Sierra Leone at 50: A Time for Reflection

Sierra Leone, my home country,  celebrates 50 years of independence from the United Kingdom today. Amidst the celebrations of this important milestone, there is controversy.  In an op-ed piece I wrote for Critique Echo, a German-Sierra Leonean newspaper, I argued against the emphasis on celebration, and instead, called for a period of national reflection. I highlighted the monumental task facing the country, comparing life for the average Sierra Leonean today and at independence in 1961. For example, In the year immediately after independence, Sierra Leone’s GDP was $142.73 per capita. If you adjust that for inflation, it would be roughly $1029.88 in 2011.Today; Sierra Leone’s GDP is around $903, a difference of about $126.88.This means that we are significantly poorer now, than we were 50 years ago.

I concluded that it is more patriotic to emphasize stocktaking and learning from our past mistakes with a view of remedying our situation than just putting a focus on celebration. You can read the full article here.

A Tea Party with Snacks—The Libertarian Obstacle to Sound Public Health Policy

First Lady Michelle Obama’s signature policy initiative Let’s Move! received fresh support in the form of performing artist Beyonce, who released her “Let’s Move” workout video on Tuesday, timed to generate support for a national “dance-in” on May 3rd.  Let’s Move!, a campaign to wipe out the childhood obesity epidemic in a generation, marked its first anniversary earlier this year, with school cafeterias across the country now offering more healthy alternatives while reducing the availability of unhealthy choices.  Let’s Move! directs public health policy in schools to improve the health of children through good nutrition and physical activity.  Yet the campaign is not without its detractors, specifically those aligned with libertarian or minarchist ideologies, who criticize as unconstitutional the elements of the campaign they perceive to impinge upon individual freedoms. Continue reading “A Tea Party with Snacks—The Libertarian Obstacle to Sound Public Health Policy”

How Do You Turn around a Failed State?



Guinea president-elect Alpha Conde, REUTERS/Joseph Penney

How do you turn around a failed state?

For the first time in a generation, Guinea successfully held free and fair presidential elections. The June 2010 elections were held shortly after the death of Guinea’s long time dictator, Lansana Conte, who ruled the impoverished West African country for almost a quarter of a century. While the transition period was chaotic—resulting in the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people—power was successfully transferred to the opposition leader Alpha Conde. With this historic milestone, the country starts to turn the corner from years of authoritarian repression and ethnic rivalries to the difficult process of building a sustainable democratic nation.

The difficult question for Guineans now is, how do you turn around a failed state?

There is no simple answer, just as there exists no ready-made template for a country that was little more than a “shell of a state.” Still, it is important to look at examples from Guinea’s immediate neighbors, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the difficult process they are going through to build sustainable democratic nations. Each of these traumatized countries is slowly building a system that can withstand the stresses and temptations of ethnic and regional rivalries. The conflicts in these countries had ethnic undertones, which were exploited for decades by autocrats with patronage. Even after the end of their civil wars, progress to building coherent democratic states is still hampered by the same ethnic and regional rivalries.

While Guinea did not go through a civil war, it suffers from the same legacy after decades of political unease between the two major ethnic groups, the Peul and the Malinke. This was made very clear during the transitional period as the majority of the population voted along mostly ethnic lines. The violence, which mired that period, had ethnic and regional undertones too, and it almost tore the country apart.

In addition to these ethnic and regional mixes, the poverty, corruption, collapse of institutions and infrastructure, and a tendency to roll back years of hard-earned progress with abrupt and sudden move towards violence, the country—not to mention its international partners—is presented with important tests. Liberia and Sierra Leone are all examples Guineans should really look at as they embark on a similar journey. For a critical look at Liberia’s experience with post conflict reconstruction, see this report by the Stanley foundation on the Wider Lessons for Peace Building and Security Sector Reforms in Liberia. For Sierra Leone, see this expert analysis on the Failures of Post-Conflict Reconstruction and the Threat to Peace.

So how do you really do this?

The entire process of building a nation based on democratic principles will be difficult, and it will take decades to go through all the processes. However, the new government, specifically the new president is presented with an excellent opportunity. President Conde should make fighting corruption a priority, work with international partners to reform the judiciary and the army, and make them truly independent. Guinea, before the death of strongman Lansana Conte was one of the most corrupt countries in the world. In fact, the new president told the BBC in a recent interview that the military junta that he succeeded stole more money in two years than the 50 years since the country’s independence.

