Freetown Dispatches

What follows is a series of letters to friends and family sent while my wife and I were working with the Sierra Leone government in Freetown between April and December 2009.

27 April 2009

We’ve just finished our first full week in Freetown, and thought it was time we let you know that we’re still alive and well.

We’re in Sierra Leone for about a year working inside their Government to contribute to their policy making and delivery processes. We’re part of a small team employed by Tony Blair’s office. We’re living in relative luxury (running cold water and intermittent generator powered electricity) with three others in a team house that resembles a ramshackle Spanish villa, nestling in the hills above Freetown. All around us is a hive of activity with houses being built wherever space allows. The planning laws exist more in theory than practice, and the builders merchants across the street from us seem to be doing a roaring trade. Our house overlooks the American embassy, which is rather an isolated fortress on a hill, and in stark contrast to the UK embassy which we visited last week, which as you might expect, contains genial diplomats with a pink gin in one hand and regrets for the passing of the Empire in the other.

We were warned that we’d probably get sick within the first couple of weeks, so I thought I’d try and get ahead of the game, promptly succumbing to man flu 24hrs after arriving. With the aid of  antibiotics, Anna’s TLC and the occasional slice of pizza, I made a swift recovery and started work in the President’s office, ‘State House’, last Tuesday. Having had a strictly no-suit policy at Google, the formality of the office combined with pretty oppressive heat has been rather a shock to the system.

Freetown is chaotic and colourful. Customised Public minibuses jostle with motorbikes and lorry’s carrying all sorts of raw materials across the city. All the minibuses are emblazoned with slogans such as ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, ‘Allu Akbar’, or ‘Come on Manchester United’, reflecting the dominant three religions in the city. The atmosphere isn’t sectarian though, and the driving is courteous, albeit with some adventurous overtaking. After the war ended in 2002, the ‘West Side Boys‘ were given bikes by the UN as part of a retraining scheme. Many former child soldiers are now motorcycle couriers, which goes some way to explaining the fearless driving on display.

We’ve also had a sense of the unexpected resourcefulness of people in the city. One of our cars recently burst a tyre and was stranded on a road out of town. In the time that it had taken us to drive five minutes down the road to rescue it, they had already been surrounded by a group of young would-be mechanics. Two more minutes produced a second jack, pliers and a wheel brace from somewhere, and we had the tyre changed shortly afterwards. It makes me wonder what other eventualities they’re quietly preparing for.

Yesterday we went on a guided walk through the countryside with soldiers largely made up from the British military that have been stationed in Freetown since the war to train the Sierra Leonian military. The state’s intrusion into the countryside is far more limited than the city, with tracks rather than roads, and pools of water leaking from where the pipes have been cut by the local villagers for ease of access to clean water. Repair work on the peninsula road leading out of Freetown to the South began at a rapid rate last year, but it seems to have petered out entirely now, and after a month of rain it is likely to resemble a river bed more than a road.

Anna has been installed in the Agriculture ministry, and has found a strong legacy from her predecessor. During a particularly stifling afternoon, on enquiry as to why they didn’t use the air conditioning, they replied that Harriet had preferred having the window open, so they hadn’t used the air-con since. Anna has met a bunch of people, from World bank Agriculture experts to, to palm oil investors, and she is starting to get a better sense of what ‘delivery’ means for the sector. Rice is the staple food for the country, but they still import much of what they consume, particularly in Freetown. Becoming self-sufficient is a national priority. The soil is exceptionally fertile, but few vegetables are grown (most are imported from Ginuea). Mango for our breakfast has somewhat made up for the lack of cereal and fresh milk, but there is huge untapped potential for cash crops, and the sector is crucial to any broad-based and sustainable development.

