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The ones who make it happen: Habiba Wurie, Country Director, Sierra Leone

22nd November 2022

I am Sierra Leonean but left the country for a while when the civil war made its way to the capital in 1997. I then I emigrated with my family to the US as a refugee, where I lived for 7 years with my mother and three sisters until we moved back in 2003 to reunite with my father, who had stayed in Sierra Leone out of a duty to his country. I felt strongly about wanting to play my part in rebuilding the country, a country which I struggled to remember since so much had changed. This is why I chose to work in development.

My first job in the sector involved a placement in India, in a very small village in Punjab, where I worked with a group of refugees. There, I was experiencing development first hand and got a taste of what it could look like at implementation stage. Of course, I had seen development interventions in my own country, Sierra Leone, but being Sierra Leonean and a beneficiary of development interventions, this was a drastically different experience.

“During Ebola, Sierra Leoneans all wanted to help to contain the virus and protect their loved ones.”

When Ebola hit, we first did not pay any attention to it- until it reached the capital. From that moment, it was clear that life as I knew it was going to change. It was a very difficult time for us since the epidemic only affected the Mano River Union at the time- Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In addition to the general state of anxiety, especially in the early days when we did not know much about the virus, it was also suffocatingly isolating. Many countries cancelled direct flights from and to Sierra Leone, trade was disrupted- it felt like we were in this on our own.

The one positive thing that happened was seeing the commitment from Sierra Leoneans to stop it- we all wanted to protect our loved ones. I contributed to the response by working with a local NGO, facilitating messaging to various communities on how to contain the crisis. Shortly after, I took on a role as field coordinator, supporting all the activities of the United Nations Mission for Emergency Ebola Response (UNMEER) across Sierra Leone. This involved managing their field coordinators, overseeing grants disbursement to small NGOs who were directly supporting the response and monitoring the impact of their projects.

“I like enabling systems to thrive by addressing critical gaps.”

When I started at Crown Agents in 2018, we initially worked with the Government on strengthening its procurement processes through designing practical models to conduct value for money (VFM) assessments. Based on findings from an FCDO commissioned audit of public expenditure that year, the Government was losing significant sums through weak procurement processes. The aim of conducting VFM assessments was to allow them to identify areas of leakages and in turn secure substantial savings that could be used to strengthen public services for the citizens of Sierra Leone.

The commitment to systems strengthening is at the core of what we do at Crown Agents.  At present, our portfolio includes providing technical and operational support on medical supply chains to the National Medical Supplies Agency (NMSA) through the FCDO-funded Saving Lives II programme. Through this programme, we work with the NMSA to ensure efficient nationwide distribution of drugs and medical supplies, covered under the Free Health Care Initiative. Through Saving Lives, we also work with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and the Vice President’s Office to unblock revenue flows and design practical health financing models.

In addition to Saving Lives, we serve as fiscal agents for the CDC in the Integrated Health Programme Administrative Unit (IHPAU) and provide technical support to the Department of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI). Of course, a key component of a fully healthy government system is access to financial resources. With this in mind, we managed the recently concluded implementation of the Integrated Tax Administration System (ITAS) -basically the automation of tax collection and reporting- for the National Revenue Authority.

“The availability of accurate data is another critical gap we are trying to address.”  

Contracted by Emory University and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Crown Agents serves as project, fiscal and technical manager on the Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance (CHAMPS) Programme. With Sierra Leone having one of the highest child mortality rates in the world, through CHAMPS we work with FOCUS 1000 and World Hope International to conduct research to understand why the under-five mortality in Sierra Leone is high. We do this through minimally invasive tissue sampling which allows us to do a substantive medical autopsy, a first and one of its kind in Sierra Leone. Usually, only verbal autopsies are done, which lack the level of accuracy required for informed decision making. Through the project’s “Data to Action” component, we take this research to the Government to advise on policy development that will improve health outcomes for this vulnerable group.

“For me, it is all about what sort of health financing tools we need to increase public revenue”.

Ultimately, it is about boosting self-sufficiency. This requires countries being able to identify and create revenue sources. How do we support and ensure the public sector can address critical gaps in service delivery through the development of practical, affordable, and sustainable interventions?

I want Sierra Leoneans to have access to a health system that is robust and can tackle future pandemics or epidemics easily and protect its people, without relying on global aid. Something we have built up, are able to finance ourselves and can be proud of.

About Habiba

Habiba Wurie is the Country Director for Crown Agents in Sierra Leone. As Country Director, Habiba oversees our diverse portfolio of governance systems strengthening projects- in health, trade and financial management. Habiba is committed to inclusive, practical and impactful growth, largely due to 15 years’ experience working as a sustainable development practitioner across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Europe.

Habiba studied International Law at SOAS, University in London and International Affairs at Vesalius College in Brussels.

As a working mama, she is passionate about embedding inclusivity in how and where she works.

Plantains are a source of joy for her, and she often wonders how she got so lucky to come from a country where they are found in abundance.