Aid, development, and donations from the World Bank and US Embassy

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Parminder Brar, World Bank Country Manager for Sierra Leone. Photo by my colleague, Awoko newspaper reporter Betty Milton

Last week I visited the World Bank headquarters in downtown Freetown to cover a press conference. It turned out to be the announcement of a new electricity plant for Sierra Leone. This is a big deal for a country without a full electrical grid. The new plant will be a little bigger than the country’s main plant, which is located along a river and is unreliable. I also went to cover a ceremony for the donation of a shipping container full of medical supplies to the Freetown military hospital.

It was interesting to get a glimpse of how development works here. At the World Bank press conference, World Bank Country Manager Parminder Brar said the new electric project would cost about $138 million US dollars. This is more than the World Bank’s budget for supporting agriculture, health and the social safety net in Sierra Leone, combined. Maybe it was a naive question, but I asked why the budget for this one electric project was more than these other sectors. He basically said that supporting electricity has to be a priority, because without it nothing else is possible. He also said that since basically everyone in Salone could benefit from help with the safety net, even if the whole World Bank’s budget for the country was dedicated to this, it would be a drop in the bucket. Again, it’s probably naive of me to not know that this is probably how a lot of aid works, but I was kind of surprised. It’s sobering.

I wrote a story covering the press conference — or rather two stories, because my colleague said it should be split in half, partly because there was enough material for two stories, and partly because my draft was apparently too long for the paper. Definitely a different way of doing things than I’m used to. Anyway the first story I wrote focuses on the new electrical project and the second gives context for how much the World Bank has donated.

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Some of the supplies donated to the military hospital. They included lights, beds, chairs and medical equipment

On the next day, I think, I went to the 34 Military Hospital in western Freetown, where the US Embassy was donating two shipping containers full of $800,000 worth of various medical supplies. Several people gave speeches, including a Defense Attache from the US military. Apparently, this hospital had been chosen for the donation because of its good work in fighting Ebola. Here’s the brief story I wrote covering that ceremony.

These donations and development aid projects raised a lot of questions for me. First of all, I wonder what it’s like for the national morale to live in a country so dependent on aid (or is that just a meaningless question? I don’t know). I also wonder about accountability with these large sums of money. And in the case of the US Embassy donation, I wonder why it seems like just a drop in the bucket. Donating almost a million dollars is great, and it seems to be in a form that would do a lot of good, but the types of supplies being donated were really basic — things that most any hospital in the US would have. It’s kind of weird seeing such triumphant ceremonies for drops in the bucket. It’s a stark a reminder of how underdeveloped Sierra Leone is.

I guess this is all nothing remarkable in the world of development. It’s not a subject I paid a lot of attention to before, but it’s really interesting and obviously underlies so many other issues in Salone.

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