Thursday, May 31, 2007



It occurred to me that through these blogs I have been delinquent about explaining what I have been doing for the Makeni City Council over the past 7 months and why I needed to extend my stay. The reason is that the subject for many might be a bit dry and unreadable but given that risk I’ll make an attempt.

Some background. The City administration here in Makeni was created in 2004 out of a trend to decentralize the functions that were previously carried out by the Central Government in Freetown. The new administration was resurrected from an older form that existed in the mid 1970’s when the decision was then made to centralize the local functions. Systems are now archaic such as accounting and record keeping and are based on old 1950’s British methods which lasted well enough but through lack of any updating are now totally unusable. The responsibility for generating revenue was given to the Makeni City Council in 2004 but through lack of experience, poor records and poor resources such as computing, mobilizing revenue has been dreadful. Local Makeni people with any experience are now about 50 years old and most are not around. (average life expectancy is 39 years for men). Good governance is a cornerstone of a stable community and so a rather nervous white knight rides into town from Toronto in November 2006 welcomed by the Councilors who had high expectations that the “opporto” would be able to turn things around real quick.

Revenue mobilization is authorized by an Act of law and is derived from taxing properties as well as businesses. In addition the City of Makeni owns some properties, mainly shops for which it charges rent. Also the local market buildings are owned by the City and a relatively large amount is gathered from the small and poor local market traders who rent tables at 200 leones (<10c)>I found that generally the less wealthy payers in the community paid the greatest revenue and clearly this should be reversed if some success was to be achieved. I set out to look at business taxes and the rent charged for shops. However I soon ran up against some heavy roadblocks in that the business leaders of the community had good connections with the Council and even the Paramount Chief (an important fellow here) rented several shops at a very low rent. Some credibility was needed before I would be successful here. Thus the fertile ground of property taxes was tackled first of all.

The old records of properties, registers, papers as well as any maps, lists of street names etc etc were all destroyed during the civil war. Even the old municipal building was totally ruined and is only now being rebuilt. An old municipal building used for public meetings and formerly used by the rebel RUF forces during the war was turned without much work into an interim administration building. Conditions are dreadful and I was really quite shocked at first. There were some 2004 registers created by some local students but these were obviously poorly recorded, incomplete and inaccurate. However for the 2007 tax roll this had to be used since creating and automating a complete system for >7000 records from scratch was impossible within 6 weeks. Thus the first task was to create a database out of the 2004 register albeit highly compromised and quite incomplete.

The system of taxation was based not on any form of market value but simply a count of the number of bedrooms in a house since this was the only information on record and this was clearly regressive. Nonetheless at a huge effort we set about and were successful at sending out a new assessment by the middle of December. Everyone was impressed and some huge credentials were earned. Radio interviews were started and meetings in community locations were held, church and mosque meetings and even some street theatre was attempted to publicise the need for the public to pay the tax. Some money started to come in, much more than expected and I was able to then make some headway with the leases on shops and with the business tax.

The property tax however needed a major overhaul in order to achieve a progressive tax method and thus sustainable over the long term. Importantly most of the homes in the City were not identified and not known. Even the street names and locations were not all known. A wholesale census of all the properties in Makeni was needed before any re-assessment was to take place. The cost was prohibitive for the City of Makeni and so I made a proposal to a funding agency, a local branch of Care International in Sierra Leone called ENCISS. In February 2007 I was successful (a huge effort – more about this another time) in arranging for the funding. I’ll extract some of the material from the grant application which will explain the project. Work started late as most things do here on March 20th and thus the project had to be shortened to 3 months from 4 months since “come home” pressure would not let me stay longer.

Project Description for the CARE Grant

This is a proposal to increase tax revenue in Makeni through the adoption of a fair and inclusive system. There are 5 important steps to be taken in fair assessment practice[1] for community tax base. The first steps are discovery and assessment and these are the precursors to billing, sensitization and collection. The first steps are a major impediment for Makeni in that the numbering and identification of the streets is very poor, many properties are missing from the database and the assessment has been regressive. This initial outline is a proposal to address these issues through a complete re-survey of all properties in Makeni over a 4 month period.

