The importance of equity in development is becoming more widely recognised, and many development organisations have made equity a central goal of their programming. However, while equity is used intuitively in development debates and programming by Sierra Leone’s current “New Direction” government, its meaning appears to be unclear. This is reflected in frequently superficial analyses of what equity is and what should be done to achieve it. Its significance is acknowledged, but the policy priorities for achieving it are not explored consistently or coherently.
Rising inequality and inequities in recent months are partly to blame for Sierra Leone’s ‘lagging behind’ on headline goals. While this rise may be driven more by global processes such as globalisation and economic integration than by government or donor policies, rising inequity is a problem that can and should be addressed by the current regime’s development actions, and should be placed more firmly on the agenda. This paper summarises the current understanding of why it is important and how to address it.
Equity stems from the concept of moral equality, which states that people should be treated equally. Thinking about equity can help us decide how to distribute goods and services across society, including holding the state accountable for its influence over how goods and services are distributed in a society and using that influence to ensure fair treatment for all citizens. Applying these ideas in Sierra Leone requires difficult choices, and incorporating discussions of distributive justice into domestic political and policy debates is critical to national development, but three areas of significant agreement can be identified. These are listed in order of importance:
1. Equal life chances: There should be no differences in outcomes based on factors for which people cannot be held responsible.
2. Equal concern for people ‘s needs: Some goods and services should be distributed solely based on the level of need.
3. Meritocracy: Positions in society and rewards should be based on fair competition and reflect differences in effort and ability.
Unfortunately, Sierra Leone, like the previous APC government, has significant inequity. Power dynamics in the political, economic, and social spheres shape people’s access to and interactions with key institutions, often leading to adverse incorporation and social exclusion. Inequality reinforces itself through intergenerational transmission and various formal and informal institutions, resulting in inequality between groups and regions as well as chronic poverty passed down through generations. The available evidence on the magnitude of the challenge confirms a troubling picture of life chances being determined by inherited circumstances and inequitable access to services, as well as rising income inequality that entrenches disadvantage. In addition to being a bad thing in and of itself, inequity has a negative impact on growth, poverty reduction, social cohesion, and voice.
The solutions are as follows:
Specific areas of policy are brought into focus when equity is used as a guiding principle. These are existing and emerging policy areas, but they take on new significance in terms of equity. The following are the five primary national priorities for addressing equity:
1. Providing national public services to ensure equitable treatment.
This includes prioritising national access to public services such as health and education, as well as improving their quality through better delivery and stronger underlying institutions. Infrastructure, as well as law and order, are critical. Wherever possible, services should be free at the point of delivery, and where this is not possible, arrangements should be made to ensure that poor people are not excluded.
2. Targeted action for disadvantaged groups.
Government spending should prioritise disadvantaged regions or groups. Quotas can help specific excluded groups gain access to employment. Services targeted directly at these groups are crucial (for example, quality girls’ education), as is assistance at critical stages of development, such as early childhood. It is also critical to empower these groups, as well as to strengthen organisations such as producer organisations, social movements, and trade unions.
3. Social protection:
Social protection should be provided to ensure that no one falls below a certain level of well-being, beyond which unmet need creates a vicious cycle of disadvantage. Payments such as social insurance or basic income grants are options, as are conditional transfers to promote human development, minimum wage policies, guaranteed government employment programmes, and labour market regulations for those who are employed.
To improve equity by reducing inequality, ‘downstream’ action is required. Progressive taxation can help if the extra fiscal space created is used to fund equity-promoting interventions. Other priorities include lowering taxes on essential goods and imposing property taxes, with inheritance taxes being particularly important. Land reform is also critical, and redistribution may be required to provide productive assets to the poor.
5. Challenging embedded power imbalances
Inequity can be caused and sustained by power dynamics. It takes time to address harmful power relations, and empowering disadvantaged people must be combined with improving accountability mechanisms and reforming democratic institutions. It is critical to establish a vibrant civil society as well as an independent media. Addressing unhelpful attitudes and beliefs can also aid in the development of social cohesion and a pro-equity social contract.
There are numerous challenges and barriers to implementing pro-equity policies, many of which are caused by inequities. In light of this, development agencies play a unique role: as outside actors, they may have more leeway in helping to equalise life chances. To deliver on equity, agencies should incorporate a more systematic understanding of equity and inequity into policy decisions, implement pro-equity policies, and exert influence on developing country governments to address inequity. Furthermore, equity should be incorporated into decision-making tools and procedures.
The interventions mentioned above have been shown to reduce poverty, inequity, and human development indicators. Furthermore, some developing countries (for example, Vietnam) have used broad and coherent strategies to combat inequity, resulting in long-term and sustainable change in terms of growth as well as poverty and inequality reduction. Addressing inequity is critical for Bio “Paopa” government and development agencies: in addition to being a worthwhile goal in and of itself, improving equity is central to our understanding of beneficial change and development, driving poverty reduction alongside growth. Furthermore, empirical evidence suggests that equity is instrumentally central to long-term change due to its causal links to efficiency, growth, poverty reduction, and social cohesion.
Putting equity at the heart of development programming may have additional benefits for Bio’s government. In addition to adding practical value, the concept’s symbolic, normative, and political dimensions promote the recognition of key challenges and resonate with stakeholders in the north, south, east, and west area to promote empowerment, engagement, and deeper, more sustainable change.
Is there political will?
The importance of equity in development cannot be overstated. There is a broad and deep understanding of inequity and its causes, as well as what works and does not work. Nonetheless, equity remains low on the Bio “Paopa” regime’s policy agenda. This is most likely due to a lack of political will. We can only conclude that the lack of attention to equity is due to domestic and international power imbalances. Addressing inequities frequently necessitates working against the interests of national elites, challenging vested interests or dominant ideologies, or speaking for those who are routinely excluded and ignored by policymakers.
As a result, addressing the political economy of change is the most difficult challenge for promoting equity in Sierra Leone. It is critical to fortify political movements and coalitions, challenge prevalent beliefs and misconceptions about equity, and promote a representative public debate on practical distributive justice issues.
While Sierra Leone does not have to wait for the development community to address equity issues, donors can play an important role in influencing development debates and promoting equity through programme design and policy influence. Donors can wield disproportionate power because they are separate from national power structures that may reinforce social, political, and economic inequalities.
While some agencies (mostly INGOs such as ActionAid and Oxfam) do give equity considerable attention in their analysis, policy and practise, others portray equity related issues as overly ‘political’. Principles such as equality of opportunity may be seen as important in policy discourses that draw on neoliberal visions of development, but there may be ideological barriers to putting this agenda into action. Donor agencies currently operating in Sierra Leone must place a greater emphasis on transforming an equity-focused agenda into tangible action for the poor, backed by top-level political will.
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