The centre of government has been relatively quiet last week because of the governing APC party having it’s annual convention on Wednesday. Rather like in the UK, the political class head up country once each year to  spend a few days having fevered discussion about politics and policies. The highlight was a bi-partisan speech that the leader of the SLPP opposition gave at the event which may help to calm the recently troubled relations between APC and SLPP party activists. As in many African countries, there is no clear Left/Right ideological divide here. Even on particular policy issues there is little to choose between the parties. Most voters divide along geographical identities – APC in the North, SLPP in the South. That means the support for incumbent politicians isn’t particularly sensitive to performance – only a few votes hinge on whether they have done a good or a bad job. It was enough last time to unseat the last President though, so perhaps traditional ties are beginning to weaken.

We’re missing friends and family, but looking forward to coming home for a few days soon for Anna’s sister’s wedding. We probably won’t get to see many of you this time, but it will at least provide a chance to stock up with food essentials like Bovril and pesto that are hard to find in Freetown. Email is the best way to get hold of us, but we’re also on skype so if you have a spare moment, do drop us a line, it would be great to know how you’re all doing.



7 June 2009

The rains have come. Freetown has quietly withdrawn behind a grey veil of mist and drizzle. There have been occasional downpours in the night for weeks, but the rain has now found its groove and the streets carry red-brown trickles of muddy water towards the gutters and streams that cross the city. For the next three months, flimsy umbrellas will vie with filtered water and mangoes as the roadside entrepreneurs stock of choice.

Like the weather we’ve also found our groove at work. We’ve developed good relationships within the government, as well as a detailed knowledge of the lunch menu at the cafes around town. The chicken steak burger with bacon that Crown Bakery supplies are currently running favorites with Richard. Anna has tended to opt for a tuna sandwich at Balmaya, though has found it harder to digest the £5 price tag which is about the least you can spend in the ‘international economy’ out here.

We are trying to embed more effective systems and processes within the machinery of government, and are coaching our counterparts in policy analysis and delivery mechanisms. This has involved everything from introducing a more structured weekly diary for ministers, to advising on why subsidizing the retail price of petrol is likely to be unsustainable. They generally do a decent job with the limited resources available. The Energy and Water ministry has about thirty civil servants in it, ten of whom are drivers. Another minister has three secretaries, but one has been waiting seven months for her retirement papers, the second is a shorthand typist without a typewriter, and the third tends to be out to lunch from mid-morning until late afternoon. Quite a few of the roles within the civil service are entirely fictitious, though a dedicated team of ‘ghost-post busters’ are trying to get rid of these.

One of the most debilitating features of the government is the commitment to face to face meetings above correspondence or record. There is no culture of circulating documents in hard copy, let alone electronically. A project proposal for a new dam was taken to a potential sponsor as a third generation photocopy with notes in the margins because that was the only known copy in existence. I have one of only eight hard copies of the government’s budget on my desk. Ministerial briefing notes only appear in an emergency and tend to exhort rather than argue their way to a recommendation. People sit for hours waiting to see the minister and say their piece.

Having said all that, the government still displays a remarkable ability to snatch success from an unpromising start, and they are showing a rather more united front than their counterparts in Westminster at the moment. The recent donor conference in Freetown was pulled together at the last minute, but was well received. The State visit to China, with equally last minute preparation, resulted in several new projects being funded and stronger diplomatic relations between the two countries. The next key event that we’re heading towards is the ‘Sierra Leone Conference’ jointly hosted by the government, DfID and the World Bank in November in London. It will be an opportunity to take the country to market in front of the world’s major donors and investors, and has been trumpeted by DfID as a ‘once in a decade opportunity’ to improve growth rates and the reputation of the country.

But enough about work. We’ve become much better acquainted with the beaches along Freetown’s peninsula in the last month, with everyone rushing to take advantage of the sun before the rains came. The beach by Number 2 river is particularly beautiful, and the local cooperative they have set up around the community is blossoming. As a sign of their success (and priorities) they proudly showed off their community big-screen TV with satellite subscription to the UK Premier League that they had bought from car-park receipts. When the waiter came to take our order for food, we asked what kind of fish they had and got a puzzled look in reply. The mystery was revealed when, having taken our order, he went down to the shoreline and climbed in his fishing boat. Three hours later we were eating what he had caught.

