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, 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. 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 (AGI) is helping to attract investment and strengthen the capacity of the government, is one such country.
President Ernest Bai Koroma is determined to end dependence on foreign aid. By developing its private sector, he wants Sierra Leone to grow its own way out of poverty. With 57% of Sierra Leoneans living on less than a dollar a day, the challenge is immense. But so is 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 economic collapse and a decade-long civil war drove tourists away – many to neighbouring 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 destination remain strong: unspoilt beaches, beautiful tropical islands, world-class 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 tourists are returning. 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 their optimism and the ambition of their plans. New hotels and facilities are being built in anticipation of the increase in visitor numbers they expect in years to come.
With industry leaders starting to sit up and take notice of Sierra Leone again, they will not have to wait long. Lonely Planet recently named the country one of its top 10 to visit in 2009. Bradt Travel is bringing out the first guidebook dedicated to Sierra Leone. And you can now fly here direct from Europe in six hours. Other post-conflict countries such as Mozambique and Rwanda have shown that tourism can generate revenues of well over $100m. 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 plain sailing. The country still needs to improve energy infrastructure and road networks, tackle appalling maternal and child-health indicators, and address skills shortages and corruption in the public sector. The AGI is working side-by-side with the Sierra Leone government to help make this happen.
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 exceeded aid for the first time. While it will not escape the financial crisis completely, Africa is better placed to cope than anyone would have imagined 20 years ago.
Nowhere is that more true than Sierra Leone. A few years ago the country was 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.
This article originally appeared here.
The work described here was carried out by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, it is now being continued by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.