The performance history of property tax in Makeni is poor and declining. Less than 5% of taxpayers paid tax in 2006 compared to about 10% in 2005. The research recently carried out in the Cities of Bo and Kenema revealed a performance of 30% and 15% respectively. In Makeni a dramatic effort to improve and broaden the collection of tax, was made by Council in 2006 which was to reduce the property house rate tax by half. However the result was both a reduction in collection performance coupled with a disastrous fall in the total taxes from Le 9.4 Million in 2005 to Le. 3.1 Million in 2006. Other considerations hampered the situation in Makeni in 2006 such as charges of misappropriation of funds in Council and a late start to the issue of Demand Notices. However it is charged by many that the existing tax system is unfair. It is our recommendation that there are grounds for the charges and that amendments are required.

VSO Paul Fish, Chartered Surveyor and revenue mobilization expert came to Makeni in November 2006 and since then we have been working at two tasks. The first task has been to issue timely 2007 Demand notices for property tax rates in December 2006 and the second task has been a review of methods and procedures in other Cities, specifically Bo and Kenema. We have created a database using old records, issued detailed Demand Notices and a large effort has been focused on sensitization resulting in a significant increase in collection. Our effort has resulted in some measurable success in that we have collected over Le 4 Million in January alone compared to Le 3.18 Million in the entire year 2006. (Note by end of May total collection was over 16 Million) The research carried out by Paul Fish in other cities was useful in highlighting that Makeni needs significant improvement to increase the potential for further revenue mobilization.

The project is described in two stages. 1. Discovery and 2. Assessment.

1. Discovery

In considering this stage we have drawn on our experience during the process of the 2007 tax assessment and this has been helpful as a guide. It appears that there are a number of important gaps that, when filled will increase revenue.

a) Unidentified homes. It appears that there are a substantial number of unidentified homes and new homes that have been erected or simply omitted from some original information created in 2004. We estimate an additional 2,700 homes or 38% of the total. The potential tax revenue from this source will be substantial.

b) Homes in the database have in many cases been incorrectly addressed and have caused a significant problem that impacted the delivery of 2007 Demand Notices. The records show that about 645 (15%) printed Demand Notices were undeliverable due to an incorrect, unknown, duplicated address or simply address not found. The problem is widespread and affects all wards. The solution recommended is a wholesale renumbering of the properties along and behind all City streets. This is a time consuming and costly project but the result will yield significant benefits.

c) Commercial properties not yet assessed. This is not a significant number but commercial tax burden is higher for this type of property (e.g. Bank) and thus tax revenues generated could be significant.


d) Vacant land. Many municipalities outside Sierra Leone tax vacant land since municipal service, development and promotion of the City will positively impact on the land value and promotes a higher order potential future use. Major drawbacks in Makeni are the lack of any accurate mapping to identify vacant land, and the paucity of public tenure records. Moreover the potential revenue from this source is likely to be small and we recommend a very low priority.

2. Assessment

The success of a property assessment system is hinged on fairness and progression. The existing Makeni system in many respects lacks both. Moreover, it is behind the advances made in both Bo and Kenema in this respect. Some significant changes are recommended and can be merged with the project to renumber and identify the properties.

The City of Makeni existing system of assessment is based on a simple count of the bedrooms in each home. The advantage of the system is that it is very simple to understand and requires no valuation expertise to manage. The drawbacks are that larger and more expensive homes which tend to have more rooms used for non-dormitory purposes such as sitting room, kitchen, garage, etc., are not taxed fairly and in any case these homes tend to be much larger. Many poorer homes in Makeni contain a large number of small rooms and have a poor function. Thus a system based on bedrooms alone is regressive. That is, the resulting tax is higher for poor homes than for expensive homes and the result counters the ideal for property tax as a progressive tax. The project being considered is to gather information about the condition and location of each property and apply a grading so that a progressive system can be achieved.

Normally a property tax system uses market value as the basis of progression but in Makeni there is no open market to examine and no public record of market activity. Moreover the land tenure system is completely different from the norm, based on customary laws such that the Paramount Chief is the overall custodian of trading activity. Thus a novel system has to be created.


The process will be to hire and train 10 young local people, preferably female to

a) re-number and officially identify the homes on each street, including the use of GPS machines.

b) capture all homes missing from the database,

c) assess all homes for additional features.

