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Sierra Leone’s Crippling Underdevelopment: Spotlight on the British Government's Antidote

Abdul R Thomas
Editor - The Sierra Leone Telegraph

4 March 2010

It has often been said that if Sierra Leone was a sickly patient, she would sadly have passed away two decades ago, due to neglect, poverty, disease and environmental degradation. But thankfully, not even a brutal war that lasted for a decade, succeeded in taking the life of this chronically sick patient.

Sierra Leone is alive, though unwell, and has been out of intensive care since 2001, with the support of the international community. But, poverty, poor health care, illiteracy, corruption, poor governance and lack of human resource capacity, are significantly holding the nation back from harnessing its abundant natural resources, to transform the country into a modern economic success, capable of competing with the likes of South Africa.

As the international community prepares for what they are hoping to be a celebration of the achievements of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), at a Summit in September 2010, in reality member states will instead be frustratingly negotiating a new Global Development Action Plan aimed at delivering the MDGs. But time is running out, as 2015 is just five years away.

Although results of the achievements of the MDGs have been mixed, quite frankly, there are many poor countries like Sierra Leone that have failed in meeting the prime target of halving poverty – hunger, nutrition, education and health - by 2015. With the impact of the global economic recession, poor countries like Sierra Leone are struggling to maintain pre-2007 levels of economic growth, let alone achieving the MDGs.

Poverty in poorer countries has worsened and this is a real worry for developed nations, such as Britain, who despite weathering the economic storm themselves, have somehow managed to continue to provide international aid to countries like Sierra Leone.

The British government believes that with international aid, poverty can be reduced in Sierra Leone, if key development prerequisites are addressed, such as; economic growth, political stability and good governance, the empowerment of women and climate change.

But the British government is under no illusion about the importance of shoring up the country’s fledgling and vulnerable democracy. In a recent correspondence with the Editor of the Sierra Leone Telegraph, the British government minister for International Development – Gareth Thomas, said that “each of the stakeholders involved has a responsibility to the people of Sierra Leone, to continue to actively promote an open and transparent democratisation process in the country.”

The experiences of the post-2007 local and bye-elections violence in parts of the country have left a stain on years of hard work by the international community and civil society groups, trying to change the culture of political violence. The attack on the offices and supporters of the opposition in March 2009 had engendered strong suspicion of worsening violence at the 2012 general elections. Mutual trust and confidence need to be built.

But the British minister for International Development is quite resolute about preparations for the 2012 general elections. He explained to the Editor of the Sierra Leone Telegraph, that; “DFID is in the process of finalising a programme of support to ‘Deepening Democracy in Sierra Leone’, one of the aims of which is to support an inclusive, free and fair election process in the run-up to the 2012 elections.” This programme will run from 2010-2013.

It is no surprising therefore, that the highest percentage of British government aid to Sierra Leone – over 56%, is spent on promoting good governance, and in supporting the Security and justice system. Since the end of the war, Sierra Leone has received over £100 million in British government aid, to help develop an apolitical, centrally coordinated, affordable and sustainable security sector.

But although much has been achieved, there is fear that the police force in particular may have become highly politicised by the current government, which if true, does not bode well for the promotion of liberal democratic freedoms. President Koroma has recently accused the police of complicity in corruption. No senior officer has been charged or investigated.

In justifying its significantly high expenditure on governance and security, the British government asserts that “poor governance is one of the causes of poverty. People suffer when governments do not allow participation in political life, provide access to justice and security, deliver adequate public services or control corruption.”

Although massive improvements have been achieved in the conduct of local and general elections since 1996, it was the historical and relatively peaceful change of government through the ballot box in 2007, which has yielded the greatest dividend for British investment in building Sierra Leone’s democracy, after thirty years of dictatorship and ten years of civil war. It is hoped that the same could be achieved in 2012.

Sierra Leone has one of the lowest domestic revenue bases in the world, with government revenue from taxation and export receipts down to a meagre 11% of GDP in 2009. Since 2007, the country has received more than £90 Million from the British tax payer in financial aid, to support economic reforms and growth, health, education, security, justice, governance, water and sanitation. There is little doubt, that without this support, the country would grind to a halt.

Conscious of the need for the government of Sierra Leone to improve on the collection of domestic revenue – especially taxation, since 2004 the British government has continued to support efforts to overhaul, simplify and make the country’s taxation system more transparent in a bid to fighting corruption.

Although highly controversial and unpopular, the British government had provided financial support for the development of management systems at the National Revenue Authority, which saw the introduction of the new 15% flat rate - Goods and Services Tax, with effect from January 2009.

This new tax is widely perceived to have contributed to inflationary pressures, and continues to be unpopular amongst the country’s consumers and shop keepers, who were ill-informed and ill-prepared for its introduction. Perhaps in time, when the political dust has settled, the benefits of GST would be appreciated – provided revenues generated do not end up in the pockets of corrupt officials.

The introduction of a new computerised on-line recording and verification system at the customs and excise department, funded by the British government is expected to reap dividends for the government of Sierra Leone. With Billions of Leones lost to the economy, due to false declaration of imported goods, this new computerised system will make a huge difference in the fight against corruption at the NRA.

