WORLD MAYOR 2023: The winners of the World Mayor Prize and Awards have been announced. World Mayor winners
Reliable water supplies
are a priority for Freetown
By Brian Baker, Women Mayors
ON OTHER PAGES: Leila Mustafa, Mayor of Raqqa, Syria
Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1968. She attended the
St. Josephs Secondary School where she was Head Girl. Subsequently Yvonne attended Fourah Bay College where she secured a BA in Economics.
During her time at Fourah Bay Yvonne was the first African student to be a board member of its Brussels based International Student Exchange Committee.
Mayor Aki-Sawyerr attended the London School of Economics from 1989 where she achieved a Masters degree in International Relations and Politics of the World Economy. After completing her Masters degree Mayor Aki-Sawyerr remained in the UK to commence her career at Arthur Anderson and completed her Professional Accountancy studies and achieved her certification in 1993.
Settled in London, Yvonne worked in the private and third sectors for the next 20 years becoming a specialist in risk management, regulatory and corporate governance. In 2009 she became Investment Director of IDEA (International Development Enterprise Associates (UK) Ltd. This was established to execute privately funded development schemes in Sierra Leone. These have included a Hilton Hotel at Cape Sierra. It raises investment for projects rooted in local stakeholder management.
Whilst pursuing her professional career Mayor Aki-Sawyerr also campaigned against the blood diamonds trade during the civil war in Sierra Leone and decided to try to help children orphaned or damaged by the conflict by forming a charity. Sierra Leone War Trust was co-founded by Ms Aki-Sawyerr in 1999 to campaign for an end to the war and to support young people affected by it. It continues its valuable work in the present era.
Following the outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone in 2014 she worked tirelessly to increase international attention and help for her stricken country. Between June-October 2014 she took leave from IDEA to campaign full-time in the UK highlighting the issues and recruiting volunteers, especially medical staff, to go to Sierra Leone to help.
Mayor Aki-Sawyerr was involved in the recovery in Sierra Leone in 2015 and 2016 and eventually she and her family re-located to her country of birth. She was Director of Planning at the Ebola Response Centre in 2015 and subsequently Delivery Team Head in a multi-stakeholder Ebola recovery programme initiated by then Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma.
She was awarded the Presidents Medal in 2015 and in 2016 received recognition from her UK home of 27 years in the form of the Order of the British Empire.
After returning to Sierra Leone Ms Aki-Sawyerr became a member of the All People’s Congress, one of the two largest political parties in the country.
Eventually she decided to contest the 2018 mayoral election for Freetown in 2018. She drew on her 25 year career in economics and finance to form a coherent vision for the re-invention of the city as one in which the lives of the residents were enhanced by good infrastructure and public health and services providing a cleaner, safer environment and enhancing educational and consequent life opportunities for all the population.
Hence she campaigned on a complex yet detailed and costed Transform programme. The initial phase of this massively ambitious initiative is to be phased over three years with the intention that further phases will follow. This coherent comprehensive vision won the support of 60% of voters in the election and Yvonne became the mayor of Freetown in May 2018.
During her three years in office the mayor has used social media to maintain frequent communication with citizens and to keep them up to date with progress of the Transform programme. She is especially active on Twitter where she also communicates about wider issues and challenges across the world such as the empowerment of women and climate change..
Currently Aki-Sawyerr is engaged with and promoting an international initiative called Countdown which seeks to stimulate acceleration in the responses of governments and businesses around the world to climate change.
Transform Freetown includes four clusters of policy and action. They have been named as Resiliance, Human Development, Healthy Cities and Urban Mobility. There are overarching priorities which address the method by which this transformation should be carried out notably by incorporating plenty of opportunities for citizen participation and by extolling and , hopefully, consistently practising transparency.
Priorities in the first three year phase have included key elements such as clean water for all, reliable clean water supply, modern sanitation, education and skills development, environmental management and access to decent health care for everyone.
In the first year 49 projects were begun of which 31 were completed. The largest investment was in sanitation for which nearly 6 billion SLL was raised and invested. Much of the success of this initiative will be contingent on demonstrating good financial management to international sources of financial investment and assistance and the mayor has the track record to win confidence from agencies and funds across the world that compliance with standards and rules will be the norm in Freetown.
In 2019 the mayor supported the Global Green New Deal which was launched in Copenhagen that year.
In 2020 the mayor initiated delivery of the promised massive tree planting programme. The promise is to plant a million trees within the city boundaries.
Managing the city during the pandemic has been very challenging as in many African countries. The mayor has spoken of the difficulties of social distancing in a city which has 74 informal settlements. However, she has been praised by many of her nominating correspondents for the World Mayor prize for the successes in reducing the impact of Covid 19.
In an interview earlier in 2021 she said “the Ebola experience taught me the importance of acting fast. It’s essential to have a clear plan and to get people around this strategy so they have a sense of direction.”
She called the first city level Covid 19 response meeting six weeks before the first cases were confirmed in Sierra Leone. A month after that meeting they had a plan which reflected the circumstances of Freetown where 47% of the population do not have access to running water and 35% of the population live in informal, overcrowded settlements.
A few weeks before she became mayor of Freetown the national government had changed with the Sierra Leone Peoples Party taking office under President Julius Maada.
Many of those who have supported her for this year’s award have cited obstruction to her initiatives by central government departments during the last three years but they have also expressed admiration for the grace and calm with which she addresses these obstacles.
Given the scale of Yvonne’s ambition for the people of Freetown an independent, direct source of income for the city is a priority. They have done all the preparatory work to make possible an electronically run property tax system. The Government’s Department of Local Government has so far refused to allow the city to levy and collect the tax. However, the mayor told the media that will change.
“We raised external funding to create the system and l expect to be able to collect taxes later in 2021.”, she said. “The next change we hope to get is building permitting devolved to the city so development control can be rooted in environmental management.”
Tragically, this essential power for any modern city management was not achieved in time to prevent a fire in April 2021 having a much greater impact than necessary. Fire Service personnel were unable to reach the fire with their equipment because a construction site had blocked the previous access to the site of the informal settlement.
In 2020 Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr was on the annual BBC list of 100 women. This high status recognition is reflected in many of the comments about her in this process. It is notable that her attention to climate change, even during a global pandemic, has attracted much praise as has her inclusive approach. Many correspondents praised her for working with people of all backgrounds and political affiliations.