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Dr Malte Gerhold Headshot

Delivery and Democracy in Sierra Leone

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In the week that Kenyans went to the polls I was reminded of a morning three months ago walking through the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone. The pace of the country's capital was not at its usual frantic level. Queues were steadily forming around voting booths, observers busy checking materials, and polling station staff working from morning to late into the night. It was the 17 November 2012, election day in Sierra Leone. A week later, after a process that the international community, including the EU, Commonwealth and the Carter Center, acknowledged as free and credible, President Ernest Bai Koroma was formally sworn in for a second and final term.

The president ran his campaign on the platform "I will do more", in areas like energy, agriculture, education and health. He also made it the theme of his inauguration speech a couple of weeks ago, calling on the country that now is the time that "everybody must do more".

In a country where regional and tribal loyalties can still play a significant role in elections, this is worth pausing on. Many other factors will have contributed to the president's re-election, from around 51% in 2007's second round to 58% in 2012's first round. But the seed of an election based on issues may have been planted, as these two excerpts from AP and AFP suggest:

...a landlord said that while he wasn't a fan of the governing party it had earned his vote through their public policy improvements. "He told us he was going to give us light -- he gave us light."

...a building contractor [said] 'Now Sierra Leone is a better place for me and the development is right on track.' [But] Koroma 'has to do more, it doesn't take (only) five years to change a whole country. I would like to see more development... good healthcare, good education.'

Others disagreed, arguing that an opposition government could have made faster progress on schools, on jobs and on sanitation. Unemployment is estimated above 50% for those under 35, and adult literacy and life expectancy remain among the lowest in the region.

Either way, this emerging change, even if only for parts of the debate, is an important achievement. Democracy can only take hold if citizens believe their vote makes a difference to what governments do, and if governments believe that changes on the ground make a difference to how citizens vote. Delivery and democracy form a virtuous circle.

The commitment to "do more" is now the standard against which President Koroma will be measured. Second term governments notoriously face a much less patient public, and so the country will expect him to do just that. His vision is for Sierra Leone to achieve middle income country status - in terms of both income and development - by 2035. This is ambitious. But growing income and better services are what citizens demand, and with the rising revenues expected from natural resources it may well be possible.

African countries are looking to raise their economic game. The MDGs have set the bar for human development, but it is jobs and growth that more and more are at the forefront of Government agendas as they look to generate the revenue required to move beyond aid. In Sierra Leone the government's reforms in free healthcare for mothers and young children would not be possible without the support of the donor community, but - even ignoring the on-going economic crisis in Europe and elsewhere - this financial assistance cannot last forever.

This means a new focus on generating and sustaining growth through the private sector. Governments, big employers themselves, cannot create sustained economic growth through public sector jobs alone. And often their balance sheets are too small to sustain the heavy borrowing required for large scale infrastructure investments, like power plants, without entering private/public partnerships. So they cannot do without the private sector, both foreign investors with the capital to kick-start infrastructure, and domestic businesses to meet new demand for local inputs. Governments can and should, therefore, focus on eliminating the barriers to a vibrant private sector, needed for longer-term economic growth.

In 2012 Sierra Leone's economy grew by 21%, driven by a flourishing mining sector, and is expected to grow by more than 10% each year until at least 2015. The agribusiness sector in oil palm and sugar cane is growing fast, the Government has launched a new cocoa and rice investment campaign, and the EU certification for fish exports is within sight. Several international hotel chains are also eyeing up Sierra Leone.

The regional market matters for this. Businesses looking to invest do not just look at the conditions in Sierra Leone, but also how it compares to its neighbours. This does not have to mean fierce competition, but can be an opportunity for regional trade. Intra-Africa trade is only 15% of the continent's total trade. Compare that with 50% in Asia. A strengthened role for the Mano River Union (between Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Ivory Coast) and for ECOWAS may be such an opportunity.

So the conditions are right for Sierra Leone to make strides towards growth and jobs from domestic manufacturing, services and exports. But many challenges to achieving this still need to be resolved, including improved transport infrastructure, reliable power distribution, and better quality education. This is what it now means to "do more" for Sierra Leone. Both development and democracy demand it, and voters of Sierra Leone - and across Africa - are right to expect it.