Free Education in Sierra Leone: Interview with Minister Alpha Timbo

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - In light of Sierra Leone’s new free education program, the Minister of Basic and Secondary Education of Sierra Leone, Alpha Timbo, was invited to Dubai to participate in the prestigious World Government Summit held 9-12 February 2019.  His views were particularly requested at a one-day high level Capacity Building Program that brought together forward-looking public servants to exchange ideas about how to transform government policy and service delivery, particularly by applying innovative ideas using digital technology tools.   

The Capacity Building Program was co-hosted by the World Bank Group and the World Government Summit Organization.  

The annual meeting of the World Government Summit brings together world leaders, policy makers, academics, researchers, experts in all fields and other stakeholders, to share cutting-edge innovations, best practices and forward-thinking creative solutions to global problems. About 4,000 participants from over 130 countries attended sessions about every sector from technology to education, economics and tourism.

Minister Timbo was also asked to participate in a session on “Delivering Better Education Services through Digital Platforms."

Also invited to the meeting was the director of Policy and Planning in the Ministry of basic and Senior Secondary Education in Sierra Leone, Mrs. Adama J. Momoh, given her role in the implementation of the annual digital school census. This initiative was of great interest in the context of the Summit’s emphasis on technology applications.

This writer had an opportunity to conduct an interview with Minister Timbo at the meeting.  She had been invited to the Summt by the Office of the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, as a member of the Global Council on Health of the “SDGs in Action” initiative set by the UAE government to generate innovative ideas to achieve the sustainable development goals. She also participated in the Happiness and Well-being track, as in previous years, given her work at the United Nations and with the UAE on this topic.

In this interview (below), Minister Timbo described his goals for education in Sierra Leone, in light of the initiative of Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio, “Free Quality School Education (FQSE) Programme,” that coincides with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 about “Education for All.” He also related some lessons learned from this dynamic meeting with the best minds in the world, that apply not only to his Ministry but that he impressively intends to share with other Ministers back home.

The program of President Bio to provide free quality education to pre-primary, primary and secondary education for government and government-assisted schools reflects a major investment in the country’s youth for development. Launched in September 2018, the budget allocation to education was increased to 21% of the national budget. Also, parents and teachers were called on to support the initiative.

Besides paying tuition fees, the government provides teaching and learning materials -- textbooks, pens and pencils -- as well as food and sports equipment for students and also pays for rehabilitating schools, including  providing furniture.

The Ebola epidemic created a serious crisis in education by suspending school and interrupting children’s education -- a situation with which this writer is well familiar, having been in Sierra Leone during Ebola to provide psychosocial support to such out-of-school children. 

School attendance is now mandatory. The government takes action against parents who do not comply, for example, who send children to trade training instead of schooling or who assign excessive chores that interfere with schooling. 

While some critics have charged that still not enough students are going to school and that teachers are not paid enough salary, others offer resounding support. 

Support is evidenced, for example, in having been lauded by the United Kingdom Acting High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Colin Crorkin Obe, speaking on behalf of World Bank, Irish Aid, World Food Programme and UNICEF.

President Bio had the distinct honor to talk about his flagship free quality education project at a session with United States’ billionaire philanthropist, Bill Gates, on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last September 2018.

While in Sierra Leone until recently, completing official ceremonies for his new appointment as Ambassador of Sierra Leone to the United States, H.E. Sidique Wai reported, “It was unprecedented to observe many children in school uniforms going to, and returning from, school, as evidence on the ground of the fact that the program is working.”

“An educated public through the President’ s investment in the dynamic minds of Sierra Leonean youth is essential to reducing poverty in the country,” Wai added. “So many parents who could not afford school fees now have a chance for the better future for their children.”

From his new post in Washington D.C., Ambassador Wai plans to launch a program for the diaspora to offer support. “It’s a down payment on our country,” Wai says.

In further support, President Bio pledged three months of his salary to support the free quality education programme, and First Lady Her Excellency Madam Fatima Bio launched a multi-donor basket fund to raise additional funds.

