Catching up with Sierra Leone: The numbers

Ph.D. dissertations are a funny thing: some form the basis of a life-long examination of a single topic, some serve as training or staging grounds in which a new researcher can cut her teeth, and yet some may foreshadow future work in ways that are not easy to anticipate. My job in Manchester seemed at first to take me in an entirely new direction away from that 2012 Cornell dissertation, and yet recent turns of events keep bringing me back to it with a vengeance. Between 2009 and 2011 I became a bit of an expert on Sierra Leone and Liberia – or more specifically on their politics and post-conflict reconstruction. Now that the world’s gaze is once more fixed on the Mano River region – sadly for tragic reasons – I have decided to catch up with Freetown and Monrovia in order to find out whether my claims back in 2011 retain any scrap of relevance a couple of years – and elections – later.

First stop: Sierra Leone. As a good social scientist I shall start by looking at numbers: specifically, the aggregate indicators that more or less capture how the world sees the country’s economy, human development, and politics.

According to the World Bank’s Worldwide Development Indicators, Sierra Leonean GDP basically doubled between 2010 and 2013, up to $5 billion (current US$), with per capita GDP jumping from $450 to $810 per year. This is the result of some significant GDP growth in the past few years, with a whopping 15.2% in 2012 and 20.1% in 2013.

The obvious question is: Has economic growth led to better living conditions for Sierra Leoneans?

Unfortunately the country’s Human Development Index score in 2013 remains dismal at 0.374, placing it 183th in the world. Admittedly this is up from 0.360 in 2011, but the country’s life expectancy remains tragically low at 45.6 years, and the adult literacy rate remains stuck in the low 40s.

My natural instinct is to turn to governance to explain disparities between macro economic performance and expected human development outcomes. So what does the country look like in terms of politics?

The Polity IV dataset paints a picture of stable flirting with democracy over the past few years: the cutoff point is +6 in a scale between -10 and +10, and Sierra Leone has consistenlty scored +7 since 2008-09.

But as of 2014 Sierra Leone keeps its Freedom House classification as “Partly Free” in terms of civil liberties and political rights, scoring a 3/7 (where 1 is best) in both indicators; there was a spike towards “Free” in 2013 due to a momentary improvement in political rights, but this year the country reverted to the yellow zone.

Despite the civil war ending in 2002 and the country having enjoyed 3 rounds of competitive elections since then, it looks like the international community has little faith in Sierra Leone’s incipient democracy. But what about the government’s ability to deliver for its citizens?

In 2011 Sierra Leone had a Corruption Perceptions Index score of 2.5/10, placing it on 134th position in the worldwide table; this improved to 31/100 in 2012, moving up to 123th position; then slid back slightly to 30/100 in 2012, maintaining its position of the table. Of course, the confidence interval runs from 26 to 34, so in real terms this means virtually no change in corruption scores.

Similarly, the World Bank’s aggregate data on Worldwide Governance Indicators (which runs only until a couple of years back) reflects no improvement in control of corruption (-0.9 in a +2.5 to -2.5 scale), government effectiveness (-1.2), or regulatory quality (-0.7).

All told, the data on governance and corruption has changed little since I finished my Ph.D. research into Sierra Leone. This makes me wonder whether those findings still hold true today. But before I can make that judgment, I need to brush up on the latest political news and scandals, which entails persusing over 60 pages worth of Africa Confidential articles… Because why not.