Amid what is a pretty tough commercial existence, some colourful ex-pats still flourish. Franco has run a hotel and Italian restaurant at Sussex beach for almost 20 years. During the war when the rebels came through, he used to load up his fishing boat with water and diving gear and head out to sea for a couple of days, returning once they had left. On our visit to Banana island, I spoke with Caesar, a barrel chested Estonian who was in the process of building some huts for a beach hotel. He explained that he had been a diamond and gold trader during the war, and while he still had some interests in timber, he was looking to relax, settle down and fish for the next couple of years. Another acquaintance, Tom Cairnes, runs a local venture capital outfit called ManoCap. He not only speaks fluent Krio, but writes and sings Krio songs with a local band. His first business venture ‘Ice Ice, Baby’, which supplies clean (filtered) ice to local restaurants, has been such a success that he has continued the formula to start a new fish processing business – ‘Fish Fish, Baby’.

There is a lingering sense of absurdity about living as an expat in the world’s poorest country. The tennis courts at the Country lodge are being well used by Anna. The local expat football team hires the 20,000 seater national stadium to play their matches. Next weekend I’m due to play table tennis with the head of the civil service at the only known table in the country. I’ve even started to play squash, which seems popular mainly because the President plays. I’m still looking for the right moment to ask him for a game. The finals of a competition in a couple of weeks time are due to be held at the court in his house. Unfortunately his court, built by some enthusiastic Chinese engineers without much squash experience, is three feet too wide.

Anna’s efforts to sensitise me to having a dog in London were aided by one of our fellow house mate spontaneously deciding to adopt a cute puppy and bring him home a couple of weeks ago. Other than peeing on people as a sign of affection, he seemed harmless enough. The strategy has run into a spot of bother since then when on Friday, after a night of howling outside our bedroom window, Tony the dog was taken to the vet and diagnosed with rabies. He has now been invited to leave. Three cheers for Dr. Jane Zuckerman at the Royal Free travel clinic in London for, once again, providing excellent medical advice.

We’ve visited a couple of churches in the last month, but lack of Krio proficiency and/or bladder control to survive the lengthy services has driven us towards an small but friendly bunch of international Christian ex-pats who meet during the week. Other than that Anna is being woken daily at 5am for morning prayers by a Muslim cleric who walks up and down our road with a hand held megaphone. In between bursts of shouting, he presses a button on the megaphone which plays the happy birthday tune. All rather surreal.



2 August 2009

The rain has been falling hard on Freetown, and from my office window I can see people scurry for shelter beneath the towering cotton tree, standing in the centre of the city and overbearing all the buildings and bustle that surround it. Resembling a leafy version of a giant redwood, the tree is the fine emblem of the city. It was here when the early settlers from Nova Scotia held their first prayer meeting beneath its branches in 1793, and it is still going strong. Anna and I are still going strong too, and have settled into a routine. Nevertheless, a fleeting visit back to London a few weeks ago nearly became a lot longer when we remembered how great hot showers are.

Some of the habits of Sierra Leone are starting to rub off on us, like hissing at waiters to get their attention at restaurants. At first it seems unconscionably rude, then amusing, and by now just a fairly efficient way of getting their attention. The sound carries surprisingly well across a crowded room, but the air hostesses on the British Midland flight to London weren’t so impressed. On the plane home, by chance we sat next to John Benjamin, the leader of the main opposition party. The fact that we are working for the President made for a slightly awkward introduction, but he provided genial company during the flight.

No VIP visitors from the UK to Sierra Leone in the last month, but we did entertain Simon Anholt, a self styled ‘nation branding‘ expert, who came over for some meetings with ministers to investigate ways that public policy could promote the profile of Sierra Leone. If you’re feeling sceptical about the wisdom of letting a marketing expert determine government policy, then you’re not alone. In fact most of his recommendations weren’t gimmicks but reflected substantive improvements that would also play well with investors and tourists through the media. It may take a while to change the frame through which the country is seen from war, corruption and general weirdness though.  One of the only SL stories to go international in the last month was an enterprising piece about a provincial police station being overrun with over 400 snakes. Crime in the district was low.

