Tony Blair says Sierra Leone’s President Koroma has taken on the challenges faced by his country and is turning political will into real results

Tony Blair with President Koroma at State House

The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in a recent contribution to Britain’s best selling and most reputable newspaper, The Guardian, described the Sierra Leone President, Ernest Bai Koroma, as a visionary leader who has taken on the challenges of his country and is turning political will and international aid into real results on the ground. Tony Blair, who is the first western leader to commit his time, energy and resources to improving the living standards of some in Africa’s poorest countries, started his Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) to help pioneer a new way of working with African countries, equipping committed African leaders with the capacity to deliver the public services which their citizens have a right to expect, to tackle deep-rooted poverty, and to attract the sustainable investment to build strong economies for the future. The highly impressive delivery of vital services, the tackling of corruption, and the unprecedented commitment in helping bring his people out of poverty, has won the Sierra Leone president international acclaim and recognition from around the world.

This is what Tony Blair wrote in The Guardian: 

This year has been remarkable for Africa. Even in these tough times, you can scan the continent and find numerous examples of sustained economic growth. The World Bank now predicts a 21st-century economic takeoff for Africa comparable to that of China, India or Brazil in recent decades. Democracy is also spreading. By December, almost a quarter of sub-Saharan Africa will have gone to the polls since January. And it is no coincidence that we have a new generation of inspirational African leaders in place, making what President Obama has called “the tough choices that will unleash the dynamism of [their] countries”.

In a speech at the Center for Global Development today, I will be reflecting on the visionary African leaders who are tackling poverty by transforming government, and what the international community needs to do differently to support them. Last month, I visited Sierra Leone in my role as patron of the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) and strategic adviser to one of those leaders, President Ernest Bai Koroma. Sierra Leone is rich in natural and human resources, but is also recovering from a decade of brutal conflict. On being elected to office in free and fair elections in 2007, the president knew he needed to make tough choices if he was going to deliver change for his people. Since then, he has taken on the challenges faced by his country, one by one.

First, his government brought light to the darkest city in Africa, when it saw through and finished the Bumbuna hydroelectric dam. Next, he took on healthcare – with some of the worst infant mortality rates in the world, Sierra Leone’s programme to abolish user fees for children under five and pregnant mothers was an ambitious and impressive programme of reform. Six months on, Sierra Leoneans are seeing the results for themselves in their local communities. The number of pregnant women delivering in hospitals has more than doubled and almost a million children are expected to benefit before the end of the year.

Koroma is now turning his attention to agriculture, with his bold Farm for Business programme to help the rural poor move from subsistence farming to selling what they grow in the market. The opportunity for impact is huge: two-thirds of Sierra Leone’s working population are smallholder farmers, and yet 70% of them live below the poverty line. One of our AGI teams is in Freetown supporting the ministry of agriculture, helping it to design and implement the systems that will ensure the programme reaches its intended beneficiaries.

I saw for myself the first results of Farm for Business during a visit to a newly built agricultural business centre in Masiaka district. At first glance, it seemed to be a somewhat unremarkable set of buildings. But speaking to the people there, I saw that these simple structures have the potential to transform the lives of Sierra Leone’s farmers. The planting materials and fertiliser distributed through these buildings will help local farmers increase their yields. The centres will also give them access to storage, and link them up with a rural road network. Crops that were once left to rot will now make it to market. The new rice mill in the building and the drying floor will ensure that rice, the staple food and most widely grown crop, can be processed and sold for a higher price. And with centres like these being constructed across the country, the hope is that the programme will eventually help to lift 80,000 smallholder farming families – about half a million people – out of poverty.

Until recently, agriculture had dropped down the international community’s list of priorities. The proportion of aid allocated to agriculture fell from 17% in 1980 to just 3% in 2005. But programmes like the one I saw in Sierra Leone illustrate why it is so important that agriculture gets back on the agenda. Last year, the UN said that growth in agriculture is at least twice as effective in benefiting the poorest as growth from any other sector.

The good news is that the international community is already responding. The Obama administration’s $3.5bn Feed the Future programme and the $900m Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme are just two examples of the renewed focus on increasing productivity and improving free trade and access to agricultural markets that are crucial to development of the sector.

The challenge for a country like Sierra Leone is turning political will and international aid commitments into real results on the ground, when the skills, systems and processes needed in government to design, implement and monitor an effective programme are in short supply. That’s what AGI is there to help them do. We work in partnership with governments in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Rwanda to help bridge the “implementation gap” between the vision that their leaders have for their country and the capacity they need within the system to turn those goals and priorities into reality.

There has rightly been a focus on governance in recent years as a driver of development. But the governance debate has only captured half of the story. Of course, increasing democracy and accountability, and taking on corruption, are absolutely essential. But if we miss the positive side of the equation, and don’t support visionary African leaders to get things done, then we hold back the development that is the key to Africa’s continued success.

© 2012, Ahmed M Kamara. All rights reserved. – The views expressed here are purely those of the author and not necessarily those of the publishers. – Newstime Africa content cannot be reproduced in any form – electronic or print – without prior consent of the Publishers. Copyright infringement will be pursued and perpetrators prosecuted.

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