A new system of assessment is to be created using the information gathered as well as mapping and GIS sourced from UNDP specialist services

The attached spreadsheets are an outline of the costs and benefits. It is estimated that the benefit will result in a revenue increase of at least Le.7.4 Million per annum for the 2008 tax year based very simply on the existing measures of very modest tax rates, regressive (unfair) assessment method and a low performance. We will expect to see greater benefits with more typical tax rates, a progressive and fair valuation method and a more reasonable performance. With this in place a revenue forecast of at least Le 13.4 Million per annum is estimated but this is more difficult to support through measured experience. The costs of the program are estimated to be a one time amount of Le.7.3 Million. In addition a program of sensitization is recommended to increase the income generation through resident understanding of the new system and the need for the payment of taxes. A budget of about Le 386,000 is made for a two month program. Thus the total of Le 7.686 Million is required.

Addendum A

This table shows the information on which the project costs timing and revenue has been estimated. The table also shows the source.


Well the program through a lot of ups and downs seems now to be coming together. The end of June is coming too soon however and I am leaving certain clean up jobs for others. However to be brief this has been a huge experience for me. The first impression on arrival in Sierra Leone, a poverty stricken country bereft of any modern resources was that nothing like this could be achieved. One major issue was that motivating people to work together has been difficult and very frustrating at times. Anyone who knows about working with African cultures will know what I am referring to and I would say that the Sierra Leone culture having just recovered from a long bout of internal strife is far worse. Even my Kenyan VSO confreres in Makeni throw up their hands in despair. Nonetheless there are the highs of achievement even of some goals and the obvious delight of the community to the better organization of the City.

We have managed to visit about 5,800 buildings so far out of the total estimated at 7,000 and we have recorded a series of information on each. We should be able to complete this discovery phase in a couple of weeks. A progressive system of taxation based on the collected data has been introduced and appears to be acceptable to the valuation officer and the Chief Administrator. The progression is based on the physical data collected such as location, condition and building amenities. The software is in the testing phase and I am starting to train the valuation staff. Leaving at the end of June for me is very difficult since the system is so new and there are bound to be hiccups. I will be leaving these to the UNDP office to sort out.

The funding agency Care International is most surprised that we have achieved good success on the ground. I showed them the interim mapping that was created last week from the GPS co-ordinates and it is quite impressive having mapped and marked also my location bands and other information. It brings everything to life and I have a new found respect for GIS work.

Meanwhile in early March all this activity caught the attention of the Central government agency overseeing the decentralizing process. They picked up on the fact that this system was also needed in all other urban areas and had me carted off to Kenema and Bo to introduce the system there. Subsequently Kenema has been undergoing a census in much the same way as Makeni and based on the Fish format. This process is continuing and I could have signed up for several years of work. However the call of Canada, family, friends Altusians and SOSA are just too much. Perhaps I’ll return some day.

The Makeni project was very ambitious but I respond well to these types of challenge. However I am worried about the long term. The local Makeni valuation staff will have to gain their confidence in order to maintain the new system. The early stages of my revenue generating assignment here earned very quick praise and it was very easy to please. However as I have gradually handed over the reins of the new systems, I have found it disheartening that the confidence of the local people is so low that they fear their own failure. This as I have found, is the difficult part of the job, enhancing the confidence of the local people to adopt different methods. My fear is that they will simply abandon the new methods until another “opporto” comes to the rescue. I hope I am wrong about this and I will be curious to discover what changes will be maintained in 12 months.

[1] Urban Property Tax Reform, Dillinger, World Bank 1992

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Mixed feelings

It is now closing in on the end of May and only one month until my sojourn in Salone is at an end. I have very mixed feelings about leaving and I am somewhat nervous about the reverse culture shock, in particular the living conditions. I have become comfortable living here among the very poor and I wonder how I will be able to adapt to the “first world” again. As I walked back home this evening from the market I met so many people with whom I normally stop and chat. I will miss them and I realize that I have become very much a part of the community. Several commented that they looked forward to council hour on the radio tonight and they were upset when I told them to tune in next week since I was tired “O‘bekimee”. I am now at home having just finished my jollof rice and groundnut paste and with the candles lit, I’ll jot this blog

The rainy season starts around now and if last night was just a taster I am pleased that I will miss the serious stuff in July and August. The rains are popularly welcomed though, since all of the wells are pretty dry and the water quality is poor. Also the temperature eased back a few degrees this morning and the streets were noticeably less dusty. Freetown on the coast apparently has the reputation as the wettest capital in the world with some 3.5 metres of precipitation and this all falls within about 4 months. I cant imagine.