The police are not widely loved in Freetown by locals or expats. They generally have no cars, so when they stop you they often ask you to drive them to the station so they can arrest you. When they flagged me down on Wilkinson road, my heart sank. Friends had been caught out before for wearing sandals to drive – one of the many minor infractions typically cited. I was wearing shoes, but they informed me that my tax disc had expired – a reasonably serious omission in the UK, though I had no idea how it would play in Freetown. The policeman adopted a grave expression, the sort reserved for asking expats for a bribe. The officer said “I’m going to have to take you to the station.” I sighed- “alright, let’s go.” Officer: “Do, you understand – I’m going to have to arrest you” Me: “ok, we had better head to the station then.” Officer: “Perhaps there is another way we can work this out”. Working for government is something of a trump card that tends to end these conversations fairly quickly without money changing hands, but for others, especially locals, the police are to be avoided whenever possible.

Experiments in development continue to impress us. Here are three that have appeared in the last month: first, amid much excitement, ATM and restaurant VISA machines have at last reached Freetown. This has transformed our liquidity, though the lads changing Leones for foreign currency on the street are less impressed. Second, a large hydroelectric dam is on the cusp of completion after over 30 years in gestation. It is promises to provide Freetown with cheap, reliable and clean electricity for the first time, to what has been the world’s darkest capital city. Third, decentralised road charging experiments are starting to appear widely. South of Freetown on the way to any of the peninsula villages, children have taken to constructing rudimentary roadblocks and demanding money for passage. Some hold shovels to demonstrate that they are filling in the potholes in the road, though this is rarely convincing. Others complement extortion with entertainment by dressing up in tribal costume and dancing as a car approaches. For now, thankfully, they seem to be taking no for an answer.

Nevertheless, while there is visible progress around the city, the clearest evidence of my own ‘capacity building’ so far has been in Crown Bakery. I had a chat with the manager about his pizzas, suggesting that thin and crispy bases would both be more popular and would save on dough. This has now been adopted across the menu to broad customer acclaim, and has transformed my lunchtime experience. Anna has had more significant success in the ministry of Agriculture helping the ministry to become more coordinated with the NGO community, establishing a delivery unit within the ministry to track a few key outputs such as raising rice production, and playing her own part in an extended investigation into a fertilizer procurement order that went awry.

Conditions elsewhere in the country remain tough. In particular, there is a little reported health crisis in the East, where few if any malaria and infant vaccinations are reaching the clinics at the end of the supply chain. To anyone on the front line, government can feel remote, yet it is only with political will and policy reform that departments and agencies will be able and inclined to stop drugs being misappropriated at every stage between the shipping containers and the clinics.

Thanks for all your letters and calls, it’s been great to hear how you’re doing all that is going on back home.



27th September 2009

Two muscular men are walking down the Pademba Road in the centre of Freetown, both pushing prams. Inside each pram, a small bundle swaddled in cloths. People peer inside the prams as they pass. Sometimes they reach inside, and money changes hands. Inside one pram is a crate of beer, in the other a case of yoghurt, ready to provide refreshment to the passing public. The prams arrived in bulk as a misplaced gift from a US charity. Sierra Leonean babies never see the inside of a pram, but are instead stuck like limpets to their mother’s backs in the African style.

The rainy season is at last drawing to a close. The locals say that the rains are the heaviest for ten years. The water has opened potholes on every paved road and chasms on the unpaved tracks. Nevertheless people celebrate the fact that it keeps falling: more rain means more food, which means less hunger. It seems churlish to point out the patches of mould that are stubbornly growing on our clothes, furniture, and even my laptop keyboard. The days are a lot drier than August, but the average rainfall in Freetown in September is still ten times that of London.

The city celebrated Eid last Sunday: the end of Ramadan. The beaches were packed, and after a desolate month, the bars were overflowing. Fasting during the daylight hours of Ramadan is a common discipline here for Muslims of every stripe. I wasn’t Mr. Popular when I unthinkingly took doughnuts down to the squash court to share one afternoon.

