Tuesday 4 December 2007

Yep, I've fallen in love...

Sierra Leone is perhaps the most amazing place I have ever been to. Friendly, warm, positive... And yet it is racked by the most endemic poverty, corruption and lowest wage levels I have seen.

In terms of all international indices and assessments Sierra Leone is near the bottom of the chart and yet when you are there it doesn't feel like that.

Don't get me wrong - the poverty is highly visible - and indeed I went down the back streets, into the slums and it is truly upsetting and stark. But people are positive, engaging and amazingly positive.

I was first there before the election had really started, but then returned to see the country during the election - few places are so political, seeing politics as a solution, engaging with the process.

Of course, Sierra Leone has a positive relationship with the UK massively enhanced by our role during the war and in particular in taking on the West Side Boys in 2001, but I can honestly say that in our own small way, we as a delegation felt useful.

The work was coordinated by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and we appear to be the only group working directly with the political parties.

There are essentially three large parties now - SLPP (Sierra Leone People's Party), APC (All People's Congress) and the PMDC (Peoples Movement for Democratic Change). The latter - the PMDC - are a new party led by Charles Margai and they eventually led the campaign for change - SLPP have been in power - and amazingly Sierra Leone has voted for change. There is now a coalition of APC and PMDC and the transition of power has been largely peaceful.

The new president Ernest Bai Koroma has a huge responsibility driving forwards change, but he seems to be up for the task and a great advocate for the country to enable them to move forward.

Quite what happens next precisely however is the unknown bit - can the new government tackle the endemic corruption, can living standards increase, can the tax and administrative mechanisms be embedded..? All is possible and there is great optimism, I just hope that it works.

Of course, the other (often unspoken) element is that there is a vast diaspora from Sierra Leone, especially here in London and so much hinges on their reactions and impressions.

The potential for international investment is huge, and I noticed China the other week formalising links with the new Government.

It's a country I want to keep in touch with and am planning a holiday trip sometime in the New Year... Having been around the major population centres (Freetown, Bo, Makeni and Kenema) I now want to see something of the rural areas especially in the deep south and the islands around Bonthe if possible.

For an introduction to Sierra Leone I started on Ismail Beah's memoirs of a boy soldier - it's tough and in places harrowing, but probably the best all round view of what the country has gone through - and yet still retains it's optimism.

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