Sierra Leone — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:08 pm on 29th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord St John of Bletso Lord St John of Bletso Crossbench 8:08 pm, 29th June 2015

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Crisp, with his deep knowledge and passion for healthcare improvement in Africa. I join him in thanking my noble friend Lady Hayman for introducing this topical debate on a subject that, sadly, has had very little media coverage of late.

Although much of the recent World Heath Organisation report on the Ebola situation in Sierra Leone makes encouraging reading, major challenges still lie ahead to eradicating the disease, particularly preventing cross-border traffic between Sierra Leone and Guinea. More needs to be done to contain the threat in the northern provinces of Port Loko and Kambia. The Sierra Leone Government, with their limited police force and army, are severely restricted in fully monitoring checkpoints.

There is no doubt that the long-term effects of the Ebola outbreak will linger for many years to come, posing challenges not just for healthcare workers but for communities right across the country that are left with many hundreds of thousands of orphans. The charity Street Child UK is to be commended for its incredibly impressive and great work supporting those orphans. For the immediate future, one of the greatest challenges facing the country will be youth unemployment. Although there have been a number of initiatives to create jobs and kick-start growth in the country, this is an uphill battle. With extensive mobile coverage right across the country, I believe that a lot more can and should be done to provide affordable broadband, particularly in Freetown.

With commodity prices having collapsed over the last few years, the mining sector in Sierra Leone is currently not sustainable, with a chronic lack of adequate infrastructure and access to power. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, mentioned, the agricultural sector has a chance for hope in the future. The agricultural sector, where most of the population works, unfortunately has very disheartening statistics showing that coffee, cocoa and all types of tropical fruit are rotting on the trees, with lots of fields remaining fallow, as local farmers do not have adequate equipment either to harvest or to take the produce to market.

My noble friend rightly mentioned the problem of malnutrition. I recommend that assistance be given to finance a form of co-operative among the farmers, not just by helping them to finance their equipment but by training them to potentially build more food processing factories for the local market. I believe that there is huge scope for more beneficiation within the country. If one goes into Freetown, one will see that the supermarkets, many of which are run by Lebanese traders, offer tropical fruit cartons and bottles, but almost all of these are imported.

Sierra Leone desperately needs more clean water, not just for Freetown but in the villages and provinces. In the dry season, the main water sources are rivers, streams and abandoned mine workings. Most of these sources are contaminated, which is a major source of high mortality for the very young, the very frail and the elderly. Solar-powered water pumps in the villages could be a major boost for the provision of clean water.

On a brighter note, Sierra Leone is blessed with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, comparable to those in the Caribbean and the Seychelles. I believe that, in the future, once the outbreak has been tackled, there is huge potential for the tourism industry.

In conclusion, our Government, in conjunction with our European partners, have played a pivotal role in tackling the epidemic and, just as importantly, in putting measures in place to reduce the chances of another Ebola outbreak. We have been instrumental in rebuilding the political and socioeconomic infrastructure after the civil conflict that ended in 2001. In March this year, west African leaders called for a “Marshall plan” to help with regional reconstruction after Ebola, saying that the region is “coming out of a war”, with its economy and public services decimated. One of the key lessons from this devastating EVD disaster is the need for the Government of Sierra Leone, as well as the international community, to take proactive measures to prevent another disaster.