Reform in the centre of government has also been slow, but rivalry is alive and well. The day after one senior civil servant left to go on holiday to London, one of the Ministers anonymously briefed the press that he had been sent on gardening leave. The day after the civil servant returned, State House issued a categorical rebuttal to the story.

Despite politics occasionally eclipsing policy, developments continue. To give three exampes: the latest figures show a 30% decline in maternal mortality over the last three years; the minerals bill passing through parliament will completely revamp the way mining companies and licensing operates; and the recent discovery of oil off the coast could give a much needed boost to the economy if enough controls can be put in place to manage the licences and revenues properly.

We’ve had a trio of visitors recently. First, Alan Milburn came over to ginger up the team and to chat with ministers. Second, David Hill, Blair’s old director of communications visited to assist with some of the preparations for the big Sierra Leone conference happening in London in November. And third, Paul Collier the development economist dropped in to give a fascinating lecture to the cabinet on how to harness natural resources for economic growth.

Anna’s work continues in the ministry of Agriculture, but for the next couple of months I’ve moved from State House to work on a project with Ministry of Information. You might think that the last export Tony Blair ought to be gifting to the Government of Sierra Leone is lessons in spin, but there is a good reason. Unless their capacity to manage communications improves, public support for the President’s reform programme will sag. The government will then be distracted from their domestic policy and delivery agenda in search of populist gimmicks to shore up their support ahead of the looming election.

At present, Government communications are generally slow, reactive, myopic, uncoordinated, and clumsy. Ministers roam freely on the airwaves in search of publicity without any central control and most everything they say is unscripted. This might sound charming, but it comes across as rather confused. A recent report on Sierra Leone on infant mortality by Amnesty International was welcomed and then damned in one day by two different spokesmen from the same department. The press isn’t as caustic as the UK papers, but nevertheless the government and the President receive little public credit for their delivery successes. There are some big events in the life of the government and the country coming up in the next three months. I’m going to try and make sure you hear about them through the BBC or Reuters rather than just in the next issue of these dispatches.

Others on the team continue to get complements from their ministries. Faye, a waif of a girl who is working in the Ministry of Health was recently approached by the minister’s secretary upon her return from holiday “My how your buttocks have grown! Look how they wobble!” she said approvingly, “You must stop before you get to the size of Mrs. Langley’s though.” Mrs. Langley has a backside the size of a bus. Faye has since redoubled her efforts at the Country Lodge exercise classes.

Most of the team have taken some time out over August, but none of our holidays were as exotic as Dave’s, who travelled overland from Freetown to Timbuktu, mostly by motorcycle. After being stopped for the eleventh time by the police for a bribe as they were travelling back through Guinea to Sierra Leone they finally reached the border and thought they were back in relative safety again. But the border guards were unhappy. Dave’s buddy, John, was wearing camouflage shorts. The military policeman told them that it was a grave offence to impersonate a member of the military and they would need to be charged. Dave’s one trump card was that he worked for Tony Blair. With UK eyes, it is perhaps hard to understand just how well recognised and respected this man is in Sierra Leone. As a team, we were generally reluctant to use his name as a way of getting special treatment, but it was felt to be preferable to paying a bribe. Unwilling to bandy around Tony Blair’s name without any context, the best Dave could do was to say, “We work for Tony Blair, and… sometimes he lets us wear camouflage shorts”. The soldier was confused, but after checking with his boss, he shrugged and let them go.

The security situation in the country remains stable, but fragile. Occasional flurries of violence have been isolated, but vent widely held frustrations. Last week the police shot a number of rioters in one provincial town after they accused the police of corruption and theft and threatened to raise the police station to the ground. It was only the intervention of the silver-tongued Minister of Mines and the arrival of the army that eventually restored order. The presence of the British Army and other international soldiers is supposed to keep a lid on this sort of thing. They gained a reputation as almost invincible fighters following their decisive intervention to end the civil war, and many in Freetown still believe that we have a ‘force across the water’ that would quickly arrive to quell any more serious unrest.

