Dear readers. Please forgive the long absence, but I am in Africa on a trip: first, to Sierra Leone, and now in Ethiopia. The picture above was taken as our ferry drew away from Freetown port, and headed across the sea to Lunghi airport. Am here as part of a project for the reduction of maternal and newborn mortality in two countries, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia.
Of course here in Africa we are all watching the Eurozone crisis, the floods in Bangkok, the snow in Connecticut, and the upheavals at St. Paul’s
And observing these dramas from the perspective of one of the poorest countries in the world, has been salutary.
As I often mention in my talks, we may deplore our banking system, but countries without sound, well developed banking systems – that work to support development rather than financial elites – suffer quite unnecessary impoverishment and degradation. In Sierra Leone there are very few banks, only one ATM machine (as far as I could see) – and that was not fully trusted by Saloneans as they are known, so I was advised against using it (which may have been unfair). No payments are made by cheque or credit cards; only cash is accepted. But people get by – just – with the little money they can lay their hands on. Money changers operate on the street, and very efficient they are too. Obtaining hard currency from the only bank that supplies such hard currency in Freetown, was something of a feat.
But what really moved me was this simple fact: there is so much to do in Sierra Leone. And so many capable and articulate people to do it.
All they need is money.
And despite the fact that humanity has used and developed credit and money systems for about 5,000 years now…we still cannot manage to build a system that will allow Sierra Leoneans to do what is necessary to maintain dignity and life: namely, work.
Sure, Sierra Leone has a challenging climate: each night rain and thunderstorms – preceded by fearsome winds – swept in from the sea, and thrashed down on Freetown. The thought of poor families with children huddled under leaky corrugated roofs kept me awake and alarmed. The driving rain pours down the mountainsides which Freetown straddles, and systematically undermines roads, making it a major trial each morning to accomplish the simple task of moving from A to B, while keeping one’s humour, clothes and vehicle intact. And yet, and yet: there they were – endless lines of schoolchildren dressed in white plimsolls, white shirts and smart shorts – no doubt washed in the local river and ironed under those corrugated roofs by their mothers – dodging puddles as they marched determinedly to school, confident of a future.
But as things stand that future looks bleak. 60% of Salonean youths are unemployed, according to the government.
So why can’t the IMF and World Bank, and all those accomplished economists that periodically undertake ‘missions’ (a telling word) to Sierra Leone – build an economic and monetary framework that makes it possible for Sierra Leoneans – and their eager schoolchildren – to do what they can do: work? To do what they can do to reconstruct and develop their country? To ‘afford what they can do?’
A distinguished woman member of the British House of Lords (and please readers, help me remember her name) once said: “all the poor need is money”. Sadly, despite their considerable intelligence; their education; their privileges – the world’s economic elite are not capable of creating a framework that provides the poor with the money they need to do what they can do – no more.
Far from creating such constructive frameworks, economists have instead put their minds to building divisive frameworks – such as that of the Eurozone – which cause divergence, rather than convergence; which disrupt rather than unite; which polarise rather than equalise.
It sure is time for a change. And with some luck, the times may be a’changing.