A Visit to Oxfam’s Office in Freetown, Sierra Leone

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While visiting Freetown I encountered torrential rains the likes of which I’ve never seen. They don’t even compare to the downpours at the height of the rainy season I experienced growing up in Panama.

But despite water, water, everywhere, I can’t help but being taken aback by the overwhelming lack of access people have to clean drinking and washing water, and to toilets.

Before coming, I’d been told that the Oxfam office in Freetown, Sierra Leone specialized in water and sanitation issues. It was only once I arrived that I could really understand how intensely pressing the need is for this type of work. And how frightfully women, and especially children, suffer from the lack of it.

I arrived at the Oxfam’s office near the center of town, and two staff members, Emmanuel Gaima and Nancy James greet me. Emmanuel is the country director, and is hosting a large regional meeting. He is kind enough to pause the meeting to introduce me around to everyone, as they huddle around a large map, planning their upcoming activities.

The office is the leading member of a consortium of international charitable organizations that are working to promote increased access to clean water, and improved health and sanitation practices. Only 10 percent of the population in Sierra Leone has access to both clean water and to some type of improved sanitation facility, such as a latrine.

This lack of access is a major contributor to the country’s exceptionally high rate of deaths of children under five years old. Two of the leading causes of child deaths here are diarrhea and malaria, both exacerbated by poor water and sanitation.

The five charitable organizations in Sierra Leone’s WASH cluster divide tasks among themselves, and each is responsible for targeting specific areas of Freetown. They will be undertaking public education activities, supporting the construction of new latrines, and lobbying government officials and the international community.

These types of consortiums are emerging as a useful way to ensure that nongovernmental organizations don’t duplicate each others work, and that they coordinate their efforts with those being made by government.  A similar Oxfam consortium for water and sanitation in Liberia, begun several years ago, is the focus of academic studies on the effectiveness of aid delivery.  I leave Oxfam’s Sierra Leone office at the end of the day impressed by the hard work they are doing, and with more understanding of the formidable challenges they face.

Read more

Oxfam research report: The WASH Factor: Oxfam’s experiences with humanitarian coordination for water, sanitation, and health (pdf, 205kb)

Oxfam's Health & Education For All Campaign

Previous entries from Pamela Gomez' trip to Sierra Leone:

A Visit to Sierra Leone’s Princess Christian Maternity Hospital

A Visit to the Central Medical Stores in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone launches free health care for women and children