Alhaji Alpha Osman Timbo was appointed as Minister of Primary and Secondary Education by Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio. He had previously been a presidential candidate but in the past election, then put his support behind the current President’s successful run.

His valuable experience in the field of education is evidenced by his service as the Secretary General of the Sierra Leone Teachers’ Union.

He also served as Sierra Leone Minister of Labour and Industrial Relations from 2001-2002 under president Ahmed Teian Kabbah.

Interestingly, Minister Timbo also has experience in sports administration, serving as previous chair of the Sierra Leone National Premier League, and currently as chair of Sierra Leone Premier League club Mighty Blackpool.   

Born in a small rural town in the Northern province of Sierra Leone, Minister Timbo attended primary school in his hometown, secondary school in Makeni and Freetown, and then attended Fouray Bay College, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, law and philosophy. 

Our interview:

Dr. Judy: I am delighted to meet you. Tell me why you’re here at the World Government Summit.

Minister Timbo: This is first time of participating in this particular summit. My participation was made possible through the World Bank and UNICEF. Primarily, it is for us to be able to share our experiences with colleagues all over the world. I think it has been very rewarding. A lot of lessons were learned - how government is to be run. We have also had the opportunity of meeting a lot of people. We have made valuable contacts with people that I believe will definitely help us in moving ahead our free quality school education program that has been launched by His Excellency the President of Sierra Leone, Retired Brigadier General Julius Maada Bio.

Part of my excitement also has to do with meeting with you. You have demonstrated a whole lot of passion about Sierra Leone. And I think that is exemplary… People have come from far away, you know, they have more determination in seeing our development, sometimes more than our people. This is actually gratifying.

Dr. Judy: That is very sweet. So, when you said lessons learned, what did you learn from being here?

Minister Timbo: A lot. Here… the virtue of humility shown by the leadership of the UAE. They have been able to demonstrate that they are very tolerant people. They are ready to share the development and transformations they going through.

For me as a Minister for Education, one of the greatest excitements was my meeting with Dubai Cares* and their leadership,  an important connection that we have made that I think we will definitely have benefit from.

In fact, we have been invited to the launching of the satellite in France, and I am definitely going to insure that the Minister of Information and Communication participates in that particular area.

This conference also shows how technology can help transform the nation. What climaxed everything is the awards that are given to people who have demonstrated ability on research. This shows that people can be rewarded for doing a good job. For me that is also something I will always remember. I think that is something that we have to make sure we copy, as an example for us to do something like this back home.

[*Author’s note:  Dubai Cares is a UAE-based philanthropic organization whose work is consistent with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 “to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” This includes access to quality primary and secondary education that coincides with the Sierra Leone President’s education initiative.  Founded in 2007 by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, from his belief that education breaks the cycle of poverty and gives children the opportunity to valuably contribute to society, the project supports education programs in over 50 countries around the world.]

Dr. Judy: So this has given you an idea to do some awards for people in Sierra Leone.

Minister Timbo: Of course, it is part of our manifesto. The President had promised that he would be able to award the best teacher annually, so we are in the process of making the assessment processes.  What I admire is the methodology that is being used today, especially for the last award which was done through the voting of delegates*. I think that is something that is that is actually rewarding.

[*Author's note:  At the Summit's final session, awards are given out to the most innovative programs using technology for the future of government and advancing society in various sectors, e.g., city planning, health, education.  An award is also given to a graduate student group winning the university competition for the most innovative project imaging the future of government.  The last award is voted upon by the attendees in the audience].

Dr. Judy: So what will you do with Dubai Cares? 

Minister Timbo: Well for now, we intend to work with them in the area of assisting us especially in improving the infrastructure for our schools, now that we have the enrollment increased as a result of the free quality school education. 

They also gave us some ideas as to how we‘ll be able to improve tourism in our country. These are things I will pass on to the Minister of Tourism, and maybe we will do a follow-up as far as that particular area is concerned.

Dr. Judy: What is the most exciting thing you find about being the Minster of Education?

