Sierra Leone remains among the world’s poorest countries, ranking 180th out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index in 2011. Decades of economic decline and 11 years of armed conflict had dramatic consequences on the economy. Poverty remains widespread with more than 60% of the population living on less than US$ 1.25 a day and unemployment and illiteracy levels remain high, particularly among youth. However, Sierra Leone has made considerable progress since the end of the civil war in 2002, consolidating peace, democracy and improving development indicators amid rising rates of economic growth.
In 1787, British philanthropists founded the "Province of Freedom" which later became Freetown, a British crown colony and the principal base for the suppression of the slave trade. By 1792, 1,200 freed slaves from Nova Scotia joined the original settlers, the Maroons. Another group of slaves rebelled in Jamaica and travelled to Freetown in 1800. Through the efforts of men such as William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharpe, Lord Mansfield formed an administration in 1806, which was instrumental in the British Empire’s abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The British established a naval base in Freetown to patrol against illegal slave ships. A fine of £100 was established for every slave found on a British ship.
In 1808, Sierra Leone officially became a crown colony with the land possessions of Sierra Leone Company (formerly known as St George’s Bay Company) transferred to the crown. In 1833, British Parliament passed the Emancipation Act and slavery was finally abolished. By 1855, over 50,000 freed slaves had settled in Freetown. Known as the Krios, the repatriated settlers of Freetown live today in a multi-ethnic country. Though English is the official language, Krio is widely spoken throughout the country allowing different ethnic groups a common language.
Sierra Leone gained independence from the British on April 27th 1961. Since independence, the country has experienced many challenges in the social, economic and political spheres. From 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone was devastated by civil war after a rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front, intervened in an attempt to overthrow the country’s Joseph Momoh Government. The conflict, which lasted from 1991 to 2002, was characterized by acts of extreme brutality and resulted in over 50,000 deaths and the displacement of over 2 million people. A UN Peacekeeping and subsequent British military intervention resulted in the war being declared over on January 18th 2002. The country has made tremendous strides since the cessation of conflict to establish good governance and consolidate peace and security, and is often cited as a success story in peacebuilding.
Despite Sierra Leone’s important progress in consolidating peace and strengthening democracy since the end of the conflict in 2002, it places low in the human development category, ranking 180th out of 187 countries and territories. While life expectancy has increased from 39 years in 2000 to 48 years in 2012, around 60% of the population lives below the national poverty line.
Although Sierra Leone has experienced positive economic growth in the past decade, the country remains heavily dependent on aid, with about 50% of public investment programmes financed by external resources. Inflation remains high due to internal factors and external disturbances, including rising food and fuel prices. Despite improved domestic revenue mobilization, including through the introduction of a goods and services tax, the fiscal deficit widened in 2011 due to a higher wage bill, fuel subsidies and spending on infrastructure projects.
A combination of factors is holding back the further economic recovery of the country. These include a largely unchanged economic structure at low levels of productivity, with agriculture remaining the mainstay of the economy (46% of Gross Domestic Product) and providing employment for about 75% of the rapidly growing population; inequalities in life expectancy, gender, education and income; an inadequate, poorly maintained infrastructure; shortcomings in the business climate despite recent gains; and, as a consequence of these factors, a small private sector.
The youth population, aged 15-35, comprises one third of the population of Sierra Leone and youth unemployment was a major root cause of the outbreak of civil conflict in Sierra Leone. Approximately 70% of youth are underemployed or unemployed and an estimated 800,000 youth today are actively searching for employment. Furthermore, illiteracy remains a persistent challenge and youth that lack that skills and education find it extremely difficult to compete for the limited jobs available.
Sierra Leone has a Gender Inequality Index value of 0.662, ranking 137th out of 146 countries in 2011, reflecting significant gender-based inequalities in reproductive health, empowerment and economic activity. In Sierra Leone, 13.2% of parliamentary seats are held by women and 9.5% of adult women have reached a secondary or higher level of education compared to 20% of their male counterparts. For every 100,000 live births, 970 women die from pregnancy related causes.
Recovery and development are also threatened by vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters. Climate change will lead to low yields of critical crops and, potentially, an annual loss of between $600 million and $1.1 billion in crop revenues by the end of the century. Water, soil and forest resources are threatened by population growth, the dependence of energy consumption on biomass (80% of the total), unsustainable mining activities, pollution of rivers, and rising demands from agribusiness, resulting in massive deforestation (3,000 hectares per annum) and increased vulnerability to soil erosion and landslides.
Sierra Leone has made significant progress over the past decade in terms of post-conflict recovery and is now firmly on the path towards the further consolidation of peace and democracy and long-term sustainable development. The post-conflict economic performance of Sierra Leone has been strong. Growth in Gross Domestic Product picked up from 4.5% in 2010 to 5.3% in 2011, with positive contributions from all sectors of the economy. Real Gross Domestic Product is projected to expand by a staggering 50% in 2012, driven by a jump in iron ore production, but even without that the economy is projected to grow by 6% per annum on average during 2012-2014.
With the successful conduct of the 2002 and 2007 general elections, Local Council Elections in 2008 and a number of by-elections held in recent years, Sierra Leone has made important gains in the strengthening of its post-conflict democracy and progress towards self-sufficient administration of its electoral system. On November 17 2012, Sierra Leone’s Electoral Management Bodies conducted free, fair and peaceful Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Council elections, and the first time that the National Electoral Commission has taken a leading role in organizing and executing the polls. The high voter turnout, with 87% of eligible voters exercising their right, was a clear sign of the country’s strong commitment to continued peace, good governance and development.
The institutional frameworks and capabilities needed to secure greater peace and respect for human rights have been improved in recent years, for instance, through the use of creative approaches such as ‘Saturday Courts’ which help to address the substantial backlog of sexual and gender-based violence cases in the country. As a sign of its commitment to reduce the gender gap and empower women, the Government introduced three Gender Laws in 2007 (Domestic Violence Act 2007, Devolution of Estates Act 2007, Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act 2007) and the President gave his support to the national campaign for a minimum quota of 30% of women in political decision making positions.
Government commitment to Public Sector Reform has been promising, and a combination of measures bringing together diaspora experts, training and recruiting mid-level technical experts and implementing performance management and performance contracting systems have been introduced. In addition, improved local governance and local economic development practices has led to increased revenues at the Local Council level, and the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development has enhanced its functioning through the establishment of the National Association of Local Councils.
Finally, the establishment of the National Youth Commission in 2010 was an important first step in beginning to reverse the negative youth employment trend in light of its coordinating role in strategic planning and policy development to create more youth employment opportunities in Sierra Leone.