierra Leone’s Human Capital Index in the bottom quartile globally and falls below the income and regional average for low income countries and sub-Sahara Africa respectively. The government acknowledges this result as a call to action for all stakeholders in the country, and has re-emphasized the government’s vision of ensuring all Sierra Leoneans can access education, food, healthcare, jobs; and can live happy and productive lives. The Free Quality Education Program provides a path to realize this vision by leveling the playing field to give every child an equal opportunity in future regardless of background.

However, the government also recognizes improving the future productivity of children goes beyond education. Sierra Leone currently has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality globally where 1 in 86 women that have had live births die from pregnancy and birth-related causes. Furthermore, only 1 in 11 children born will survive to their fifth birthday, and among those who survive, 1 in 4 will be chronically malnourished affecting their cognitive development and their ability to productively participate in the economy. The government has therefore committed to expand access to adequate nutritious food and good quality healthcare that can ensure children survive and thrive, both in childhood, but also as productive adults. Strengthening the country’s health system is a priority to realize the Government’s vision by improving maternal and child health outcomes and ensuring the country’s preparedness to tackle shocks (such as disease outbreaks and natural disasters) while safeguarding provision of essential services.

Minister of Finance Jacob Jusu Saffa ― in a statement from the Human Capital Summit in Bali ― has committed to increase resources for education, health and protection of the vulnerable with emphasis on improving value for money. The challenges are many and resources few; it is therefore important to ensure every cent counts. To achieve this, a strong focus will be placed on service delivery from all sectors, as well as holding sectors accountable for results, including sectors that indirectly contribute to human capital.

In line with the “whole society approach” investment in energy and roads should also include the energy and physical connectivity needs of schools and clinics. Technology investments should not omit the technology needs of clinics, hospitals, secondary schools, universities, and technical and vocational institutions. Investments in financial services should help ensure teachers, doctors and nurses do not have to take a full day off every month to collect their monthly paycheck.

The challenges are huge, and the World Bank is prepared to strengthen the partnership with Sierra Leone, prioritize investments in human capital in order to set the tone for a new development trajectory for all Sierra Leoneans. If successful, this renewed focus on investing in people and building human capital, the arc of development of children today in Sierra Leone will be markedly different, not only improving the lives of people, but also resulting in economic growth for the country.