Minister Timbo: The fact that we nurture the lives of young people for them to be successful citizens is one of the most rewarding things.  Any nation cannot develop without the quality of its people.  That is what is clearly shown in this new development.  It’s not about the roads that you have, the big buildings that you have. It is the human capital that you develop.  That is why I am very happy about the work I am doing now, making sure that we encourage the young minds of Sierra Leoneans, to make sure that they also become useful citizens and participate in the transformation of the country. That is why the President asked me to promote this idea everywhere. That is the right way to go.

Dr. Judy: As a psychologist, I have to ask you, how do you feel about what your parents did to raise you to be such a gentleman, so well-spoken, intelligent and doing something for others. What did your parents do for you that you want Sierra Leonean parents to do for their kids that will help for their future?

Minister Timbo: Well, I come from a very humble background.  My parents are not lucky to have formal education, but they do have Arabic or Islamic education. And that is the norm that was initially, you know, translated to us.  We are taught to pray, to do our five daily prayers since we are young. We are taught to be humble, and we are taught to work hard.  We have always been taught to avoid things that would bring disrepute to the family…As a family, we are always mindful about that.  Wherever we go, we have to make sure that we make the representation that depicts, you know, the values of our family, so that's very critical.

Dr. Judy: And what do you teach your children? You can tell that as a psychologist that’s what’s important to me.

Minister Timbo: We teach them the value of humility. Wherever they go, they have to make sure they respect elders. They have to make sure that they take their work very seriously.  They avoid participating in groups that will bring disrepute to the family. These are things that we normally bring to their attention.  And I think over the years, God has blessed us with that.

Dr. Judy: So, what would be your advice to parents?

Minister Timbo: My first advice to parents is to make sure they send their children to school.  Whatever opportunity that is provided for now, they have to make use of that. You know, education is the key to the individual’s personal development, community development, and national development.  So that’s very important. I always want to admonish parents to be make sure they take premium on that, especially for girl children. Today, everywhere we go, I am very much impressed with the participation of women at international level.  So I would want to see our children [like that] and relate bright examples… all of you are examples… You’ve shown a lot of passion.  You’ve done a lot work for Sierra Leone, participating during Ebola, doing a lot of things about our Ambassador. These are things that will definitely go into history.

As they part, Dr. Judy expresses great appreciation to Minister Timbo for his graciousness and for his impressive work, wishes him well in these important initiatives and looks forward to seeing him again.


BIO: Dr. Judy Kuriansky is a noted international clinical psychologist on the faculty of ColumbiaUniversity Teachers College. At the United Nations, she is a main NGO representative of the International Association of Applied Psychology and the World Council for Psychotherapy, and advisor to the Group of Friends of Mental Health and Well-being of UN Member States, led by Canada, Belgium and Bahrain, who partnered with  the Ambassador of Palau to the UN, Dr. Caleb Otto in the successful intergovernmental campaign to include mental health and well-being in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. She moderates and speaks at many UN events, e.g., for Commissions on the Status of Women and the Commission for Social Development, the World Day of Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, and WHO World Health Day, and is a member of the Committee on Migration and others. A trustee of the United African Congress and board member of Voices of African Mothers, she has hosted a U.S.-Africa Business Expo and the First Ladies of Africa Health Summit;spoken at the Africa Diaspora Investment Forum in September 2018; co-developed a Girls Empowerment Camp in Lesotho; and provided psychosocial support in missions worldwide, including in Sierra Leone during and after Ebola, in China during SARS as well as in China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Iran, and Sint Maarten after natural disasters, and for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Her Global Kids Connect Project and Stand Up for Peace Project does trainings, symposia, and concerts worldwide. An award-winning journalist, reporter and producer on TV, radio, print and the internet, she has been a columnist for the Singapore Straits Times, the South China Morning Post and New York Newsday; hosted a top-rated radio advice show; and hosted the "Money and Emotions" television show on CNBC-TV. Her many awards include the Humanitarian Award for Lifetime Achievement in Global Peace and Tolerance.  

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