article

04.29.09

Africa's Surprise Success Story

Writing from Africa, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair says Sierra Leone, the once war-torn nation now reinventing itself as a tourist destination, can serve as a model for developing nations struggling to weather the economic storm.

Africa may have escaped the initial shock of the global financial crisis, but it is not being spared from its knock-on effects. Foreign investment is drying up, aid budgets are being slashed, remittances are down, and NGOs are struggling to raise funds.

Charity is not a viable path to development at the best of times, but that is even more true today. Nervous investors and cash-strapped donors alike are going to be expecting a lot more for their money.

Speaking to the entrepreneurs on Lumley Beach in Freetown, I was struck by the ambition of their plans and their optimism about the future.

The developing countries that weather the economic storm most successfully will be those that have a positive, coherent, and ambitious vision for the future, and can show they are serious about implementing it.

Sierra Leone, which I am visiting this week and where a team from my Africa Governance Initiative is helping to attract investment and strengthen the capacity of the government, is one such country.

President Ernest Koroma is determined to end his country’s dependence on foreign aid. By developing its private sector, he wants Sierra Leone to grow its own way out of poverty. With 57 percent of Sierra Leoneans living on less than a dollar a day, the scale of the challenge is immense. But so is the scale of the opportunity. From agriculture and fisheries to services and tourism, Sierra Leone has huge untapped potential.

Take tourism. In the 1970s and 1980s, Sierra Leone had a thriving tourism industry. Then the country’s economic collapse and decade-long civil war drove the tourists away—many of them to neighboring Gambia, which now attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, mostly Europeans in search of winter sun.

But the fundamentals that made Sierra Leone an attractive tourist destination originally remain strong: mile upon mile of unspoiled beaches, beautiful tropical islands, opportunities for world-class recreational fishing and diving, and a rich cultural and historical legacy linked to its role in the slave trade and beyond.

Seven years after the end of the war, Sierra Leone is thriving and the tourists are starting to come back. For the time being, it is more a trickle than a flood. But speaking to the entrepreneurs on Lumley Beach in Freetown, I was struck by the ambition of their plans and their optimism about the future. New hotels and facilities are being built in anticipation of the increase in visitors they expect in years to come.

With industry leaders starting to sit up and take notice of Sierra Leone once again, they will not have to wait for long. Lonely Planet recently named Sierra Leone one of its top 10 countries to visit in 2009. Bradt Travel is bringing out the first guidebook dedicated solely to Sierra Leone. And you can now fly direct to Sierra Leone from Europe in six hours.

Other post-conflict countries, such as Mozambique and Rwanda, have shown that tourism can generate revenue of well over $100 million. Sierra Leone has a chance to follow in their footsteps, with tourism potentially overtaking diamonds as the country's largest foreign-exchange earner.

Few in Sierra Leone expect things to be smooth sailing. The country still faces many challenges. It needs to improve its energy infrastructure and road networks, tackle appalling maternal- and child-health indicators, and address skills shortages and corruption in the public sector. The Africa Governance Initiative is working side-by-side with our counterparts in the government of Sierra Leone to help make this happen.

But amid the gloom of the world economy, we must not lose sight of the fundamental causes for optimism. Africa’s recent economic performance is one of the untold success stories of recent years. In 2006, foreign investment in Africa exceeded aid for the first time. While it will not escape the financial crisis completely, Africa is better placed to cope with it than anyone would have imagined 20 years ago.

Nowhere is that more true than Sierra Leone. A few years ago, the country was just emerging from war. Today, with the commitment of its leaders, the determination of its people, and the support of its friends, it has every prospect of a bright future.

Tony Blair is founder of the Breaking the Climate Deadlock initiative to work for a new global deal for a low carbon future and the former prime minister of Great Britain.