Conde should diffuse the adversarial relationship between the government and the press, as was the case with his predecessor, and accept criticism when it’s due. He should reconcile the differences between Guinea’s major ethnic groups, especially those from the opposition. He made an important gesture by offering to share power with his opponent during the election but he should extend that to the party and ethnic group of the former president, Lansana Conte. The ethnic group he belonged to, the Susus are the third largest in Guinea, and will be very important in any drive towards reconciliation.

To avoid the same mistakes from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and now Cote d’Ivoire, Alpha Conde, as in “the Alpha and the Omega” should represent a new beginning for Guinea. He should seize this moment.

Mohamed Jallow is a former Colin Powell fellow. He graduated with a BA in International Studies in 2008, and currently pursuing and MPA at City College. He is a program associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Water Challenge

On March 22nd of every year, people from all over the world come together to address water issues and try to provide solutions to the water crisis. World Water Day is a very important day because it serves as a tool that puts water issues from the systematic agenda onto the institutional agenda.

To give you a brief history about this special day, it was proposed by the United Nations in Agenda 21 of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) that was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The first World Water Day event was observed the following year in March 22nd 1993.

The theme for this year’s World Water Day was “Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Water Challenge.”  The world’s population is increasing drastically- it is projected that by the year 2030, the world’s population would be over 8.3 billion.  However, population growth does not signify growth in resources- in fact it means that billions of people have to compete for the limited resources available as the demand for fresh water is predicted to increase by 30% and the demand for food and energy  by 50%  as we approach 2030. Moreover, a higher percentage of the population growth is predicted to take place in less developed countries where resources are scarce.  According to UN Water, “93% of the urbanization occurs in poor or developing countries.”

Over the past years, urbanization has been evident in all societies worldwide.  A lot of people have been migrating to urban areas with the hope of finding better opportunities in life as well as improving their standards of living.  Therefore, as population growth increases, the urbanization levels would also skyrocket.  So what does this mean?  Going back to the World Water Day 2011 theme- “Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Water Challenge,” we face difficult challenges ahead of us.  The world is undergoing a global water crisis and water scarcity will become more prominent over the years as the world’s population increases.

“The objective of World Water Day 2011 is to focus international attention on the impact of rapid urban population growth, industrialization and uncertainties caused by climate change, conflicts and natural disasters on urban water systems.”

I believe one of the main issues we should all be concerned with is “how do we effectively manage our water systems?”  Water management is one of the main challenges faced by cities and the world as a whole.  Another important challenge mainly experienced by cities is “waste management.”  A number of cities in developing nations are yet to find sustainable solutions to solve urban sanitation problems; inefficient sanitation facilities often negatively impact health and the environment.

Although World Water Day 2011 was celebrated worldwide, the formal events took place in Cape Town, South Africa from March 20th to 22nd 2011.  The following is a quote from Joan Clos, the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Executive Director of  UN-HABITAT.

“The urban water challenge must be recognised for what it really is – a crisis of governance, weak policies and poor management, rather than a scarcity crisis. We need to shore up water security against the added problems of pollution, and climate change. We need innovative ideas and good practices to implement. Why, for instance, use drinkable water in our toilets?
But most of all cities need sound policies and the political will to back them up. They must have strengthened institutions and trained managers to run them. They need a responsible business sector and an enlightened public sector to work hand in hand. And they must have an informed public with the active participation of the communities most in need.”

It is important for all of us-students, schools, governments, non-profit organizations, communities, and the general public – to work together in conserving our water and coming up with sustainable solutions to the global water crisis.  It is also important for us to realize that there is no one fixed solution to the water problems, but rather there are different approaches that can be used in solving water issues in different parts of the world- a solution that works well in one part of the world does not guarantee the same results in another part of the world.  Without water, I wouldn’t be writing this article today and you wouldn’t be reading what I wrote either because we would all be wiped out off the surface of the earth. So why don’t we all put our hands together and make the world a better place by fighting for and protecting our WATER.  Let’s make every day a World Water Day!