“I was taking notes because, you know, Yvonne has plans,” wrote actor Idris Elba on time spent with Freetown Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr. These words were part of Time Magazine’s intro of her as one of 2021’s global leaders to watch. It’s true. The Mayor, who took office in 2018 after decades working in the private sector, has plans—big plans. What sets Aki-Sawyerr apart is she is turning hers into reality, and pulling Freetown and its people out of decades of decay along with her. In early April 2021, the Mayor spoke to African Centre for Cities Director Edgar Pieterse. Their conversation covered her battle to infuse pride and a new culture of public service in the City’s government. Also an architect of Sierra Leone’s Ebola crisis response, Aki-Sawyerr spoke about how, as Mayor, this experience helped her prepare for the city’s Covid-19 response.
13 Aug, 2020 | Updated 02 Jul, 2021
Congratulations on being recognised as one of the “2021 Time100 Next” leaders. You may very well be the first African Mayor to achieve this accolade. How does that make you feel?
I am humbled. One decides to do something because of so many factors. Becoming recognised is not one of them [laughing]. My decision to run for office was because of concerns with sanitation and the environment. Finding myself in a position where just getting on with it is identified as something worthy of note is humbling. It’s also a little bit frightening. But maybe what’s behind this—just the fact that we’ve been so ambitious. We came to realise you can’t fix one bit of city life to make a difference; you have got to fix it all. Of course, you’re not going to fix it all in one swoop.
EP: When you started as Mayor, you were pretty much starting from scratch, right? Presumably that was an opportunity to do things differently? But you also had to fix everything at the same time. How are you managing that challenge of having to work across so many fronts simultaneously?
YA-S: Our approach is based on the saying that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. In addressing the challenges of the city, we were very realistic. We started with an engagement with 15,000 residents to get a first-hand sense of where people were and their expectations. In addition, we onboarded a wide range of technical experts. We then created sector working groups that brought together people from the public sector, the private sector, NGOs and government partners. Even members of the public with interest in a particular topic were encouraged to join the sector groups. We created a space to get people’s ideas and give people permission to think outside the box. This was unprecedented in the history of governance in Freetown. It provides a space for people who never had a chance to make their contribution.
Through this mechanism we were saying, let’s adopt a blank sheet of paper approach: define what the problem is and specify how we fix it. We ended up with these organic ‘planning labs’. This made explicit a theory of change. It clarified which part of the elephant to chew on first. Most importantly, it defined the things we were able to do. It allowed for thinking without limits, even when we didn’t have the money for any of it. But we had to believe that we could get the money. There had to be a line of sight or potential—we had to be able to picture how we’d access resources, and then what the impact would be. This was how we landed on the priorities that had the highest likelihood of being fundable.
The outcome was 19 targets spread over 11 sectors. To ensure focus, each sector has no more than two targets. For example, we only had 6% sanitation coverage [across the city] and 21% of liquid and solid waste [being collected]. We set a target to increase collection to at least 60% for both. Within the targets, we set out some flexible initiatives, because I learnt long ago that if you’re going to succeed, you need to be able to adapt.
Another target was that we want to increase vegetation cover by 50%, which implied planting a million trees during my term of office. Across all the targets, the idea isn’t for us to necessarily achieve 100% success. Instead, the idea is to demonstrate that if we remain focused, we will fundamentally change people’s lives in our city. This mindset was infectious. People looked at us and went, “You’re so crazy—maybe we should help you.” And they did [laughing].
EP: That’s really refreshing to hear. That you’re sort of making yourself accountable, right? But, as you say, when you started this work, you didn’t necessarily have the resources to implement everything. Usually the context of very high need and very limited resources is a recipe for conflict. I wonder, did conflict arise?
Our approach is based on the saying that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. In addressing the challenges of the city, we were very realistic.
YA-S: There is the important dimension of me being an opposition Mayor. As a consequence, all sorts of challenges come with the perception that your party is competing with the ruling party. This can become troublesome when one should be focusing on governance and not on politics. Inevitably, people bring politics into these things.
But to come back directly to your question, yes, there are conflicts. In addition to that political dynamic, there is also internal conflict. Our transformation programme is seeking to advance fundamental change. This had not been seen before in the complacent administration that I walked into on the 13th of May 2018. On the first day, when I walked into my office, there was no laptop, no computer, no internet. I was like, “Huh? How do you get anything done?”
EP: So how do you manage it?
Y-A-S: Well, with some difficulty. I must confess it has not been an easy ride. The key is persistence. Furthermore, fostering allies is critical. When you are crazy enough to do the hard work, people come alongside you. When people see the commitment and a desire to make a real difference, they come onboard. In fact, you’d be surprised where you find allies. There is actually a lot of goodwill around. We’ve had no less than ten or 15 consultants come and work pro-bono for us from all over the world. We’ve also had graduate students from Oxford and Columbia University, among others. Our work also caught the attention of philanthropists because we’ve articulated a vision and set targets. This offers an entry point for people who want to help you do something.
