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Challenging corruption for the children of Sierra Leone

Children around the world came to challenge the leaders of the G8. But in Sierra Leone, can they also challenge the corruption within education?

"I'm bold, I'm articulate, and I'm good at joining in."

That, says Aminata Palmer, eleven years old and away from Sierra Leone for the first time, is why she was chosen out of hundreds and hundreds of hopefuls to be one of 17 children to take part in the first ever children's G8, known as C8, which took place the day before the grown-up G8 started.

But can the children really know what to ask of the G8 leaders? I went to meet Aminata, who comes from my home town of Freetown, to find out. She was clearly excited by the publicity and the attention. Flamboyantly dressed in the national Sierra Leone colours of blue, white and green, she talked as though she was on fast forward.

'What do you want the G8 to do?' I wanted to know.

"I have learned that children in other countries are suffering – they tell me about their experiences, I tell them about what's happening in my country. With this I can strongly talk to Mr. Tony Blair – or whoever are the G8 – and say these are the problems and these the recommendations! This and this we want you to do so there will be a world fit for children."

A world fit for children, according to the C8, is best achieved by focusing on 8 key recommendations, many of which chime exactly with the demands of the Millennium Development Goals, in turn echoed by the Make Poverty History movement. They seem so large and vague you could hardly disagree with them.

Yet I found more interesting the concrete ideas such as asking governments to formally include children in decision-making processes and to involve them in monitoring the environment, as well as the demands for free condoms for young people everywhere.

But of course, ask 10 children in Sierra Leone what they really want and 9 times out ten the answer is likely to be education, widely seen as the fastest route out of poverty and still a dream for many. But even when schools are up and running and affordable, lessons are often disrupted by all kinds of petty corruption and teacher absenteeism.

I remember when I was in primary school, at the end of each school year my teachers would ask us to pay them a special fee to print our exam papers. After the exams, we would have to give our teachers an end of year 'bonus' in order to get the results. One year, my teacher refused to give me my results because I could not pay his 'bonus'. I went home without knowing whether I had passed or failed.

My mother was at her village, miles away, and my dad was working night shifts as a security guard. I didn't see my parents for days. My older sister was confused and didn't know what to do, she was only 16. When my mother returned, she went straight to the teacher's house to pay for my results. I had passed.

Another time, my biology teacher asked me and my classmates to bring an egg, a tin of liquid milk, some oil, a pound of butter and some sugar to school. The teacher told us to put the ingredients in the biology laboratory for an experiment. The experiment never took place.

Aminata says she doesn't know the exact definition of corruption but she has heard of it. She is unaware of any specific corruption going on in her school but is wise enough, at 11, to suspect it's taking place. But she adds she has problems at school because lessons are often cancelled.

The teachers go on strike because the government is unable to pay their salaries. It is likely that they manage to survive by taking irregular payments from their pupils, a practice common up and down the country.

Aminata's chaperone on her trip to Scotland happens to be the Chief Administrator for the City of Freetown, Miss Sarah Lewis, so I ask her what is being done to fight petty corruption in schools.

She told me that the Ministry of Finance runs a project called the Public Expenditure Tracking Survey whereby students from higher education are hired to visit schools to monitor the supply of materials, equipment, drugs and teaching materials. But at the moment, if any crime or corruption is uncovered, nothing is done to punish the culprits.

As well as this, the government has set up the Anti Corruption Commission to tackle corruption. The new anti-corruption tsar Valentine Collier may be concentrating on uncovering exploitation and corruption in government at the highest level, but some steps have been taken to fight petty crime in schools and hospitals.

Anti-corruption community groups and drama clubs in primary and secondary schools try to make sure children know their rights and know how to resist teachers' attempts to extract money from them or their parents.

Aminata is attending one of the best government schools in Sierra Leone. She's lucky that she hasn't encountered corruption, and seems excited to be having the chance to send a message to the leaders of the world's richest economies.

She may have learnt to talk the right talk to be heard here in the UK, but when she goes back home to Freetown will she be able to continue the work she has begun here at the C8 by tackling her own leaders?

C8 is a UNICEF UK project

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07/06/2005

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