For several years, Sierra Leone has been rated at the bottom of the Human Development Index as one of the least developed countries. It is one of the smallest (27,925 square miles ) countries in West Africa, with abundant deposits of natural resources such as diamonds, gold, rutile, iron ore, bauxite etc.
It is also blessed with marine resources, vast agricultural fields, beautiful landscape and beaches, a natural harbor, dense forests, flora and fauna, beautiful birds and human resources.
With a population of less than five million people, the country is well placed for its citizens to enjoy an enviable lifestyle in the Sub-region and to be ranked along Singapore and Malaysia.
Unfortunately this is not the case as they lack basic necessities such as adequate shelter, food, access to affordable or free education, good roads and health care, electricity and clean drinking water.
This poor state of affairs could be attributed to tribalism and nepotism, mismanagement, greed and rampant corruption which have plagued the country.
For far too long the country depended on the exploitation of minerals as the major foreign exchange earner and to lure foreign investors.
In the 1970s and early 80s, the economic growth rate slowed because of a decline in the mining sector. Financially disadvantageous exchange rates and budget deficits led to sizeable balance of payments deficits and inflation.
Certain policy responses to external factors as well as implementations of aid projects and policy responses have led to a general decline in economic activity and a serious degradation of economic infrastructures.
The country’s short term prospects depend on continued adherence to International Monetary Fund programs and continued external assistance.
Decades ago, two thirds of the population engaged in subsistence agriculture and although most Sierra Leoneans derive their livelihood from it, agriculture accounts for only 42% of the national income.
In 2003, the SLPP government launched the Food Security Project in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security to increase food and cash crops and improve farmer skills.
The government is also working with several foreign donors to operate integrated rural development and agricultural projects.
All these projects have not been successful as billions of Leones and additional foreign aid have been misappropriated.
Most of the angry and disappointed youths who had taken up farming have abandoned the farms and have joined the thousands of other youths roaming the Streets in the urban areas and too often engage in petty crimes such as pick-pocketing and larceny.
The recent increase in armed robberies and robbery with aggravation are often done by these unemployed youths and also allegedly with the connivance of the Police.
The average wages in 2007 hover around $1-2per day. With such a poor salary structure, the already saturated civil service no longer attracts graduates from the country’s universities, tertiary institutions and young school leavers. Civil Society organizations and other donor agencies have been actively involved in providing local skills training to enable them to engage in profitable small enterprises. Government’s efforts to develop cooperation and small scale enterprises by setting up a Co-operative Bank was also a big failure as government funds and individual deposits were squandered and the Bank closed.
Annual production of diamonds is around $70-$250 million. However only a fraction of this passes through the formal export channels.
In 1999 $1.2million, in 2000-$25 million the balance is smuggled out of the country under arrangements often made by top government officials, the mining companies and foreign dealers.
Since independence, the government has encouraged foreign investment although the business climate suffers from uncertainty and shortage of foreign exchange because of civil conflicts. Investors are however protected by an agreement that allows for arbitration under the 1965 World Bank Convention Legislation which provides for transfer of interest.
The country could have been self sufficient in rice production as far back as the early 70s if proper policies had been laid down to implement research into the different varieties of rice that could be grown in the Eastern and Southern regions of the country.
Even when bumper harvests were realized in certain areas, government officials discouraged their production by failing to pay the farmers so they could get their fingers on the billions of foreign currency allocated for the importation of rice.
Farmers were not only successful in planting rice, they were also encouraged to grow tobacco which attracted British and American companies and a tobacco factory was set up in Freetown for the production of various brands of cigarettes for local consumption and export.
The setting up of the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board to buy produce wholesale from farmers all over the country for export was a big success but the removal of the railway stations which were located along agricultural routes, made it difficult for farmers to pay the exorbitant amounts being charged by lorries to transport their produce to markets all over the country.
Success of the SLPMB was short lived as the government turned its attention to it and virtually siphoned away billions of Leones as loans on the pretext to pay salaries, to buy fuel, and to purchase rice for the country. It became bankrupt, paid redundancy wages to its workers and is now listed as one of the institutions being offered for privatization.
Diamonds were discovered in the Kono District in the 1930s and it brought a big change in the economy of the country. The drift from farm lands to diamond mining areas led to an influx of population and a sharp drop in produce in the country.
Successive governments are still holding on to the Provincial Land Tenure system which puts lands in the Provinces under the custody of chiefs. This has been discouraging people from the Western area interested in investing in agriculture in the Provinces. For reasons best known to them, politicians do not want non-natives to invest in farming in their areas. Some argue that it had helped to prevent the Zimbabwe experience.
Tourism was also a revenue earner but neglect in this area has seen tourists moving to neighboring countries especially The Gambia and Senegal.
The health sector has not been getting proper government budgetary allocation for its smooth running. There are thousands of ghost workers through which corrupt government officials are collecting hundreds of millions of Leones as salaries. Doctors and nurses are poorly paid and hospitals lack equipment, even water and electricity.
Although the government has constructed a number of health centers to take health care services closer to the people in the rural areas, the high rates of mother and infant mortality and increase in HIV/AIDS around the country needs to be addressed.
By Patrick Sogie-Thomas.