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Speeches of Former Ambassador Thomas Hull

Ambassador Thomas N. Hull Keynote Speech to the Youth for Sierra Leone Improvement Event

June 26, 2006

Mr. Chairman, Representatives of Political Parties and youth in Sierra Leone, Ladies and Gentlemen, all protocols observed.

I was extremely pleased to be invited by the Youth for Sierra Leone Improvement organization to share with you today my thoughts on the situation of youths in Sierra Leone ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.  I felt that it would be appropriate for me to speak because YSLI is incorporated in the United States as a non-partisan, non-profit organization and at the same time has a strong membership throughout Sierra Leone.  It is one of the important bridges representing the shared values and concerns of our two countries.
My expectation is that today’s event will bring some focus to youth topics that deserve to be prominent among the political and economic issues on the campaign agendas of all political parties.  Although today’s event was conceived as a presidential debate, it is more appropriate, given the National Elections Commssion’s moratorium on campaigning, that this should be an opportunity for youth representatives and political party representatives to exchange views in a civil manner that will lead to a common understanding of the issues so that during the eventual campaign the political parties can more clearly define and differentiate their youth proposals for voters to consider.  Today should not be an occasion for one group to try to gain political advantage over another, but rather an opportunity to increase mutual understanding as part of the democratic process.
This event should not ascribe blame for the youth alienation, youth unemployment, and youth violence that exist in Sierra Leone today.  There are many causes that stretch back many years.  There is some value, however, in identifying the causes as part of the process of proposing solutions.  I hope that my remarks today will help you to frame your discussion of the way forward in this common cause.  Before the official campaign period the political parties will meet to agree on the campaign agenda.  Today’s discussion should facilitate your eventual agreement on the youth issues on that agenda.
At the outset, I would like to observe that in my extensive discussions of youth issues, I have found that the Government and all political parties understand the seriousness of these issues.  The Government and international donors have been consulting on a new “Youth Employment Programme” that the Government will soon launch in support of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Plan.  The greatest challenge that the Government faces in implementing this initiative will be resources, both human and financial.  This is always the case in a country as impoverished as Sierra Leone, but that should not detract from the Government’s commitment.  Although it is easy and indeed proper to blame Government for its shortcomings, you must also recognize the difficult environment in which Government works and give credit when credit is due.  If any political party promises during the campaign that it will have a quick solution, a panacea, for the problems confronting Sierra Leone’s youth, you would be right to be skeptical.
The youth of Sierra Leone, nevertheless, have a right to expect that their quality of life and their prospects for the future will improve.  If this does not happen, the country, frankly, faces disaster.  Youth, as defined between the ages of 15 and 35, comprise a third of this country’s population, and there is an even larger generation under 15 that is soon to follow.  Young people everywhere have considerable anxiety about their future, and if they do not find educational and employment opportunities, they naturally despair.  This leads to feelings of exclusion and resentment that in the extreme can produce lawlessness, violence, and even anarchy as Sierra Leone witnessed during your civil conflict.  The conditions that exist today are some of the same conditions the led to that conflict, and they must be addressed.  We are already seeing more violence in schools, more criminality including the rise of youth gangs and expanding use of illegal drugs, and incendiary discontent among bike riders and ex-combatants.
While Sierra Leoneans must be aware that alienated youth pose a threat to society and to democracy, you should know that  Sierra Leone is not alone in the youth challenges that you face.  Young people aged between 15 and 24 are only a quarter of the world’s working population, but they make up half of its unemployed.  You need only look to your Mano River neighbors to see the problems you share, and, indeed, some of the solutions may be found in greater regional economic cooperation to facilitate trade and commerce.
From my perspective, a key element in addressing youth issues constructively involves approaching the problems in a more positive way and seeing the potential benefits to society that youth, if given the chance, can bring.  This begins with increasing their inclusion in the political process.  Youth are potentially a powerful voting bloc.  Open your political parties to more young people and respect their views.  Younger voters will identify with younger candidates for public office, and that attraction will expand your political base.  We who are older may think that we have a monopoly on wisdom from experience, but youth bring energy, fresh ideas, and contemporary reality to democracy.  When youth are able to engage, the political system usually becomes more responsive to them. When that happens, they are often more patient with economic conditions that are slower to change, and more willing to help mitigate social conflicts before they become crises.
A serious problem that I see in Sierra Leone is access to justice.  Yes, there is a judicial system and judicial reform is taking place, but like many reforms it cannot be fast enough.  Time and again I see people questioning the fairness of justice.  Despite horrific memories of the recent civil war, disputes often erupt into violence and quite often they involve youth.  Developing alternative forms of dispute resolution in local communities would increase the confidence of youth, and of the public more broadly, that they can find fairness outside the existing modern and traditional courts.