In 2008/2009 alone, the British government contributed more than £47 Million towards a $300 Million multi-lateral financial aid package, aimed at propping up Sierra Leone’s ailing economy, infrastructure and public institutions.

With over 23% of British aid to Sierra Leone spent on economic reform, measures to make aid more effective, private sector development and growth; it is the restructuring of the public sector that is perhaps most crucial. But as reported in earlier editions of the Sierra Leone Telegraph, there is evidence to suggest a lack of political will to undertake root and branch change.

Most of the aid now being provided by the British government for economic reform and to promote growth - a £15m a year programme, is subject to the achievement of performance targets and key results by President Koroma’s government. These include; the removal of administrative barriers to investment, the implementation of a national private sector development strategy – including measures to improve imports, exports and inward investment, establishing new enterprises and expansion of existing businesses.

Through DFID the British government is aiming to work with Sierra Leoneans living in the UK, to utilise their skills and expertise back home in Sierra Leone. But with the marked absence of a structure and mechanism to facilitate this very important strategy, it is not yet clear how it will be achieved.

With thousands of highly qualified and experienced professional Sierra Leoneans living and working in the UK, this may well be the country’s answer to decades of brain drain suffered by the nation, which has incapacitated the performance of both the public and private sector. The Sierra Leone Telegraph will be following up on this proposal to ensure it comes to fruition.

On the 27April 2010, President Koroma will announce the rolling out of a nationwide free health care programme for all pregnant and lactating women, children under 5 and all vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and the very poor by 2015. This will mark the nation’s 49th year of independence from British colonial rule. The President will quite happily receive £34 million from the British government to help pay for this new ‘free at point of access’ national health care programme.

This £34 Million funding, which will help scrap user fees, will be an addition to the current 12% of the overall British aid of £47 million budgeted to be spent in the country this year. With Sierra Leone having one of the worst infant, child and maternal mortality rates in the world, this much needed investment is expected to yield huge dividends.

The funding will also support Sierra Leone in preparing for the introduction of a National Health Insurance Scheme that will help pay for free healthcare for the poor, while those at work will contribute a small percentage of their salary towards their health care costs. It is anticipated that employers will also make contributions to the cost of their employees’ health care bills, in order for the scheme to succeed.

Sierra Leone’s health service had suffered an alarming decline since the end of the 1970s, compounded by the destruction of its infrastructure by the war. Today, the health service is struggling to cope with rising expectations, the lack of modern equipment, poor management systems and structures, limited number of qualified nurses and doctors, poor salaries and the demoralisation of staff.

Will President Koroma’s Health Strategy (2010 – 2015) make a difference with the help of British investment, in transforming Sierra Leone’s health service to what it once was, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s?

With British government’s promise to provide much needed drugs and medical equipment and help in building the human resource capacity of the health service, much will be expected from President Koroma’s government in tackling massive corruption in this sector; and provide strong direction and leadership.

However, It is most striking that since the last cabinet ministerial reshuffle which saw the minister of health moved to social welfare, the sector continues to be leaderless. This cannot be good for the effective delivery of the government’s 2010 – 2015 Health Strategy.

But the British government will no doubt be taking much delight in recent achievements in improving maternal mortality rate from 1,300 for every 100,000 live births in 2005 to 857 in 2008; under-fives mortality rate reduced from 267 per 1,000 live births in 2005 to 140 in 2008; and infant mortality rate reduced from 158 per 1,000 live births in 2005 to 89 in 2008 (Sierra Leone Demographic and Health Survey – 2008).

One of the barriers to increased national workforce productivity and economic growth is the low level of literacy. With barely 30% of the adult population capable of reading and writing, the British government is spending 9% of is annual aid to Sierra Leone on improving the country’s education sector.

Although much has been achieved in increasing the number of girls enrolling and completing their secondary education, a lot more needs to be done, in order to increase the overall percentage of children in education beyond the current 46%.

The period 2001 - 2005, saw a sharp rise in the number of newly built schools in towns and villages across the country, funded by the international community. But this effort was not matched by similar investment in the training and recruitment of qualified teachers. Hence, in many respects it appeared that money was poorly utilised, with some evidence of widespread corruption in the education sector. A Commission of Enquiry set up by President Koroma and led by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, has been investigating these allegations, but so far there are no spectacular findings reported.

President Koroma has signed a memorandum of understanding with key international aid donors, including the British government, in support of his new eight-year Education Plan.

With £32 Million funding, matched by the World Bank’s contribution of £5 Million, the British government is investing in developing the capacity of Sierra Leone’s water supply infrastructures. It is expected that this investment will increase the number of people able to access clean, safe, drinking water from 40% of households to 60%, over the next five years.

So, a lot of British pounds are being invested in accelerating the pace of Sierra Leone’s economic development, improving its social infra-structures and governance systems. But is this going to be enough in helping the country achieve some of its key millennium development goals by 2015?

Sceptics may argue that while this annual British funding of £47 Million is quite significant, much depends now on Sierra Leone’s government show of strong leadership, vision and direction, coupled with a greater commitment to bite the political bullet needed to consistently and persistently fight corruption in high places, and reduce the size of the public sector.

But supporters of President Koroma would no doubt say that the President and his government are doing just enough to get the country through to achieving some of those key millennium development goals. Only the voters will tell who is right or wrong, come 2012.

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