Over the years journalists and some politicians in the ruling and opposition parties have accused the other of pandering to the donor agencies when they are in opposition. Yet, as soon as they assume the mantle of leadership they fly to these same institutions for funding and economic antidote for their so called development challenges.
Sierra Leoneans are witnesses to the barrage of criticisms that came from this government when the Kabbah led administration decided to go HIPC, Ghaddafi etc. Now the Koroma administration is back to the same “saviors” of the Salone economic woes help. Surely, they will, like their predecessor, come back with the ame prescription.
The reason for this article is not to re-litigate the past, or blame the two administrations for criticizing the other and doing the same. The reason is a call on the government to re-examine the structural problems of our economy that has hampered development for five decades now.
It is time for us to call on the government to stop racking up mountains of debts for our future children and grand children. The least we can do for the future generation of Sierra Leoneans is to leave them an economy they can manage and live in prosperity.
It is against this back drop that we should first commend the Kabbah’s administration for reducing our annual deficit to less than 10% in 2007. We were expecting the Koroma’s administration to follow that path, but we have seen the opposite with inflation, foreign exchange and poverty increasing.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg, to address our long term economic deficit and debt; it is time to address the ever growing imports of agricultural produce in the country. Some of which the country has the potentials, if not the capacity, to become a net exporter. Sierra Leone import millions of dollars of rice, chicken, sugar and juice every year from China and other Asian countries, while we sit on the most fertile lands of West Africa and has the potential to be a net export of agricultural items.
It is a known fact that it takes a lot of courage from whoever is in State House to do this because the donors would not allow it. They would threaten to cut off our lines of credit if we refuse to allow their “right” to use us as a dumping ground for their exports. This is evident in the implementation of GST that was forced down our throat by DfID at such astronomical percentage. Also, it is a known cliché among our leaders to own the already discarded Reagan republican mantra of less government and more privatization around the world, or what came to be known as the Washington Consensus.
Even though the Asian Tigers and the Chinese development model had long laid to rest the false assumption that it is only the private sector that could lead an economy to growth and development. After several experts have researched and written about this model and its failure to address the challenges of the developing world, particularly Africa. Even the United States, the power house of Adam Smithian global capitalism of less government and more privatization, is beginning to back off from the Washington Consensus because it did not work and has not produced the desired results. We all saw and felt the pinch of it when the global recession hit wave came pounding us.
But it is common among our politicians to hear, “the private sector is the engine of our growth.” The point is that the private sector could be our engine of growth only if we have a private sector. The fact is that Sierra Leone does not have a private sector strong enough to lead our growth and to compete in an ever competitive global economy. Our suggested model is simple; government should do what works and stop what does not. Government can act through targeted investment and incentives to stimulate and develop a viable private sector capable of competing in a global economy.
We can start in the agric sector, where our people know best. Over 60% of our population are farmers and rural dwellers. The government should impose taxes on rice and other agricultural imports into the country, and use the proceeds to invest in our local farmers. Government can provide incentives to our farmers to come together as co-operatives and through government support engage in large scale farming. Government can buy modern farming implements and allow small scale farmers to rent them at a subsidize rate during the farming season in all farming villages across our country, not on political regions or tribe.
Government can encourage small businesses that produce stuff through tax and borrowing incentives to expand and grow. We can reform our land laws to allow Sierra Leoneans willing to go into agriculture to do so easily. We can partner with other African countries and increase exports to our neighbors.
By doing this, we are not only going to reduce our debt and deficits, but we will increase production, increase employment, and above all be self reliant. It sickens many of us if we see our government officials, cup in hand, in many foreign capitals begging for aid. It is degrading to us for others to pity us all the time, and assume we can’t make it without their assistance.
A cursory examination of our budgets whether in an SLPP or APC administration, is deep holes usually filled by foreign aid. It seems our governments cannot function without the injection of foreign capital in the form of aid in our economy. What happens if we wake up one fine morning and there is no longer foreign aid coming our way? This scenario will destabilize our economy, damage our government’s ability to function, and God forbid, we can become a failed state. There are already signs of this happening. The economies of our major donors and aid givers are already shrinking. Our entire donors are more worried about fixing their economies than our poverty. Some had even announced budget cuts, including foreign aid.
There are local ways to resolve these problems. Government can find ways to cut spending and increase local revenue generation. The number of trips made by ministers especially the Information Minister is not economically viable for the country’s spending. Less than 10% of Sierra Leoneans pay their taxes. Government can move to reform our tax system so that more Sierra Leoneans would pay their fair share of taxes. The obvious fact is we should try to restore our independence and not remain captive of foreign institution, whose main objective is make us addicted to foreign aid.
Some would argue that if we impose tariff on imports from countries like Taiwan, Hong Kong and others they will reciprocate by imposing taxes on our exports to them. The fact is that we don’t export to these countries at all. Our exports to these countries are only a dent as compared to the dumping that they are doing in our economy. We have been reduced to a nation of buyers and retailers of foreign goods. All over the country are small kiosks of retailers of foreign manufactured produce. We cannot buy and sell ourselves in to economic prosperity. History thought us that it is production that leads to economic development and prosperity.
The world is moving, and it is doing so very fast. Countries that used to be in our category (third world) are finding their way out of economic backwardness. India, China, South Korea, Malaysia, to mention just a few, have found ways to move millions of their people out of poverty. We can, in small and very simple ways, do the same for its people.
Sierra Leonean politicians and media pundits are very good at litigating the past than doing what is good for their people. They will spend days on end debating which party is better, or more democratic. The media spends months and sometimes years writing about how bad Kabbah or Berewa was whiles in office. These guys are gone; they had served their tenures of office.
It is time to let them go and allow a new administration to forge ahead with the business of the people. The majority of who are languishing in poverty. It is about time our media houses paused their political punditry, and start bringing the predicament of our poor men, women and children in to the political lamplight. Or else democracy itself will be meaningless. Governments are elected to serve their people and advance their interest, and not became captives of some foreign economic institutions.
By Austin Thomas