Education is high on the youth agenda, although many whom we define as youth in Sierra Leone have moved beyond formal schooling.  Education is improving, but it is also overwhelmed by increasing enrollments, shortages of committed teachers, and systemic problems.  The faster the post-war educational system can be rebuilt and improved, the better equipped the youth of tomorrow will be to integrate into society.  This includes higher education as well as primary and secondary schools.   Meanwhile, more attention needs to be given to appropriate vocational training for those who have left school or were denied a formal education by the war.
Employment is undoubtedly the highest priority for Sierra Leone’s youth.  Human dignity depends on remunerative work, and conversely prolonged unemployment breeds despair.  Given the high rates of unemployment, which some estimate to be as high as 60% to 70% in Sierra Leone, there is real urgency to this issue.  Even those who have jobs often find that their pay is so low that they cannot escape poverty. 
Given the opportunity, youth can contribute to economic development.  The long-term solution is in economic growth through sustainable jobs generated by private sector businesses.  However, the need is now.  Therefore, Government faces the challenge of creating temporary jobs that will stimulate the economy while also giving incentives to business to hire more people.  Seventy-five years ago we faced a similar situation in America, and while the situations are not exactly parallel, my Government was able to ease the situation through large public works projects, such as roads and dams that Sierra Leone also needs to produce jobs and rebuild the country’s economic infrastructure.  The Government of Sierra Leone might also consider funding job creation proposals from youth groups themselves much like the Self-Help Fund that my embassy has for community development.
I would like to remind you that Sierra Leone is undergoing the important process of decentralization that is empowering local governments, and also has a vital network of chiefdoms.  Although local councils are still resource poor, they offer opportunities for youth to engage at the grassroots with government for the development of labor intensive projects for the public benefit.  Paramount chiefs can also help by making their chiefdoms more hospitable to youth, too many of whom have fled rural areas for towns and cities where the quality of life is often worse.
Sierra Leone’s youth are looking to Government.  It is governments that set national policies and priorities.  It is governments that create institutions to provide public services, such as education and training, to meet a nation’s diverse needs.  It is governments that must deliver on the promise of the Millenium Declaration to “develop and implement strategies to give young people everywhere a real chance to find decent and productive work.”
Youth, however, should not look only to Government to solve their problems.  As UN Secretary General Kofi Anan said at the Summit on Youth, “ No country, and no single actor, can take on this challenge alone.  Governments cannot do it without business; and business cannot do it without trade unions and civil society at large.  We need coalitions for change, in which all of us unite our efforts behind a common purpose.”  In this context political parties are part of civil society since they should represent the people.
This partnership includes the international community, which is why the U.S. Embassy is adjusting its USAID agriculture program to support youth job creation by creating a Youth Agricultural Center in crop production, animal husbandry, and marketing in cooperation with the Government of Sierra Leone.  We are also developing a new Youth Job Creation Project in agriculture to empower youths and women in agriculture-related entrepreneurial activities so that they can become agents of their own development.
Another important area of international assistance is HIV/AIDS, which is a particular threat to youth.  Through the Global Fund, World Bank, UN agencies, and bilateral donors increasing attention is being given to this issue.  The United States, in addition to making substantial contributions to the Global Fund, is funding a high profile program for HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention for young soldiers in the RSLAF.  We are also addressing the the public health needs particular to young women and their children.  These types of public health issues should be part of the campaign agenda of youth concerns for the elections.
Before concluding I want to emphasize that when opportunities have been created, Sierra Leonean youth have a responsibility to take advantage of them.  I realize that when you are destitute, it is difficult to have hope, but when jobs become available, even if they seem menial and undiginified, they are a step to a better future.  My first job was as a dishwasher in a restaurant cleaning other people’s garbage, and today I am an ambassador.  Youth must reject a dependancy mentality, and take a greater degree of responsibility for yourselves.
The older generation in Sierra Leone, whether in Government or business or agriculture, has an obligation to listen to the other generations;  to offer responsibility to the youths who will eventually replace them; and to nuture young leaders in developing the skills, attitudes, and work ethic that can make Sierra Leone a prosperous country for every one of its citizens.
Political parties offer a mechanism for all Sierra Leoneans to work together to improve the country.  I hope that in your deliberations today you will use political parties as tools for progress.  Sierra Leoneans have high expectations for the 2007 elections, and I am confident that through the hard work of the National Elections Commission and the civic goodwill of Sierra Leone’s citizens these elections can be more credible and therefore more responsive to the needs of Sierra Leoneans than any elections in your history.  Being responsive begins today with your dialogue on the needs of Sierra Leone’s youth.
I want to thank all of you for your attention.  I hope that my observations will be useful to your deliberations.  Because the Sierra Leone elections will belong to the Sierra Leone people and because, therefore, it is you who must ultimately define the campaign issues for those elections, I will excuse myself shortly, so that you may have a frank,  open, and civil discussion without the constraint of having the American Ambassador present.
I want to thank the Youth for Sierra Leone Improvement for inviting me to be here today.  I wish you well in your endeavors.