Christian Aid: Drop Sierra Leone debts

17 May 2019

Tom Pilston/Christian Aid

In the village of Bumbeh Pejeh, in the Pujahun district of Sierra Leone, women hold a procession and dance with their metal savings boxes

In the village of Bumbeh Pejeh, in the Pujahun district of Sierra Leone, women hold a procession and dance with their metal savings boxes

THE debt of nearly £200 million accrued by Sierra Leone when it faced the worst recorded outbreak of the Ebola virus in history must be cancelled to save its health-care system and save lives, Christian Aid has warned.

More than 4000 people in Sierra Leone had been killed by the airborne disease by the end of the two-year-long outbreak in 2016, including ten per cent of health-care workers in the country. Health-care had already suffered from a decade of civil war in the 1990s, and Sierra Leone was forced to take out loans to deal with the crisis.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed to cancel the £22 million in payments it was owed in 2015 and 2016. But the IMF loaned a further £197 million, due between 2015 and 2017, and therefore forecasts that, by 2022, Sierra Leone will be spending 19 per cent of government revenue on foreign debt payments; 40 per cent of which are to the IMF.

In its latest report, The New Global Debt Crisis, released on Wednesday during Christian Aid Week, the charity calls for these debts to be dropped.

Tom Pilston/Christian AidOne of the villagers Messah Brewah holds one of the boxes

“When the outbreak began in May 2014, the country was ill-equipped to handle the crisis,” it says. “One of the world’s poorest nations, Sierra Leone suffers from a deficit of health clinics, medical personnel, and vital resources such as ambulances. With alarmingly high maternal mortality rates, it is also the world’s most dangerous place to become a mother.”

More women die in childbirth in Sierra Leone than in any other country — for every 100,000 live births in the country, 1360 mothers die, compared with nine in the UK. This is due to the lack of health professionals and health-care facilities, including ambulances, Christian Aid reports.

“If there is no clinic in their village, women in labour can wait up to eight hours before an ambulance arrives,” said a spokeswoman for Christian Aid who had recently travelled to the country. “Others travel to hospital on the back of a hired motorbike, but the poorest have no choice but to walk for hours on foot. Many women and babies do not survive the journey.”

Christian Aid is working with its partners to address the short-term health-needs of pregnant women, including providing padlocked boxes into which women who join the scheme pay a small amount of money each week. When these women need to borrow money for an emergency, they can take a loan and pay it back gradually with interest.

Fatamata Dugba lives in a village in the Pujehun district, in southern Sierra Leone, where there are three ambulances for a population of 375,000. She has given birth to five children; only two have survived. During the seventh month of her last pregnancy, she needed an operation.

“They had to remove the womb,” she says. “I wanted to keep it, but my husband gave the authority: he said because of the situation, they should get rid of the womb. The men gave the order; so I just decided to accept what he did for me to have lived. I would have died if there hadn’t been any box.”

But long-term change will come only when the government can afford to pay its own health services, Christian Aid has warned. As the fourth largest shareholder in the IMF, the Government in the UK must use its influence to help abate the fresh crisis unfolding in Sierra Leone.

“The debt trap is obviously a global problem, but the UK has played a vastly disproportionate role in facilitating the crisis, and therefore needs to play a leading role in helping to resolve and prevent further debt crisis,” the report says.

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