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Poverty and Inequality in Sierra Leone

Cultural and Development Essay

Under analysis by the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (World Bank 2005) it was found that 70% of Sierra Leoneans live in poverty. Three quarters of these live in rural areas and yet the inequality gap between the urban and rural populations is still largely prevalent. This essay will explore aspects of poverty and inequality within Sierra Leone and the most important cultural and contemporary reasons that mean such large disparities and suffering still exist today. Firstly the key terms will be defined then the essay will be divided into two main sections. The essay will open with some background on the main historical mechanism of colonialism and will follow onto look how this legacy combined with contemporary factors that have reproduced poverty and inequality socially, economically and politically. Later the essay will explore to what extent contemporary policy attempts, specifically Structural Adjustment Plans, have succeeded in breaking the poverty cycle and reducing inequality.  The essay will be concluded by a concise and critical assessment of the reasons behind the continuing existence of poverty and inequality in Sierra Leone.

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Poverty is a complex term that includes social, economic and political elements (Sabates, R. 2008). It can be absolute or relative, chronic or temporary and is iften associated with inequality (Lok-Dessallien, R. 2000). Inequality is state of being unequal, particularly in rights, status and opportunities (UN 2015) this could mean in living standards, gender and many other metrics.

Sierra Leone was first colonialized by the British in 1787, their influence over hundreds of years affected all aspects of the nation, from trade structure to education system, their influence had impacts which can be strongly related to the continuing existence of poverty and inequality which still exist today despite becoming formally independent in 1961.

Sierra Leone has sustained low literacy rates, in 2013 this was still extremely low at 32.4% (World Bank). The education system based upon the British education system was developed to serve the best interests of the elite, focusing on a Western style curriculum unrelated to the environment of which the majority of students, from the rural areas, were to grow up in. The curriculum focused on learning English (Fyle 1986) rather than skill based learning which would benefit rural children more practically gaining employability opportunities, generate income and alleviate their families from poverty. This concentration upon English language proved to have no utility in problem solving tasks the rural community face, according to the experiment which Scriber and Cole carried out (1981), instead only advantaging those wealthy urban students who would gain return from utilising such verbal explanation. The lack of related curriculum also explains why the highest drop out rates and therefore highest illiteracy rates are in the rural areas, which is actually where the majority of the population live. The rural families, also considered those in the poorest quintile of income, require their children to assist in labour, which is why over 53% of children (World Bank 2014) in the poorest quintile leave education before they complete secondary education. Their lack of completion in education is likely to be encouraged if the benefits are not obtained due to an inadequate, unrelatable curriculum, which means the cycle of subsistence in agriculture keeps these rural communities in poverty. Whereas those in a privileged position of wealth and influence, who first seeked the benefits of colonial education in Freetown, will remain in school and go onto higher education where they can secure the best jobs, resulting in another reason for the widening gap of inequality. The legacy of “general liberal education’ under colonialism, whereby positions such as clerks needed to be filled by a literate individual perpetuates in the universal primary education of today where those rural unprivileged will maintain their place in poverty.

The economic system within Sierra Leone alike the education system, preserves the problems of poverty and inequality within the population, particularly in the rural areas. The dominance of an agricultural based economy highlighted previously, was reverted to after independence, due to an imperial economic structure built only to benefit the colonial power and not to sustain future growth. The system required totally restructuring, which to this day has not been fulfilled. As a result those disparities between rural and urban fostered during colonialism have continued. The disregard of rural areas means their potential in natural resources such as diamond have not been exploited thoroughly. The coastal-based capital and disconnections between rural areas and urban means investment in developing transport and ways to exploit the potential of the hinterlands has never been incentivised. The years of indirect colonial rule meant Sierra Leone didn’t have the knowledge, experience or facilities to manage its disbanded country and its potentials. As a result, the cores of the economy continued where they were most familiar, in the urban politically powerful centres of Freetown, Bo and Kenema (). This colonial originated urban bias where urban centres were favoured as centres of control and economic growth meant the rural peripheries were only further left behind in their development, increasing inequalities and sustaining poverty.

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The divided country economically was also enhanced by the political structure of separate administrative systems during colonialism, which left rural areas with a very limited political voice. The political system established during colonialism was made of a system of Paramount Chiefs who were elected by local Notables. The dominance of ruling class families meant chiefs received little competition and their guaranteed role for life meant they were at liberty to act “despotically” (Jackson and Rosberg 1982:17-19). This created the root of the overwhelming and still existing problem of corruption in Sierra Leone whereby individuals of power failed to act in the best interests of the majority, which of course is the rural population. Instead, they focused upon areas such as Freetown for investment which they would prosper the most, simply widening the gap between rural rich and urban poor. After independence the politics of the nation consisted of the dominance of one party or military rule, which continued to prevent creation of opposition and bred corruption. As Riddell (2005) states, citizens were “actively ripped off” through colonialism and independent governments to date. For example in the healthcare system, drugs which were given as aid ended up in pharmacies to be sold for profit, rather than dispersed to those most in need for free, as organisations like UNICEF had intended. Corruption within systems such as the healthcare system meant they failed to provide the basic medical needs of the poorest citizens, which is a key reason for the continuing existence of poverty. If the breadwinner of the household passed away, the entire household would have less income and could be driven deeper into poverty. Alternatively if they cannot work to the best of their abilities due to illness, they may not be able to earn money through subsistence. Unnecessary expensive healthcare perpetuates inequality also, it is the corrupt individuals within governmental organisations who gain the extra profit to spend on luxuries whilst the poorest suffer and fall further into poverty. It is not only the healthcare system that suffers from corruption; the problem persists through all the systems of this nation. For example transfer of state resources to the elite.

There have been multiple attempts to create a more equal society and reduce the overwhelming amount of poverty in Sierra Leone, these have been sourced from institutions such as the World Bank, however it is debatable how true their impact has really been with their strong neoliberal bias. The Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPS) consisted of loans and later introduced Poverty Reduction Papers, which paralleled closely to the well-known Millennium Development Goals. The implementation of such neoliberal policies is a reason for the continuing existence of poverty and inequality, these generalised policies failed to adapt to the uniqueness of each nations economy and the dictation of an outside nation can be simply considered as a modern practice of colonialism. The interests of the government in gaining political power over the best national economic interests meant practices such as rent-seeking were prioritised, another opportunity for rife corruption. There have been many problems with the SAPS including devaluation, where the value of local currency has been reduced in attempt to make exported goods more affordable but the knock on effect is that the prices of non-traded items are increased. This means household or farming essentials eg. Rat traps can become too expensive thus reducing crop yield and profit. As a result the poorest rural communities reliant upon agriculture have been forced to forage for bush yam, which is usually regarded as a famine food, prior to the harvest of July, as early as April which is planting time, this is an example of the dire poverty continuing year on year. Along with this the SAP have removed subsidies on crops such as rice,in combination with the floating of the Leone this led to a significant price increase, donor food is intended to keep the rice price low however this often only reaches the likes of Freetown and urban pillars so rural outlets are susceptible to retailers pricing considerably above ‘official prices’. This again makes goods unaffordable for rural communities and forces them further into poverty and widens the gap in inequality between urban and rural areas.

The reasons for the continuing existence of poverty and inequality are highly complex and overlapping in nature. Although the colonial legacy had profound social, economic and political effects illustrated in this essay which still exist today, other historical reasons since independence such as the civil war from 1991 to 2002 along with a multitude of disease, including the Ebola Outbreak of 2014 have added to the difficulty to break the cycle of poverty and inequality.

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