FREETOWN, January 28, 2010—The civil war in Sierra Leone ended seven years ago and this African nation has since made major strides toward restoring basic services and implementing key institutional reforms. In spite of this, Sierra Leoneans are still struggling to leave behind their recent past and the appalling images which the name of the country invokes in the imagination of outsiders: blood diamonds and brutality.
Those who sought Sierra Leone’s diamonds and brought the scourge of war to this rich and beautiful country are either dead, in jail or on the run. Now authorities want to move on, recapturing the allure of the past and rebuilding their broken nation. They want to rebrand their country and put it back on a determined path to growth and development.
It is in this context of renewal and change that World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick came to visit Sierra Leone, a country locals affectionately call ‘Salone’.
Repairing a Past, Building a Future
“I have come to listen and learn about where Sierra Leone stands in the reconstruction process,” Mr. Zoellick told audiences at each stop on his January 26-27 visit.
One of those stops was the Bumbuna hydroelectric dam—easily the most important infrastructural investment in the country’s history. The dam is helping Sierra Leone address one of the most debilitating impediments to its economic development: lack of electricity.
In the town of Bumbuna, residents told the president how grateful they are for World Bank-sponsored mitigation measures that have accompanied dam construction. One of these measures is the provision of farming support to the remote hill-top village of Kasokra in the vicinity of the dam. Mr. Zoellick visited the village, where a rice and peanut farm gives villagers not only a source of nutrition but also, for the first time, a reliable source of revenue.
Returning from Bumbuna the same day, Mr. Zoellick also met with Sierra Leone’s civil society leaders in Freetown. The issues discussed ranged from youth unemployment and gender-based violence to microfinance and citizen participation in government. The president answered questions but also offered ideas for addressing issues.
“We will try to put you in touch with a group in India that has taken on the same challenges and achieved some impressive results,” he offered leaders of Sierra Leone’s Women’s Forum, a local group that seeks to empower women and promote gender equality and who’s leaders said they face capacity challenges. Mr. Zoellick expressed the need to link this group to an organization in India which had made great strides in overcoming challenges similar to those faced by the Forum.
Mr. Zoellick suggested possible IFC advisory support on microfinance to another civil society group, the Youth Alliance for Peace and Development and the sharing of reports on tax regimes with yet another.
During his visit to Freetown, Mr. Zoellick also met with Sierra Leone’s Anti Corruption Commission (ACC); a team he said had developed “one of the most integrated systems for fighting corruption that I have seen.”
The Anti Corruption commissioners described their approach to dealing with a deeply ingrained problem in the society. “We want to deal with the systemic issues, not just arrest and lock up people,” one of them said.
The commission has a three-pronged strategy that includes prevention through public education, investigation and prosecution, and has forged alliances with parliament, media and civil society, proposed changes in school curricula to include mining-related skills-building, and received strong public support for its work from the Head of State.
“The prosecutorial powers of the ACC are quite impressive,” World Bank Vice President for Africa Obiageli Ezekwesili, who was traveling with Robert Zoellick, told the commissioners, urging them to “go after the sacred cows” as one way of ensuring the ACC’s credibility with the public.
A Nation and a People in a Hurry
One of Mr. Zoellick’s key meetings while in Freetown was with the country’s President Ernest Koroma and, later on, with the entire government.
“We are pleased with the quality of World Bank assistance,” President Koroma said during their talk, “and support which is in line with our priorities and agenda for change.”
President Koroma then called on his ministers to elaborate on the content and challenges of the partnership with the Bank. What came out was a rich menu of activities and needs that ranged from Bank support for regional infrastructure pools that would include Sierra Leone to advice and capacity building in mineral and other sectors of the economy.
“We are a nation and a people in a hurry,” President Koroma said as the meeting came to a close. He urged the Bank to show some flexibility in its conditionalities and to fast-track some of its initiatives.
Complementing the government on its very ambitious agenda for change, Mr. Zoellick underscored the importance of establishing the fundamentals for economic growth and job creation in the country.
“The steps taken in anti-corruption are fundamental, as is a vibrant press and civil society,” he said.
Mr. Zoellick expressed strong interest in how Sierra Leone, coming out of conflict, had combined security, good governance and economic policies to begin the recovery and reconstruction process. He stressed the need for increased support to private sector development as a means of stimulating economic growth and development in the country; and he suggested that this would be enhanced greatly by implementing needed reforms in the country’s investment climate and addressing wide ranging infrastructure, energy, and training and governance challenges.
Before leaving Freetown for Abidjan, the second leg of his eight-day three-nation trip to Africa, Mr. Zoellick met with business leaders and members of the donor community in Sierra Leone.
In addition to Ms. Ezekwesili, the president was accompanied by Country Director Ishac Diwan, IFC Regional Director for West Africa Yolande Duhem, Sierra Leone Country Manager Engilbert Gudmundsson, and his IFC counterpart, Jumoke Jagun-Dokunmu. From Cote d’Ivoire, Zoellick is scheduled to travel on to Ethiopia.