EP: I want to come back to an issue you mentioned earlier related to motivating people when organisational culture is difficult to shift. From what you said, the internal dynamics were one source of conflict, which could manifest as resistance to your agenda and approach, right? Could you say a little more about how you’ve mobilised the core staff in the administration to work differently, especially if they don’t necessarily have the requisite skills?
YA-S: Yes, this dynamic has been complicated because we have staff hired by the central government as the core management staff. As we speak [in April 2021], it’s about to come to a head. We have challenged the legality of these arrangements because they are contrary to the provisions of the Local Government Act. Thankfully there are also colleagues in the ruling party that understand this has to stop. It is untenable. You can end up with a serious conflict of loyalty that fuels dysfunction. We’ve had waves. However, overall we’ve made progress because this is not about individuals but instead about building an effective and functional institution. We have made remarkable progress. One staff member confided that he never wanted people to know he works for the Council because nobody had anything good to say. “But now I am proud for people to know,” he says. “I walk around with my head high because I work for Freetown City Council.” We’ve also put in place training programmes. We’re doing an HR review to ensure we are fit for purpose. I’d been trying to do [that review] for three years but could not leverage the budget. In the end, someone came forward and said, we will do it pro bono. That is how an agenda can move forward.
EP: But the staff know it’s being done.
YA-S: Yes. They also know better than anyone else the number of HR issues that need to be sorted out. Before, people didn’t have job descriptions or get payslips, and would suspect that those junior to them were earning more. This is in a context where salary levels are not a living wage. I have been at pains to explain that we cannot address problems on an ad hoc basis. We need to do it systematically. We had to undertake a comprehensive review to understand what was going on and how best to fix it transparently.
Due to these reforms, the first year was quite tense in the administration. My sister gave me the idea to throw the staff a Christmas party at my own cost. So, with the support of friends, we had a great party. Afterwards, some of the staff came up to me and said, “We’ve never had a Christmas party. We really appreciate you.”
That doesn’t mean it’s been easy sailing. There was a strike in June 2020 when we introduced the Mop Tax, a new system for Property Rates. We introduced an automated system, and there was a lot of resistance to that.
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EP: What else did you have to address at a fundamental level?
YA-S: The City hasn’t done urban planning in 40 years. As part of our 19 targets framework, we identified the priority to produce an urban structural plan for the city. This had to be done in the absence of a planning department. Similarly, we explored introducing a cable car system given the city’s steep topography, but we did not have a transport division in the administration. We identified the need to create jobs through processes of improved service delivery, but there was no institutional unit with expertise in local economic development. In other words, there were a lot of priorities that administratively just simply didn’t exist.
It is important to understand the context. The City had fallen asleep through a lack of resources, which generated a breakdown of the social contract between the City with residents. People didn’t pay taxes. The City did not have reliable records and wasn’t counting everybody. Only 30% of the residents that are property owners in the city were on the books. Against these deficits, I am saddled with senior managers who were not appointed by me. They state openly, “We don’t work for you. We’re not hired by you.” You can imagine how difficult this makes the job.
EP: Right. So how are you addressing such a binding constraint?
YA-S: I am working with the Local Council Association of Sierra Leone, and we put out a press release when this all came to a head a few weeks ago. We asserted that we will not accept these appointed people because it’s undermining our authority and our councils. We then convened an emergency council meeting to formalise our position. I also appeared on TV to present our case. Fortunately the dispute was taken to Parliament, which stood on the side of the law, and confirmed that the appointments being made by the national government were against the Local Government Act. These are really tough challenges because it tests our authority and mandate.
EP: Some of these inter-governmental complexities that you’ve got to navigate are often not well-understood. The fact that you’re still able to maintain momentum regarding your agenda is obviously significant. I want to move us on to the big overarching cloud that we’re all living under at the moment, the Covid-19 pandemic. Your return to the country was due to your desire to help manage the Ebola crisis. You quickly achieved a central role in that fight. Given that experience with the Ebola crisis, and now having to contend with Covid-19, I would love to hear your reflections as the Mayor.
