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Still last on human development index

A patient holds her new born baby in ward in a hospital in Freetown, capital city of Sierra Leone. February 2008.
(Manoocher Deghati/IRIN)

For the second consecutive year Sierra Leone has come last in the UN Development Programme ranking of human development indicators of 179 countries.

Some analysts say Sierra Leone is nonetheless advancing in some areas and that the impact of the country’s 11-year civil war must be taken into account for a full measure of progress.

The UN human development index measures development based on three principal dimensions: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living. These are measured by life expectancy at birth; adult literacy and combined gross enrolment in primary, secondary and tertiary education; and per capita income in terms of purchasing power.

Life expectancy in Sierra Leone is 42, or just over half of the life expectancy in the top 20 ranked countries. Just 25 percent of women are literate, with the level at just 37 percent for the entire population.

“Sierra Leone’s placing on the index should be a call to action for everyone who is interested in the well-being of ordinary people in Sierra Leone,” Engilbert Gudmundsson, World Bank Sierra Leone country director, told IRIN.


Sierra Leone’s maternal mortality indicators – the highest in the world – continue to drag the country down, according to UNDP-Sierra Leone deputy country director Samuel Harbor. Of every 100,000 live births, 1,800 women die according to the UNDP figures, while one in four children die before they reach age five.

While Sierra Leone emerged from conflict almost a decade ago, progress in rehabilitating the economy and building up basic health and education services has been slow, says West Africa regional World Bank country director, Ishac Diwan.

But the government is making progress on maternal mortality, says UNDP’s Harbor. The government has developed a maternal and child health strategy and is collaborating closely with partners, including UNDP, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and the African Development Bank.

The strategy involves decentralizing health services, which has been slow-going, according to Harbor. “Local councils are new in Sierra Leone – these institutional arrangements have just been put in place, so it will take time.”

The African Development Bank is helping supply district services with drugs and equipment, and the World Bank’s Diwan said there are more trained nurses in district clinics, and in some areas, clinics where previously there were none.

The latest UN-government figures on maternal and child mortality are expected to be published in a March 2009 health and demographic survey.


Just half of Sierra Leone’s primary schools are functioning, many of them in inadequate conditions, and secondary school attendance is still only at 44 percent, according to the UN.

But World Bank figures state 100 percent enrolment levels at primary school up from 64 percent in 2004.

The government is running a national Education and Youth Development Programme to maintain high primary enrolment figures and reduce the gender gap in schools.

But the government is cash-strapped. “Sierra Leone is very poor, so simply put, the ability of the government to put in place development measures is very limited,” said Richard Moncrieff, West Africa regional director of think-tank the International Crisis Group.

More coordinated support

To move beyond piecemeal progress, donors need to switch from funding individual projects to channeling money directly through the government, Diwan said.

“The government needs national education and health strategies, and to do this we need to increase the money going through government channels,” he told IRIN.

For Moncrieff, the priority should be to boost revenue by developing the agricultural sector, which contributes to 40 percent of the economy. To date the agriculture sector has been hampered by poor infrastructure, lack of equipment and poor market conditions, according to the World Food Programme.

President Ernest Bai Koroma, elected in 2007, is focusing the government’s development energies on power supply, but making agriculture more efficient and boosting production is next on his list, said Diwan.

Apples with apples

Abdoulaye Sireh Jallow, senior economist with UNDP, said rather than comparing Sierra Leone’s development to countries with long-established institutions in place, it is better to compare its progress since it emerged from conflict.

“This will give you a very different picture than the one we see in the HDI,” he told IRIN. “The government is making an effort and we should focus on incremental improvements that have been made and call on partners to build on this progress. Acknowledging this could make a world of difference to turn the tide around.”

Sierra Leone has substantial mineral and agricultural resources but the 1991-2002 war devastated the economy, destroyed infrastructure, and diminished agricultural productivity by forcing people off their land, according to WFP.

According to Alison Kennedy, UNDP statistics chief, this year’s HDI trends are broadly the same as previous years: “Countries where human development indicators were rising steadily are still doing so, and where there was stagnation or a decline [as with Sierra Leone], this is still the case.”

Of the 26 countries designated as having “low human development” in the latest HDI, 12 are in West Africa.

A child born in any of the top 20 countries on the HDI index can expect to live to at least 80 years, but if she or he is born in one of the bottom 26, life expectancy is no more than 49.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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