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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Sierra Leone Ranked Poorest of the World for the Seventh Straight Year By Ibrahim Seaga Shaw

The 2004 Human Development Report released last Wednesday July 15 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has for the seventh time in a row ranked Sierra Leone as the poorest country in the world featuring 177, the last on the list, with its West African neighbours Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali in following order from bottom.

The report itself has three categories of countries: top human development, medium or average human development, and weak human development. All but four countries in the last category-Pakistan,Yemen, Haiti and East Timor-are African. However Seychelles is the only African country to feature in the first category at 35, while other African countries such as Maurice, South Africa, Namibia, Guinea Equatorial, Botswana, Algeria, Morroco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Ghana, Comoros, Sudan, and Cameroon fall in the second average category.

According to the report, which is based on 2002 data, a citizen of Sierra Leone can expect to live to just over 34 years. At the other end of the ranking, Japanese have an average life expectancy of 81, Swedes 80. For the fourth straight year, Norway topped the overall ranking - which takes in life expectancy, income and educational attainment. It was followed by Sweden and Australia.

Of the top 20 nations, only Australia at third, Japan at ninth and New Zealand at 18th were outside Europe or North America. The United States was ranked eighth, a fall of one place from last year.

The world's newest nation, East Timor, was included for the first time and ranked at 158, the lowest outside Africa. The other lowest non-African nations were Haiti at 153 and Yemen at 149.

The Report blamed AIDS for pushing down African development levels. "AIDS is reversing the hard-won gains of recent decades," Elizabeth Lwanga, deputy director of the UNDP's Africa office, said at the international AIDS conference in Bangkok, Thailand.

While AIDS has been pushed by the UNDP as the main obstacle standing in the way of the African countries listed in the poor countries category, recent developments in other African countries point to some other factors such as conflicts, corruption and bad governance. In the case of Sierra Leone, it is easy to see, going by recent reports, that here AIDS is considered a far lesser evil compared to corruption, bad governance and of course the still looming hangover of a devastating civil war which was officially declared over in January 2002.

For a country with dwindling public utilities such as water, electricity, food security, education etc, the last position of Sierra Leone in the development index could hardly be said to be hyperbolic. Here the war hangover, rather than the AIDS brouhaha, is often advanced as the perfect alibi for the countries poor ranking year in year out. The big question occupying many Sierra Leoneans is when would this merry-go-round of poverty reach full circle to make way for the long awaited horison.

When in an interview in Paris, over a year ago, I asked Sierra Leone Vice President Solomon Berewa to give a time frame when the country would move some steps forward in the development ladder, he stopped short of making any commitments, saying rather that the reconstruction of any country emerging from civil war, as is the case of Sierra Leone, normally takes time. When one considers this rather pessimistic, albeit frank, assessment of the situation by the country's number 2 man against the backdrop of the desperate reality on the ground reported by the local and international media such as the growing inflation now at 22%, the suspension of the IMF and World Bank programmes until the government cuts down excessive spending, grounded electricity supply in the country's capital Freetown, one cannot help nursing the opinion that the promised land is indeed becoming more and more elusive.

As we can see, the patience of the international community, which has poured in millions of dollars and euros into the country's post war reconstruction efforts, is gradually running out.

The suspension of the IMF and World Bank programmes is even expected to make matters worse since it would mean an automatic suspension of most, if not all, multilateral and bilateral aid, grant and loan to the country. This would push the country's growing deficit even wider. The world's leading financial institutions have accused the Tejan Kabbah government of spending more than it is earning, and this has naturally caused the country's deficit to widen, leading to an increase in inflation to 22%. Infact, according to a recent article in the Standard Times written by Abdul Kuyateh, the world's financial institutions off-loaded a bucket full of blame on the newly created National Revenue Authority headed by Dr John Karimu, set up to overhaul the main revenue earning institutions such as Customs and Income Tax departments, for having spent far above the revenue generated.

This confidence lost on the part of these financial institutions is indeed a cause for concern particularly when one considers that just less than two years ago, these same institutions were full of praise for the Kabbah government at the November 2002 World Bank donors conference in Paris for having checked inflation that was then at about 7%. What went wrong that must have made things get so worse with all the relative stability the country has enjoyed within this period is the billion dollar question that should be occupying well meaning Sierra Leoneans. Why for instance the canker worm of corruption continues to eat into the fabric of the country's very survival despite all efforts by the Kabbah government which canalised into the creation of the Anti-Corruption Commission?

Corruption has been the subject of much debate in Sierra Leone in the recent past. The other day, the country's main opposition party (APC) leader Ernest Koroma was quoted by the Concord Times blaming the Kabbah government for failing to handle corruption which he said has made the situation get out of control to the extent of provoking a ban to all top government officials from visiting the US. I dont know how true is Ernest Koroma's declaration but if it is true then I'm sure it would send the right message to theKabbah government that it must act now to end corruption or face more international sanctions.

While I used to know Ernest Koroma as an industrious and hardworking insurance expert whose Insurance Company Ritcorp quickly rose to become the best private insurance company in the country, and for which my newspaper was doing some publicity, I still have my reservations as to how his dynamism would make his party look any better than the ruling SLPP party in tackling corruption considering the equally long history of corruption and mismanagement which the country suffered under the previous governments of his party. The only way perhaps he could go about this is by underking a complete overhaul of the party which would mean a total purging of all old APC politicians from any decision making process involving the party.

If the patience of the international community as it were is running thin, then that of the people on the ground seem to be running thinner by the hour. This was openly demonstrated when the opposition APC cleared over 80% of the votes in the recent local elections in the all important Western Area giving them the right to appoint the Mayor of Freetown; it was like voting for the lesser of two evils. Life is becoming more and difficult for majority of Sierra Leoneans.The life expectancy and infant mortality of the country are bound to plunge further than that in the UN index if majority of households in the country continue to go without three square meals a day. As a matter of fact, monthly remittances from Sierra Leoneans living abroad have saved many households in the country from falling victims to what is generally called in local parlance "001" meaning one meal a day tantermount to going to bed hungry.

Black outs in the capital Freetown are now becoming more freequent than ever making the government's promise of developing the country's industrial base a big joke as electricity is one of the basic requirements to make this dream come true. Little wonder what has happened to the great Bumbuna hydro electric project, a project that has spanned two decades with little sign that it would be completed soon to take care of the electricity problems in the country. Vice President Berewa told me the other day in Paris that they needed 43 million dollars to complete this project. But how big is that amount that the government cannot afford with all the aid packages and revenues from the revamped mining sectors. I honnestly think that there is a big question of misplaced priorities in the country, and until that is tackled, the end of the tunnel would remain elusive.

The Kabbah government therefore needs to change gear if it wants to make food security, and provide better conditions of living for the people a must well before the targeted time of 2007 as the patience of both the international community and the people plunges by the hour.

Note: This article first appeared in The Expo Times

Expo Times is Africa's leading online newsmagazine with well researched and balanced analyses of news and features covering politics, business, economics, development, human rights, media, arts, culture, tourism, education, health and other social issues about Africa.

Mr. Shaw is the newsmagazine's President and Editor in Chief

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

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