I’ve had a little more contact with the Sierra Leone army since they opened a new squash court on the Wilberforce barracks. I played the President a few weeks ago with a large crowd of army officers in attendance. They were all cheering for him. Anna sat among them but faithfully cheered for me. Having watched a string of government ministers loose to the guy a little too willingly, I resolved not to throw the match. I scored a narrow victory, and the President managed a grimace and a handshake before his motorcade departed back to the Lodge.

Our departure is also on the horizon, so the next dispatch will be our last. We always intended a short stint, and the combination of delivering the conference in November and Christmas provide a natural break in the project. We’ll be flying back to Blighty for good on December 12th. We’re really looking forward to seeing you.



29th November 2009

We are speeding along the tropical highway from Freetown to the provincial town of Makeni. Fifty shades of green rise up from the fertile bolilands, thick with rice paddies and forests. Bicycles and pedestrians share the road with heavily laden minibuses and the odd herd of cattle. Women spread unmilled rice grains out to dry on the tarmac of lay-bys. Stone breakers repetitively hammer bigger lumps of granite into smaller lumps of granite, hoping a buyer will arrive to cash their chips. Unfinished houses are held aloft by an elaborate scaffolding of wooden poles.  At regular intervals, faggots of firewood and colourful piles of exotic fruit are arranged hopefully.

These aspects of life haven’t changed for 100 years. But the pedestrians carrying water on their heads also clutch mobile phones to their ears. High voltage electricity lines pass overhead from Bumbuna to Freetown, at last throbbing with power. The rice on the smooth tarmac is genetically modified and has trebled yields. In many of the thatch and pole community huts along the way, a satellite dish is perched on the edge of the roof, broadcasting an English football match being played 3000 miles away. Slowly, Sierra Leone is developing.

Once, I thought of economic development as an inexorable, albeit slow, process: countries start poor, and gradually become rich. Countries with dramatic reversals in fortune examples like Argentina were striking exceptions that proved the rule. But in Africa, there is no rule. Anna and I went to see a documentary shot in the 1960s. Houses had electricity. Roads were paved. Cinemas showed films. A railway ran for 300km from Freetown to the provinces. Industrial iron and bauxite mines provided lucrative exports. All that development was eroded by incompetence, corruption, and war in the decades that followed. Much of it has still not returned. Across Africa, this is not uncommon, but Sierra Leone’s history has been particularly tragic with a string of coups, wars, and dodgy dictators that started soon after the country gained independence.

Many people, including us, believe that the country is now politically stable and on the right track. In the Mo Ibrahim African Governance Index Sierra Leone has moved up more places in the last two years than any other country. Based on the World Bank’s Governance Indicators, the political stability and the ability of citizens to hold the government to account have improved faster in Sierra Leone than in almost any other country in the world. And the International Monetary Fund has predicted that Sierra Leone will achieve economic growth of twice the African average in 2009. However, some scepticism still remains. Last week the head of the UN in Sierra Leone said “Sierra Leone could easily become another Somalia” (were it not for his heroic efforts, of course).

Nevertheless, the government continues to make progress. The big investment conference in London that I mentioned in previous dispatches was held last week, and passed off well. You may have seen coverage in Reuters, the Times and scattered elsewhere, including one domestic piece grandly headlined ‘Tony Blair’s invaluable contribution to the people and destiny of Sierra Leone’. Tony did a number of interviews enthusing about Sierra Leone’s beautiful beaches, and strove to avoid answering any questions about the European Presidency or Iraq.

Away from politics, we really enjoyed having Suzanne and Annabel visit us for a week. They went to see the chimps, relaxed on the beaches, and we all went up country to visit one of Tom Dannett’s Streetchild projects in Makeni. We watched them play an energetic game of football, until the ball hit a rock and burst. Keen to practice my krio I said to the gathered crowd by way of confirmation, ‘de ball don die?’. The children laughed at me and one replied ‘de ball don die? Den we de pray for de ball’. And they all formed a ring around the ball with hands clasped in prayer.

