By Mohamed Juma Jalloh
Apart from receiving high interest on micro credit loans from banks and other financial institutions, Sierra Leoneans have rarely witnessed the open distribution of money across the country.
The ongoing distribution of liquid cash by the National Commission for Social Action (NACSA) is unprecedented in Sierra Leone. NACSA is one of the post conflict institutions, established in 2001 to provide social protection in the form of social safety programmes and the provision of social and sanitation amenities to vulnerable groups.
As a social safeguard institution, it retains the technical experience in dishing out monies to the aged, the extremely poor and the physically challenged as a means of lessening the economic burden.
Based on its invaluable experience in dealing with vulnerable groups, NACSA was identified as the focal institution to roll out the Corona Virus package to petty traders.
The project targets the vulnerable informal sector workers including those working for the micro and small enterprises and low paid workers in the service sector.
This is a one-off cash transfer of One million, Three Hundred and Nine Thousand Leones (Le1, 309,000) expected to target 29,000 people in the Western Area and regional headquarter towns.
Over the years, NACSA has its requirements that potential beneficiaries must meet to qualify for stimulus packages.
Economically helpless groups, for instance, are intermittently targeted for social safety nets schemes in a bid to ameliorate their suffering. In some instances, it has a criterion to ascertain who amongst the poor constitute the poorest of the poor to be categorized as beneficiaries. NACSA therefore remains the focal institution charged with the responsibility of distributing Covid-19 incentives.
The US$8M, a package from World Bank is timely and life-saving owing to the spiraling economic hardship the country the country is confronted with in the face of Covid-19.
In previous weeks, government through NACSA, announced that it has assisted the less-privileged, the hardest hit by Covid-19 across the country.
The funds are expected to fill critical financing gaps that have been identified owing to the new emergency preparedness and response needs created by the global pandemic.
Sarah Dumbuya a 35-year old woman, one of the lucky beneficiaries at Sani Abacha Street, said the money is re-ploughed in to her business to increase her financial capacity. According to NACOVERC, foreign funds from multilateral institutions would be utilized for both economic and health commitments.
In part, some of the funds would be directed in establishing resilient health systems by investing in health infrastructure.
“The project will support the government of Sierra Leone in strengthening health systems in preparedness to the Covid-19 and future pandemics” Gayle Martin World Bank Country Manager Said.
At a global scale, the World Bank is rolling out a $14Bn project to fast-track package to strengthen Covid-19 response in developing countries and shorten the time of recovery. When Covid-19 struck, the immediate response by the World Bank includes financing, policy advice and technical assistance to help countries cope with the economic and health impact of the pandemic.
In Sierra Leone, the Social Safety Net (SSN) is implemented by three partners; NACSA- the parent implementing agency, Statistics Sierra Leone, charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the targeted and deserving beneficiaries are selected for payment, and the Anti-Corruption Commission which supervises and monitors the process to ensure accountability and transparency and provide an avenue for grievance redress.
But, questions are being asked about the accountability and fairness in the distribution of US$8M provided by the World Bank for direct cash transfers for people below the poverty trap.
Critics say the beneficiaries of government’s Corona Virus financial response are mostly SLPP supporters of the government party officials and families.
Some say they bribed state officials in order to receive the cash benefits.
Many others confirmed their registration to Nightwatch but are yet to receive a single dime from NACSA.
Other potential beneficiaries secured multiple registrations with the hope of receiving numerous cash transfers.
Sierra Leone being one of the poorest countries in the world, almost every citizen deserves to be captured in the stimulus package.
But the selective targeting of beneficiaries has cast doubt as to the yard stick that was used in selecting the recipients of the cash transfer. Being that the registration process was not properly communicated; many people were unaware of the procedure until the first wave of cash distributions reached the beneficiaries. Thereafter, the uneasiness among low income earners and unemployed youths was palpable. A lot of hawkers, vendors and cart pushers who fall within the low income group by virtue of the capital of their trade which is less than Le500, 000 were left out of the scheme.
The ACC has stated that it has commenced “strategic supervision and monitoring of all Emergency Response projects” across the country after a month since the Commission launched a special Task Force on Transparency and Accountability in the utilization of Covid-19 funds.
ACC press release shows that the role of the task force is to ensure that the targeted beneficiaries for the World Bank Supported NACSA direct cash transfer efforts are captured in a transparent and accountable manner.
Augustine Foday Ngobie, Deputy ACC Commissioner warned that officers handling the cash transfer project must be very careful; adding that anyone caught manipulating the system for selfish purposes will face the full penalty of the law as provided under the amended Anti-Corruption Act of 2008.
“Our mandate in this particular cash transfer provided by World Bank through NACSA is to ensure that the specific category of persons affected by the economic downturn due to Covid-19 benefits,” Ngobie emphasised.
He further warned that the cash meant for the targeted beneficiaries must not in any way be passed on to other persons in the form of bribes, but purely meant to cushion the economic burden on business owners in the targeted regions of the country.
Accusations of politicization of the cash transfer is rife but according to ACC, cash transfer is not meant for any political party, local leaders or groups other than those targeted who are mostly in the informal sector.
This would ensure that their businesses do not hit a rock with the outbreak of the pandemic which has halted many viable commercial activities in Sierra Leone.
“Anyone who has gone through registration, verification and subsequent cash transfers must not, by any means give money to anyone, and that anyone caught soliciting such cash transfer from beneficiaries will be prosecuted,” Deputy Commissioner warned.
He further entreated beneficiaries to report to the ACC anyone soliciting a bribe through officers attached to the payment systems.
This is a loud and clear message that the ACC sledge hammer would crush any public official suspected of pilfering Covid-19 cash transfer stimulus packages. Lonta!