YA-S: Being the Mayor is a very different role [laughing]. During the Ebola crisis, I was an unknown quantity from the private sector. I had no political affiliation. In terms of Covid, my first action was to reach out, because I knew from my personal experience of Ebola just how important it was to be ahead of the curve. So, by February 2020, even before we’d had the first case here, we had started working on a Covid preparedness plan. It was published on the 16th March 2020. In it, we set out what we felt were the peculiarities of Freetown, in particular the predominance of the informal sector and informal settlements, which are everywhere. We had to figure out what that material reality meant in terms of essential preventative measures such as hand-washing and social distancing. Our response plan had three elements: behaviour change messaging, behaviour change support, and isolation and quarantine support. Having a plan and methodology opened doors. So we were able to raise $4 million in a fairly short space of time to implement that Covid plan. We implemented it whilst supporting what the national government was also doing.
I was able to draw on my learning from the Ebola experience, and we incorporated it into our Covid plan. We partnered with different parts of government, and the National Response Unit that was established. They had a specific one for the City. We worked very well with the Head of that agency. As it turned out, she was a former schoolmate of mine. We sat in the same classroom from form one to five, and we went to university together. So, cooperation for us was practical and easy.
EP: Can you unpack some of the practical challenges you faced during this period?
YA-S: The government would quarantine people, but there would be no food. So one of the big things that we had to prioritise was food support. In addition, we had to also offer water support, face masks and constant messaging. It was a major operation. We had 480 people moving around the city for five months providing these kinds of support. In retrospect, that was the biggest community engagement that was done during the outbreak. But of course, it’s not about who gets the accolades, right? It’s about getting the job done. And that was the great thing about working with the Head of the National Response Unit.
Across all the targets, the idea isn’t for us to necessarily achieve 100% success...the idea is to demonstrate that if we remain focused, we will fundamentally change people’s lives in our city
EP: When you look back on your response plan, is there anything you missed? Or, do you feel that it put you on a really good footing to be proactive?
YA-S: One thing that became really clear to me is that one size cannot fit all when it comes to Covid regulations. Our cities are not the same as cities in the West, and we can’t expect to adopt and implement the same guidelines in terms of, for example, social distancing. It’s an impossibility, especially in dense informal conditions. Even those who don’t live in informal settlements are invariably using informal transport. Curfews make little sense. For example, you tell people you have a curfew at ten o’clock. Guess what happens at nine o’clock? Everyone crowds into public transportation and causes super-spreader clusters rushing to get home. Another exceptional condition is the markets. This naïve idea that we would have these pretty markets where everybody would be like six-feet apart was just not going to happen! Truth be told, we planned, but we were not really prepared. And maybe that’s the message we need to reflect on. You cannot do, in the face of a pandemic, what you’ve not been able to do for 20 years prior. There are some tough lessons in all this. We cannot escape the need for solid urban planning, and we must address water and decent housing. In the absence of these, we’re not going to be able to deal with these pandemics.
EP: Shifting register, I want to discuss your influences and sources of motivation. You obviously have had a very unconventional career. You became Mayor without being a career politician. Do you think coming from the private sector has been an advantage for you?
YA-S: Yes, I think so. There are benefits to having worked in the private management sector. Also, having an economics degree, being a chartered accountant, and having done a masters in international relations, have all helped. In the UK, I had wide-ranging exposures, having worked with some of the biggest financial institutions. Outside of the big corporate environment, I’ve also started and run my own business. The benefit of coming with that range of skills is that you are very clear about the complexities you are dealing with. I found the concept of risk identification and management ingrained by my private sector background. It is a tool that is immensely useful when you’re in public service. In the public sector, risk is a big part of your everyday life, and operates on a huge scale. But coming at this with a problem-solving mindset definitely makes a difference. Actually, the biggest preparatory ground was when I established a not-for-profit organisation 21 years ago in response to our civil war. That was a means for me to display my love for my country and my people.
EP: Say more about that experience.
YA-S: Then, I was simply driven by a desire to do something. In my family, politics was not something that you even thought about. You just don’t go there. It was only later that one realised that one must go there to make a difference. And public service is where that’s done. In fact, it is not about politics, but sound governance. And if it’s politics you need to get into to address governance, you need to do the politics. Politics is a means to an end. And the end is compassionate governance that leads to delivering services for the people.
EP: Finally, the way you go about your work and your mission has made you a global face for African city governments. Obviously, it’s not what you signed up for. I’d love to know how you feel about that responsibility and that level of visibility. Your intense focus on people, and insistence that the job is about transforming lives implies a personal awareness and strength. How do you manage to maintain the inner strength necessary and sustain this ability to remain focused on the end goal—the people, and implementing your vision?
YA-S: It’s simple—my faith in God. I’m a believer rooted in the Christian faith. And I really do depend on God for my strength. I also have an amazing family that’s incredibly supportive. They are my strength. I’m blessed. I am also part of a group called “Praying Ladies”. My sister started this intimate circle on Christmas Eve in 2014, in the heart of the Ebola outbreak. And we’ve been meeting consistently since.