We also visited a war amputee association to hear the story of how their housing project was established in the teeth of all kinds of opposition. The Chairman was an inspirational figure for being able to get 70 houses built despite obstruction from corrupt landowners, bureaucratic intransigence, timid NGOs, and political indifference. But he also described the sort of ‘robin hood’ social corruption that is widely condoned. Before the war he had been a petrol tanker driver, so he worked up a scheme with his old colleagues to short the measures on the pumps by ten percent. This successfully raised enough seed funding for the community to buy the land that the houses now stood on.

I had the chance to attend the State Opening of Parliament a few weeks ago. This was a pleasurably rowdy affair, with SLPP opposition MPs shouting heckles at every other sentence of the President’s speech. President: “we will no longer be dependant on foreign aid and will grow our own revenues” HECKLE “yeah, only through the goods and sales tax!”. Ruling APC party MPs countered by banging their desks loudly like unruly school children. The President managed to inject some perfect timing and theatre into a rather clunky speech that had been written by committee. After two hours, and a standing ovation, the ruling APC party members broke into a spontaneous victory song both in celebration and to poke fun at the opposition – the equivalent of Labour government MPs singing ‘We’ll keep the red flag flying’ after the Queen’s speech. Afterwards the festival atmosphere spilled out onto the streets as APC supporters bedecked in red and white surged down the road towards town amid drums and banners, still singing and dancing.

Music adds an important popular dimension to democracy in Sierra Leone. Only thirty eight percent of adults can read, but everyone can sing. The most popular song of the moment in Freetown is Emmerson’s “Yesterdae better pass tidae” [Yesterday was better than today]. His hip-hop rhythm sets out the government’s inequities at length: tax rises, low teachers salaries, poor health care, government wastefulness and corruption, rising food prices, and so on. It has quickly been countered by Innocent, another artist whose lyrics plead with the people to recognise the government’s achievements. Whatever the truth, they certainly beat watching UK party political broadcasts. My favourite song though is this one, by Joseph Bangura.

With only two weeks to go before we come home to London, we’ve been reflecting on our time out here. It has been heartening even in nine short months to see the country developing in small but tangible ways. Blackberries started working last week. A fortnight ago, the peninsula road south of Freetown was flattened so traffic speeds can now get as high as 30mph.

While things are moving in the right direction, the challenge for government remains huge. Some of the public servants we’ve come across would be ill-suited to running a parish council let alone a small country. Their incentives remain skewed. The ‘per diem’ culture, where staff get slabs of money from NGOs to supplement their paltry salaries for travelling to conferences up country or abroad, means ministers and officials spend as little time in Freetown as possible. People management skills are rare, and officials remain almost unsackable. Communication is weak – within and between departments; the right hand seldom knows what the left is doing. Many ministers labour under the illusion of their own omnipotence, perhaps the opposite illusion to their UK counterparts, whom often privately believe they are near powerless to affect the events around them.

Our project with the Government has made a reasonable start, and has some additional security regarding its future now that Blair will not be heading to Brussels as European President. The twin focus on improving governance and generating investment still seem right. Our biggest strength is that we have had excellent relationships with the key decision makers in the ministries and State House. As ‘outsiders’ we have had an extraordinary proximity to political power, which has been a real privilege. The political confusion that is a commonly cited impediment for international organisations operating in Africa has not been a big issue for us. The most significant hurdle for the project now is to move from ‘filling gaps’ to building native capacity within the government. At present, many of the things we have done might not survive long after our departure. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, it is said. Many of our government counterparts have eagerly demanded a regular supply of fish, but we haven’t been able to raise as much demand to teach them how to fish for themselves.

While we’re looking forward to coming home, even to a winter grey London, our memories of life in Salone will remain with us for many years. I hope these dispatches have given a taste of our experiences. We’re delighted that we have had the chance to come, and we’re very much looking forward to seeing you all soon.