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Sierra Leone’s most precious resource…

A few years ago, a journalist friend of mine got chatting to a man hanging out in the lobby of a Zambian hotel.  After some friendly conversation, the man produced a grubby envelope which held a few lumps of cloudy stone.

These rough gems were – he said – mined from his home-town of Mbuji Mayi in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Would my friend like to buy them, and so help him keep his kids in school and feed his family?

Of course my friend knew what he was doing was illegal, but curiosity drove him on. A few hundred dollars changed hands in a hotel bedroom. The polite gentleman took his leave, and my friend ended up the proud owner of what later turned out to be, a few plastic rocks.

For him, his brush with diamond fakery became a tale to entertain colleagues.  For those who have lived through Africa’s gem-fuelled conflicts – in Angola, DRC and Sierra Leone – the reality of resource plunder is no laughing matter.

In The Hague on Thursday, in a bizarre celebrity twist, the testimony of supermodel Naomi Campbell at the trial of the former Liberian President switched the global spotlight onto the murky world of blood diamonds, and allegations that Charles Taylor’s involvement in trade of the gems fuelled the civil war in Sierra Leone.

This was a war which devastated civilian life and especially children. Many of them suffered atrocities such as amputations, rape or forced conscription.  However, as I discovered when I visited in April, for survivors of that war  finding justice is only one piece of the recovery.

Dealing with the harsh economic and social costs of the conflict are just as important. In a Freetown slum, 15 year old Safi told me, “The Bible teaches we should learn to forgive. But it’s not easy.”  As a five year old, Safi had been raped and her parents had been killed by RUF rebels in Freetown.

What Safi and her friends want is the chance to go to school. She and other orphans struggle to get the funds to keep them in full-time education. Without schooling, there is little chance of getting a proper job in Sierra Leone’s fragile economy, or for escaping the slum that she currently lives in.

If it’s hard enough for individuals to recover, then imagine the task on a national level. Re-building a shattered country is a long and difficult task, and one which the British government is well-placed to help with.  After all, it was a British military intervention which turned the tide of the war against the rebels, back in 2000.

Some commentators have questioned the wisdom of the new government’s continued spending on overseas help during difficult economic times here. The busy health clinics in Freetown’s slums, supported by Save the Children, tell a different story.

This April, the Sierra Leonean government launched a free healthcare programme – partly funded by the UK government – for pregnant women, new mothers and young children.

For comparatively small sums of money many women are getting their first chance of medically supported pregnancy. The UK is contributing £18 million towards health-worker and drug costs.

For us, it should be a source of national pride that UK help is directly saving lives in this way. There are no quick fixes in development but with the right kind of outside assistance, Sierra Leone may yet improve the lot of its most precious resource of all – its future generation.

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