My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has indicated, the fact that the Ebola outbreak in west Africa has gone from being everywhere in the news to nowhere is an example of the capricious nature of the media. This debate is, therefore, very timely, because we have to keep public attention focused on the issues, and I congratulate the noble Baroness for having initiated it so ably.
Unless aid and assistance continue to flow to Sierra Leone and other affected countries, far more people could die from the knock-on effects of the epidemic than have perished from the disease itself. The level of disruption to infrastructure, including but not limited to the health system, has been quite staggering. This is in spite of the wonderful work of overseas volunteers, to which other noble Lords paid tribute, including from this country.
A sustained economic recovery will be crucial but will be very, very hard to achieve. Of the three countries affected by the epidemic, Sierra Leone has suffered by far the most on an economic level. In 2013, having recovered from years of internal strife, Sierra Leone ranked second in the world in terms of GDP growth. It was an extraordinary moment. The country started from a low base of course; nevertheless, to achieve a ranking of second in the world in terms of economic growth after all those years of disruption was a quite remarkable phenomenon.
Since then, the country’s economy has more or less collapsed. According to the World Bank, this year Sierra Leone faces an acute recession, with a negative growth rate of no less than 23.5%, which I can assure noble Lords is catastrophic in terms of its size and implications. Let us compare that with, for example, Liberia, which is projected to have a positive growth rate of 3%. In the case of Sierra Leone, foreign capital has mostly fled the country, as have some of its richest citizens.
I have three sets of questions that I would like the Minister to comment on, recognising that she will not necessarily be able to answer all of them. First, in April this year the World Bank promised no less than $1.62 billion for Ebola response and recovery. What is the status of this money? Is it merely a promise? Does the noble Baroness know how much of that sum is there? On the surface, it is a substantial amount but I was not able to discover its exact status. What is the timescale by which it will be invested? It is clear that upfront investment is needed and that a great deal is needed very rapidly. What proportion of that money is likely to go to Sierra Leone? I could not find that in the World Bank literature either. If the UK is making a direct contribution to that sum, how much is it contributing, and how would the questions that I have just asked in relation to the World Bank apply to the UK’s contribution?
Secondly, the presidents of the three countries affected by the outbreak have requested that international donors cancel their debts. Has any progress been made on this? It is quite crucial because the level of aid was substantial. If this could be done, it would provide enormous economic leverage for Sierra Leone. If the UK Government have a position on this issue, it would be good to know it.
Thirdly, a recent UNDP report rightly emphasises that women need to be at the centre of all efforts to achieve recovery. Women made up a large majority of the labour force prior to the outbreak of the epidemic, and, as in many other countries but especially in Sierra Leone, were doing two jobs: looking after the family and working pretty much full time, especially in small-scale micro-entrepreneurial enterprises. The female labour force was absolutely crucial to the statistics that I gave earlier, which showed that the country was entering a period of quite significant economic take-off before the epidemic broke out. The latest figures show that more than 40% of women in the labour force at the time of the epidemic have withdrawn. Many have gone back to their families, devoting themselves to care rather than to the economy. Most of the women who have left the labour force were in agriculture, which is still the backbone of the economy in Sierra Leone. What strategies does the Minister know of that are in play to target investment efforts specifically at women in the labour force?
If you put these three things together, the international community seems on the surface to be coming up with substantial resources, but, as we know from many other situations, these tend to evaporate in the face of actuality. Therefore, is there anything that the Minister can say about the reality of these sums of money, especially the World Bank investment programme, which is designated as a sort of Marshall plan for the country? If that had some substance, it could be very important for Sierra Leone’s future and recovery.