When I returned to the UK this April after spending twelve weeks in Sierra Leone, my overall impression was that the country was making firm progress. Since 2001, the country has seen three peaceful elections, the development of an export-led economy and social cohesion between the sixteen ethnic groups which make up the Sierra Leonean population.
During my stay, I lived with a Sierra Leonean family, and my host told me that the country was once the ‘Athens of West Africa’: an attractive centre of commerce, scholasticism and education. After the slave trade was abolished in the early nineteenth century, the country was home to a rich diversity of over one hundred ethnic groups and became the home of ‘free’ Africans. Its abundance of natural resources, tropical climate and geographically advantageous position suggested that the country had huge potential as a developing nation. But that was over a century ago.
This century, Sierra Leone is better known as one of the poorest countries in the world. Just last year, Sierra Leone was ranked bottom in Transparency International’s ‘Global Corruption Barometer’, and in the past five years it has ranked as the least developed country in the world according to the Human Development Index. Too many people still die who shouldn’t. Development is very slow. Many political, physical and economic factors interplay in hindering its progress, particularly the elongated effects of a decade-long civil war, which has been described as the worst genocide in human history.
However, those of us fortunate enough to be able to visit this small, West African country have seen significant changes in Sierra Leone in the past decade as it has began to rebuild itself economically, politically and socially. Eco-tourism was becoming increasingly popular. It’s not surprising – this is one of the most beautiful countries on earth – Sierra Leone’s beaches were once used to film Bounty chocolate bar adverts with the slogan “Welcome to Paradise”. Sport, particularly football, is a huge part of Sierra Leonean culture and women’s football is becoming increasingly popular as a means of female empowerment. Even in a remote village, the kids would tell you who the best player on the Chelsea bench is. Sierra Leone is also a country of overwhelming religious tolerance. Not only are relations between the two main religious groups, Muslims and Christians, cohesive, but during my time living in the country I also learnt that, remarkably, it is not unusual to practice both religions.
Despite this, Sierra Leone has remained one of the world’s least developed countries. The most significant factor in stunting Sierra Leone’s development is the legacy of what was arguably the most destructive civil war in history, caused by government and resource conflict. Eleven years after it broke out, in 2001, Tony Blair sent over 17,000 foreign troops to Sierra Leone to disarm tens of thousands of rebels and militia fighters in one of his most successful foreign policies. The effects of the war are still visible today, particularly in virtue of the lack of infrastructure, mass number of amputees, and the great amount of Sierra Leonean refugees still displaced in neighbouring countries. Sierra Leone once had an established road network, airport and railway system, but since the war the railways have been destroyed and only a few tarmacked roads remain. In the last century, some seedling forms of transport and infrastructure have developed, but this has ground to a halt as Ebola has now prevented any international flights altogether.
Sierra Leone’s natural resources are being rapidly depleted. Deforestation is occurring at unprecedented speeds in the country’s rainforests, and international mining companies are exhausting the country’s precious resources causing land degradation. Whilst the foreign direct investment into Sierra Leone’s resources should be generating jobs, stimulating economic growth and attracting both new skills and technologies to finance transport infrastructure, this is not happening. Instead, foreign enthusiasm for economic development is in effect limited to the facilitation of resource extraction.
Social factors have also hindered Sierra Leone’s development. Since 2001, the country’s rapidly expanding population has resulted in record breaking levels of poverty and narrowing economic growth in per capita terms. Gender inequality is also a major barrier to development, as women are denied equal access to education, employment and personal development. This eliminates a large proportion of the potential workforce, lessens productivity and holds back economic activity. Half as many women as men are literate, and it is common for husbands to beat their wives and children (a recent UNICEF report found that 73 per cent of Sierra Leonean women felt their partners were justified in beating them if they left the house without telling them). Furthermore, in Sierra Leone, female genital mutilation is almost universally prevalent, experienced by 95 per cent of the female population.
Just as the negative sphere of media coverage which surrounds its fierce history seemed to be fading, and development has began to lift, in Sierra Leone, Ebola has struck. The country is bearing the brunt of this global health emergency which is swooping through West Africa at an unprecedented speed, declared by the World Health Organisation as the “largest, most severe and most complex outbreak in the nearly four-decade history of Ebola”. Having already accounted for four thousand deaths, borders have been closed. Airlines have stopped flying. People are house-bound. This is yet another crisis which will serve to stagnate the country’s development, entrenching it as one of the poorest countries in the world and contributing to its reputation as an undeveloped, poorly functioning mess.
But what will the effect of Ebola be? Labour supply and outputs will fall due to sickness and death of workers; the financial burden on the health system will be huge; borders have been closed for trading. For fear of contagion people will move away from infected zones, leading to mass displacement. This movement is hard to track as few people have passports and there is limited census data. The main industries which will be hit are mining and agriculture. Sierra Leone’s small but sustainable tourism industry will take years to recover even once the outbreak is contained.
Questions continue to be asked about what the country itself, as well as the global development agenda, could have done to temper the force of this outbreak.
For me, the answer is simple. Global health cannot rest on vertical interventions – boxes of medical equipment or vaccine vials. Instead, we need ground-level investment into health systems. Until this happens, the poorest countries will be continually knocked back every time real pressure is put on their systems, let alone a crisis of this size. Sierra Leone is not a weak or feeble country. It is a strong country, full of strong people. I am hopeful that once Ebola is controlled and the rebuilding of their health system begins, a brighter future will emerge for both themselves and their beloved country.