- Thirty of Sierra Leone's development partners have met in London to discuss the aid level for the world's poorest country for 2005–2007. The donor countries pledged to support Sierra Leone with a total of US$ 800 million during the period, with funds mainly directed towards poverty reduction. Donors failed to put pressure on President Ahmad Kabbah to democratise the country and to fight corruption.
Donors from the so-called Consultative Group for Sierra Leone have met in London this week to agree on the aid level and policies for the country. At the two-day meeting, each of the thirty donor countries pledged their financial support for Sierra Leone's poverty reduction strategy 2005-07. Aid was also to be better coordinated, donors promised.
Three key themes of the discussions were food security, employment - particularly youth employment - and governance. Development partners expressed their support in Sierra Leone government programmes to address these issues. President Kabbah was praised for the government's poverty reduction strategy.
Human rights groups hoping that Sierra Leone's poor state of democracy would become a major issue were however disappointed. The government had assured the release of editor Paul Kamara - who was in jail for 14 months after having criticised President Kabbah - in time for the donors' conference, thus avoiding the harshest criticism. Focus remained totally on economic issues and Sierra Leone's poor human rights record was a non-issue. Those able to document government corruption were not invited to London.
Still dedicated to reconstruction, Sierra Leone indeed is in need of considerable foreign aid. Donors in London agreed on plans to improve the effectiveness of aid programmes through greater donor coordination and more focus on the government's own poverty reduction strategy.
To provide a good atmosphere, the UN Resident Coordinator in Sierra Leone, Victor Angelo, praised the government's efforts, which however are controversial in Sierra Leone. "The many countries and multilateral organisations represented at this meeting have recognised the tremendous progress achieved by the government and people of Sierra Leone in the short period since the end of the civil war – and given a significant vote of confidence to the government's poverty reduction strategy," said Mr Angelo.
The meeting of Consultative Group for Sierra Leone was co-chaired by the government of Sierra Leone, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) the UN and the World Bank. President Kabbah and Vice President Solomon Berewa led the Sierra Leone delegation.
Since ending its civil war in January 2002, Sierra Leone with the help of UN peacemakers has re-established security and begun the process of restoring public services, the President pointed out. A key achievement had been the successful completion of the first local government elections in 32 years in May 2004.
An annual GDP growth rate averaging about 7 percent over three years since 2002 "emphasises how far the country has progressed," the World Bank said in a statement yesterday. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is predicting future growth of 6-7 percent per year. Sierra Leone, together with Niger, however remains the poorest country in the world.
The World Bank nevertheless has observed much progress since the civil war. "Half a million children have been enrolled in primary school since the abolition of fees in 2002," the Bank noted. Reality in Sierra Leone is however that parents now have to pay teachers instead of paying school fees. The increased school enrollment rather reflects the extremely low level of teaching facilities available during the war.
Child mortality rates, though still among the world’s highest, was "in steady decline with child immunisation rates almost doubling between 1997 and 2004," the Bank added. Nevertheless, just over 70 percent of the country's more than five million inhabitants still live in poverty, on incomes of less than US$ 1 a day and Sierra Leone retains the dubious distinction of featuring 176th out of 177 countries on the UN's Human Development Index.
At the opening of the Consultative Group meeting, Britain's Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn stated that her country's "commitment to Sierra Leone remains strong." Also Ms Benn concluded that Sierra Leone had "made significant progress in rebuilding the general machinery of government and in introducing reforms to help sustain peace, stability and encourage further economic growth."
"The government has demonstrated its commitment to combat corruption by creating an Anti-Corruption Commission and introducing new procurement rules," she noted. "But more work is needed to tackle corruption and ensure that services reach the poor, progress which is essential if the Poverty Reduction Budget Support Programme is to be realised."
President Kabbah responded in his address: "I am fully aware that the biggest concern for many of our development partners is the level of our commitment to fighting corruption and the manner in which we are able to provide demonstrable results in this area. We welcome this concern and wish to assure the donor community and our people that we take the fight against corruption very seriously."
The Sierra Leonean President however has little credibility on that issue in Sierra Leone, himself found guilty of fraud when he worked in the Ministry of Trade in 1968. The current government's normal reaction to corruption revelations in the country's independent press is pressing charges against the journalist writing the article instead of going after the person accused of corruption.
Nonetheless, with no pro-democracy organisations allowed to speak in London, donors were satisfied by President Kabbah's assurances. At the conclusion of the meeting, World Bank Country Director for Sierra Leone Mats Karlsson welcomed the outcome of the talks. "We have made substantial progress here and demonstrated a real commitment to turning a fragile success into a robust one," Mr Karlsson found.
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