After spending a decade embroiled in a brutal civil war, Sierra Leone emerged feeling fresh and recently held an equitable, peaceful and well-organized elections. Carol Lancaster, a visiting fellow for the Center for Global Development, wrote an essay after returning from the nation known as Lion Mountain, the poorest country in the world (according to the United Nations Development Programme).
Here are some highlights of the report, which are all quotes:
- The first thing that strikes the visitor to Freetown, the capital, is the extensive slums, the run down buildings and above all, the abysmal condition of the roads. The roads get worse as one travels up country. Only four wheel drive vehicles can survive there and even those frequently break down because of the enormous potholes and mud traps that have never been fixed.
- Living conditions in the countryside are even more basic—the country has reverted to a subsistence economy after once having been an exporter of agricultural goods. But even if farmers produced enough to export today, it is difficult and expensive to get their products to market with the vanishing roads.
- There is little manufacturing, little tourism (despite the attractive beaches outside of Freetown), and little private investment outside of mining.
- Why is a country with so much potential so desperately poor? Disastrous governance, sustained over many decades is the short answer, exacerbated by the existence of diamonds. Whatever the structure of government—whether it has been democratic, a one party state or a military junta (and it has been all of these since independence) —governance has been about elites enriching themselves and their patronage networks with little effort to use the country’s resources for the good of its people.
Finally, Lancaster provides this little nugget.
- [T]here really is not a viable alternative to democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, even if it is illiberal and flawed initially. In no case on the continent have authoritarian governments spurred sustained growth and development; indeed, they have often blocked economic progress as the political constraints on their leaders and elites have decayed with their emphasis on centralized control, on secrecy, on repression and on enriching themselves. There have been no authoritarian economic miracles in Africa like Korea, Chile or Taiwan and there are not likely to be, given the poverty, the weak bureaucracies, ethnically divided societies, and social pressures on politicians to direct public resources to their families, clans, regions and ethnic groups, and, of course, to their patronage networks. Democracy at least forces governments to be more transparent and less repressive even if it doesn’t guarantee probity, the rule of law and rapid economic progress.