Local government has a key role to play in Sierra Leone’s economic development

Alpha Kawusu

14 May 2012

The current economic downturn in Sierra Leone provides a useful context for reassessing the role of local government in the country’s economic development.

Unemployment is running at over 60%, with youth unemployment in most communities much higher than 65%.

Although Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is expected to rise from 5% in 2011 to 13% in 2012, driven by a one-off surge in iron-ore mining export, it is unlikely to be sustained in the long-term due to the absence of a coherent Local Authority led economic development strategy.

Local government can play a significant role in stimulating private investment and creating jobs, thereby leading to economic growth.

Attempts at stimulating local economic development, through the ‘Local Governance and Economic Development Joint Programme (LGED – JP)’ sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), have been encouraging.

However, such top-down decentralization programs that are administered by a corrupt and inefficient Ministry of Local Government in Freetown, leaves much to be desired. Consequently, this perfidious arm of an inept central government cannot be expected to inspire any confidence in the growth process. 

With Sierra Leone teetering on the verge of economic collapse, reversing this trend and unlocking the country’s growth potential, would require the initiation of a genuine and coherent bottom-up decentralization process, which involves the devolution of political and economic power to local governments.

As I have argued elsewhere, not only would such an arrangement allow for a broader understanding of structural change, but it will also allow for the spatial reorganization of production and revenue generation, through the implementation of Local Economic Development Plans that have long been either stifled or discouraged, under centralized political and economic governance.

Yet, of equal importance to this debate is the role of globalization and its impact on national as well as local economic development.

In the age of globalization, not only do decentralized systems of government function as a lateral trend to globalization, but arguably they have become a trend driven by it.  However, globalization can be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, as an exogenous force, its significance for decentralized systems can lie in its tendency to stimulate endogenous institutional and organizational change.

But on the other hand, globalization can have the tendency of forcing governments to open up thereby exposing their economies to exogenous shocks.

And the more economies are exposed to exogenous shocks, the more they become vulnerable to crisis.  Yet this vulnerability can be better contained if local communities have access to protective and stabilization-related instruments.

Thus, the stronger local communities become, the better they would be equipped to achieve sustainable economic development.

Accordingly, for Sierra Leone to develop strong local governments that would be at the vanguard of positive change, local communities must partner with each other in the process of local community economic development. 

Partnerships between cities and communities can create larger market sizes and possibly stronger political, administrative and economic jurisdictions.  In the United States, for example, partnerships between Minneapolis and Saint Paul; San Francisco and Oakland; and Baltimore and Washington, to mention just a few, have resulted in robust economic growth in these cities.

 The above strategy can be successfully adopted in Sierra Leone. For example, due to geographical proximity, Freetown can partner with Lungi, Bo with Kenema and Magburaka with Makeni.

These Local Partnerships will be administered by supra-local governments with powers to formulate and implement Local Economic Development and Fiscal Policies.

The larger tax revenues that would be generated could help support infrastructural development, which in turn would attract private investment, thereby leading to immense job growth in local communities.

Yet, as good as the aforementioned ideas may be, implementing them in an environment where power has for a long time been concentrated in the hands of one man is a very serious challenge.

For nearly five years, the All Peoples Congress which was all but dead before 2007 has occupied State House.  For much of the time, what has been most remarkable about this fact is how unremarkable APC’s rule has become to Sierra Leone. 

But in spite of this stern reality on the ground, the APC media creates the impression that Sierra Leone is on its way to modernity.

Such representations are enough to send the gullible Sierra Leonean outside of the country scurrying to purchase a ticket to go home.  However, upon arrival in Freetown, a peer behind the curtain of deceit will reveal a realm mired in the Middle Ages, bereft of the hallmarks of progress that characterize the rest of Africa.

Recently, on Independence celebrations Day, President Ernest Koroma was driven in pomp and pageantry to the national stadium to address the nation.

To be prudent, such celebratory milestones are more appropriate for progressive nations and not for retrogressive and chronically ill ones like ours, desperately staving off an untimely death. 

As the president started his speech, it was evident that he was selling the country a magical elixir.  His statements were absurd on many levels and in particular, his proclamation of an expected 35% or more growth rate of the economy was an arrant nonsense that was good only for APC propaganda.

But this was Ernest Koroma, the delusive raconteur – the man whose perennial celebratory mood can be correctly adjudged as a fig leaf that covers the ugly truths of Sierra Leonean society.  And there are many ugly truths about Sierra Leone.

However, in the midst of all this, the ray of hope is that the country has the potential to recover from the destruction unleashed by five years of APC misrule.

Under the APC government and in the midst of a myriad of problems, the decision to invest mostly comes down to the attitude of the state.  The state’s apparent lack of interest in attracting new businesses is made worse by rising corruption and draconian laws that continue to handicap those businesses that want to invest in Sierra Leone.

This repugnant attitude towards business will only come to a halt, when Koroma is shown the exit door on November 17.  Underperforming and mediocre presidents do not get second chances in democratic formations.

 Thus, when Sierra Leone enters its post-Koroma era on November 18, it is expected that the country will start a phase of development that will demand sound fiscal policies in an environment of strengthened local government.

This new political arrangement, which will be predicated on a business-friendly philosophy, will also draw on the progressive forces associated with private sector development, within the broader framework of a responsible liberal economy.   

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