Rapaport Magazine
Sierra Leone

Development Perspectives

Development in Sierra Leone

By Leah Granof
RAPAPORT... Sierra Leone is at peace today. The emergency aid and humanitarian relief organizations that were so prominent during the country’s civil war in the 1990s have quietly withdrawn from the West African nation. Peace, however, has not been followed by prosperity. Sierra Leone’s estimated 5.5 million inhabitants are now left with a new reality: one that screams of absolute poverty and abject human misery.

The United Nations (UN) ranks Sierra Leone second to last — 176 of 177 countries — on its Human Development Index, a quality-of-life measurement based on life expectancy, school enrollment, literacy and income. According to statistics provided by the World Bank and the UN, Sierra Leone has the highest mortality rate in the world for children under five. The life expectancy for adults has risen since 1990 to a paltry 41 years. In addition, the World Bank estimates that 70 percent of the population is living under the national poverty line — defined by the World Bank as 75 cents a day.

Yet the country is sitting on $119 million worth of diamond exports that were once used to fund a civil war. Sierra Leone’s poverty and shaky stability are not the result of a lack of economic resources. Rather, they stem from numerous interrelated factors, including corrupt government, nonexistent basic infrastructure — such as roads, water and electricity, severe unemployment, nondelivery of public services and a decentralized system of disempowered rural communities.

Contrary to the general ethos of the twentieth century, throwing money into Africa won’t solve these issues or end the devastating poverty, explains Ian Smillie, a research coordinator with Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), an organization working to bring sustainable development to the continent.

“It isn’t a question of dumping money in there and fixing it. The problem is jobs. If we knew how to create jobs for illiterate, untrained people, we would have done it 50 years ago,” Smillie says.

The few development organizations operating within Sierra Leone today — mostly U.S. and British government-sponsored programs — believe that there must first exist a strong civil society before any sustainable development initiatives can succeed. The first step in creating a safe and enabling civil society is transparent and effective management, development experts say.

A more substantial challenge for the government is designing transparent mechanisms of engaging the private sector so that its resources can go to the benefit of the country, explains Jeremy Weinstein, Ph.D, Stanford University political science professor who has conducted fieldwork in Sierra Leone.

It is on this issue that the diamond industry can play the most influential role in contributing to the development of Sierra Leone, experts concede. The Diamond Development Initiative (DDI) is a new organization being established by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), members of the trade and government agencies to address the problems of artisanal diggers. Critics of the industry have often accused it of being complicit with corrupt governments and insurgent groups intent on exploiting government resources.

“The Kimberley Process (KP) is obviously a good start in this direction, in terms of the government and the private sector coming together to inform one another about the origin of diamonds,” says Weinstein.

Mark White, a recent program manager in Sierra Leone with the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID), believes that the structure of the diamond sector within Sierra Leone must undergo a fundamental change to bring transparency and clarity to the mining process.

The dominance of artisanally mined diamonds, rather than industrial mining, has created what White terms a “feudal”-like system of diamond mining with a few hundred people at the top of the chain controlling thousands of diggers. Both the government and the diamond sector, however, can create a more open and fair process by establishing a selective licensing system and eliminating the numerous middlemen that serve as go-betweens for diggers and exporters.

“Foreign nationals can come in and fund operations merely by setting up a middleman in the country,” White clarifies. “Any profit made on the diamond is not going to stay in the country.”

Experts also offered that private-sector players should provide their skills and expertise to educate diggers, provide accurate valuation of diamonds at the point of export and support capacity building projects.

Weinstein warns, however, that while corporations should assume a level of social responsibility for their environments, purely charitable contributions could backfire on the end goals. “It shouldn’t be a substitute for a fair and transparent bidding process. You don’t want someone to build a school in exchange for receiving an operating license,” he cautions.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2007. To subscribe click here.

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