I spent a couple of days in Freetown again last weekend and I am getting to be a regular traveler although it is a dreadful journey. Freetown is also such a cramped and squalid place but my project in Makeni needs a computer application and some co-ordination with the central government. The application is being built by people at a branch of the UN in Freetown. They have also supplied me with some excellent mapping and GIS services. The application needs testing now and so I have left this with the valuation officer. I am a bit worried since he has been away from work for a week with an illness; quite a common occurrence here along with bereavement. The testing will have to wait but my departure date wont and I’ll have to find another way. In Freetown I was looking forward to one day of r&r but VSO somehow knew I was in town and asked me to fill in and make an opening speech for an annual meeting for a local NGO. My grey hair seems to add to the credibility. So I didn’t get to the beach but headed back to Makeni and on the way I annoyingly had my blackberry phone picked.

Today the work at the City offices was frustratingly slow and the Chief Administrator has been holding up the payroll for the temporary staff I have hired and also a significant expense reimbursement. The salaried staff have also not been paid for the past two months and there is something going on. The tax revenue has been successful and so there has been some finger pointing. There is a Council meeting tomorrow and it should be interesting. Meanwhile in frustration I ducked out of the office (my usual coping mechanism) and visited the library. The librarian had invited a school class of 7-8 year olds to see the library and I helped to read a book. The kids so enjoyed it and my spirits were immediately lifted.

Listening to the BBC tonight on the shortwave much seemed to be centred on conflict surrounding religion and in particular the rise of Islam and extremism. Even Switzerland seemed to be under the critical eye since church steeples are permitted in Berne and not minarets. Iraq, Israel and Somalia all heavily reported. I was thinking that a page can be taken out of the religious tolerance here in Sierra Leone. As in most poor parts of the world, religion plays a large part of the local culture and here Christianity and Islam dominate although there are several secret society or “Poro” religions. It seems that there is not just a tolerance but a real embracing of both religions. At the start of any meeting no matter how small, prayers are said without fail. If there happens to be no representative from one religion then the prayers are still said for both. Everyone seems to know the prayers and physical gestures attached to both Christian and Moslem practice. Friday afternoons are reserved for Moslems to attend Mosque and Fridays in any case are acknowledged universally, by the wearing of traditional and smart dress. I make sure that I wear one of my African shirts. Interestingly there are rarely head scarves or covering worn by Moslem women. Religions are practiced openly and without shame or awkwardness. I sometimes approach a shop only to find the shopkeeper kneeling on the mat and I wait until the prayers are finished. Even in busy Freetown a gathering of Moslems takes place on the street or the entrance of a building for prayers. Meanwhile Christmas and Easter seem to be celebrated by both religions with gift giving and the offering of congratulations. The only seeming lack of understanding and tolerance is toward my lack of any traditional belief. I am frequently quizzed on which religion I belong to and the response of neither sets up a frank and open discussion but I havnt found any of the locals being satisfied with this. In an effort to understand, one Christian priest in Freetown very kindly took pains to minister my extraordinary position to others explaining very simply “Paul is very religious about being good” he said and attendees seemed satisfied (although he must have known that I can be bad as well). I think the Salonean secret is about openness and a genuine acceptance of other beliefs. Perhaps this can be exported?

Although there are two modern religions there are 16 tribes each with their own language and customs and this tends to cause more friction than religion. In Makeni and areas of the Salone north, the majority are Temne although there are also Limba, Fullah and small numbers of Mandingo and Mende. The south has mainly Mende but also Susu and other smaller groups. Politics tend to be divided along Temne Limba north and the Mende-Susu south and the coming election is more about tribal contest rather than political ideology. The Government now in power SLPP is dominated by the south and it has been evident that very few resources are allocated to the north. Thus my problems with the library and limited resources for my municipal project. The north party “APC” is starting to gear up and political (tribal) rallies are taking place. I managed to attend one last weekend and the atmosphere was exciting and football crowd like. Certainly nothing negative and I hope that this will keep up until the election in August. There is an organization responsible for the election (National Electoral Commission) and VSO has assigned volunteers to assist. One of the volunteers Yani Tyskerud who comes from Shropshire organized a debate among students about whether voting is a right or a responsibility. I enjoyed this lively debate sitting as one of the judges (grey hair again) and the students clearly have a strong sense of participation.

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