Sierra Leone

An image of the country's flag.

“Corruption and economic mismanagement, lack of opportunities for youth, and the underdevelopment of rural areas” were identified in the postwar truth commission process as underlying causes of the conflicts that devastated Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002 (Freeman 2008, 1). Donor support to Sierra Leone since 2002 has enabled combatants to be disarmed and reintegrated into society, many of those internally displaced by the war to return home, and the elements of a democratic state to be put in place. But economic performance remains inadequate to move Sierra Leone up from its place at or near the bottom rank of the Human Development Index. Many young men have turned away from agriculture toward mining, where they appear to find higher incomes but exploitative working conditions. Further, national and local governance are still believed by many to be prone to the same kinds of corruption and mismanagement that characterized Sierra Leone before the conflict. New approaches seem to be needed to establish property rights in ways that would encourage investment and rising productivity (especially in agriculture) and give landholders and local communities a stake in Sierra Leone’s economic future; and to provide transparent and accountable governance of the country’s considerable natural resources.

Exactly what these new approaches might be, however, is still a matter for analysis and political debate. Given the country’s increased reliance on imported rice for survival over the period of conflict, for example, many have recommended rapid revitalization of the agricultural sector through expansion of irrigation in the country’s inland valleys and wetlands, and greater investment in infrastructure to connect rural areas, where just over 60 % of the country’s 5.5 million people live. The Government’s 2009 National Rice Strategy proposes that efforts to achieve national self-sufficiency in rice production are “the only solution” to food security and economic growth. Others question the institutional capacity of the government and local communities to support this agricultural strategy, including the ability to train farmers in the new methods of cultivation required for irrigated production, and the willingness of local paramount chiefs to appropriately handle the “micro-politics” that surround the allocation of land subject to customary tenure, especially when land was abandoned during the years of conflict. Close monitoring of Sierra Leone’s initial development efforts will be essential to identifying those factors that impede or accelerate achievement of higher productivity, incomes, and rural well-being in agriculture.

Similar analyses and debates will underpin development strategies for the mineral and forestry sectors, sectors of the economy which provide Sierra Leone with considerable potential for wealth. The 2009 Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper underscores the importance of legal reforms of the mining and forestry sectors for jobs and revenues. Some legal reform has been achieved in the mining sector. Based on past experience, however, implementation of the new legal framework will require strong resource governance structures able to meet the challenge of assuring that the benefits from the legal exploitation of the country’s mineral and forest resources are widely distributed and/or invested for the good of all citizens. This is not an easy challenge.


  •  Support the Government’s and Farming Communities’ Efforts to Increase Rice Production While Broadening The Scope of Investments to Foster Agricultural Productivity More Broadly. Developing alternatives to slash-andburn technologies should be an effective way to address the labor constraints now being experienced by Sierra Leone’s farmers as they redevelop their farms post-conflict. Moving toward more sustainable systems of cultivation will require, inter alia: (1) defining new rules for allocation of land both to provide greater incentives to young farmers, including women, and investors (formulation of new rules must include participation by elected local officials and the paramount chiefs – whose power to allocate land has been restored and, in some ways, strengthened by government’s efforts to decentralize authority); (2) investments in research to define locally adapted packages of improved technologies; and (3) efforts to link rural areas to urban markets through infrastructure. Donor assistance will be essential to funding these broad initiatives as well as providing technical analysis and advisory services as needed.
  • Facilitate an Inventory on the Quality, Extent, and Assets of State Land and Forest Land (Whether Public or Private) to Establish a Clear Baseline for Sustainable Economic Exploitation Going Forward. This inventory should be accompanied by a review of the legislative and regulatory frameworks providing for use of this land and the safeguarding of biodiversity. It will also be important to support the establishment of civil society monitoring as well as institutions that would add transparency and accountability in government operations regarding these resources. Donor funding will be essential to completing these actions, but local and regional environmental expertise should be engaged to lead the effort.
  • Support Government’s Efforts to Develop a Legal, Transparent, and Accountable Mining Sector. Donors should work with the government to ensure that all citizens derive greater benefits from the country’s mineral wealth by: enhancing the rights of communities and artisanal miners to land and to a fair share of the proceeds from minerals; addressing corruption; and managing environmental impacts more effectively (reducing pollution and increasing reclamation efforts). Donors can continue to support the Kimberley Process but might also consider other third-party monitoring involvement in other aspects of minerals development.
  • Address the Gender Discrimination that Seems to be Inherent in Traditional Governance Structures at the local level and contributing both to economic injustice and to a generation gap – with youth no longer willing to accept customary rules and the imposition of customary authority regarding marriage, labor allocation, and economic opportunities. Methodologies for addressing these issues through community dialogues have been developed and applied elsewhere. Donors, working with NGO partners, should consider the possibility of their utility in Sierra Leone.


Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991 to 2002) wreaked havoc on the country’s social fabric and its economy, exposing its people to extreme hardship and vulnerability. The war destroyed infrastructure and caused institutions to disintegrate and people to flee. The end of the war has been followed by seven years of recovery and improvement in Sierra Leone’s economic performance and prospects. However, the causes of the conflict – which according to most observers were rooted in governmental corruption and mismanagement of Sierra Leone’s considerable natural resources – persist in many areas. Much remains to be done to put the country on a path to sustainable peace and social and economic development.

Sierra Leone is a highly diverse country, with a population of about 5.5 million speaking more than a dozen languages. The country includes coastal zones, wooded hill country, an upland plateau, and, in the east, mountains of nearly 2000 meters. The country is rich in resources, with reserves of diamonds, rutile (titanium dioxide) and bauxite, productive agricultural lands, and rainforests. Offshore oil reserves have recently been discovered. The “resource curse” – rather than tensions between ethnic or tribal groups – has been visited upon Sierra Leone as urban, military, and rural elites have attempted to use their positions to control resources for personal gain and power rather than for the benefit of the citizens. Poverty, malnutrition, and inadequate levels of health care and schooling have been the result of this inequitable distribution of resources and have contributed to the country’s position near the bottom of the Human Development Index.

Rural land is generally abundant, and availability of land is not considered a constraint in agricultural production. However, locally powerful families and chiefs often control access to the highly valued wetlands and inland valley swamps that permit intensive, year-round production, and less powerful members of rural communities, including women, may not have equal opportunities to access productive land. In the capital of Freetown and its environs (called the “Western Area”), much of the land is privately held in freehold tenure. Urban populations grew significantly in the years of conflict (to about 40% of the total population), increasing the numbers of people living in slums, and encroaching on the state and private land surrounding the city.

Customary law governs land tenure throughout the rest of the country, and traditional paramount chiefs control land access. Conflict displaced rural populations in many areas (with more than a quarter of the population displaced at one time or another) and many local authorities were overruled by various factions in the conflict or simply killed. In the post-conflict period, donors supported government efforts to restore the authority of paramount chiefs in order to reestablish stability in the rural areas and hasten resumption of agricultural development and decentralization. Some observers have noted that the restoration of the chieftaincy system potentially perpetuates abuses of power and exploitation of the local population, especially the rural youth. Ex- combatants and rural youth are less likely to return to rural areas and provide much-needed agricultural labor if they believe the chiefs will control and ultimately limit their economic opportunities and status in rural communities.

Sierra Leone enjoys vast surface water and groundwater resources, but most citizens do not have access to potable water. The lack of long-term maintenance of public infrastructure during the civil war, weak institutional capacity, the absence of a comprehensive legal framework, and inadequate funding have resulted in significant constraints to the supply of water to the population.

Sierra Leone has substantial mineral resources, including diamonds, bauxite, and gold. The government has recently reformed the legal framework governing the mining sector in order to attract investment and provide revenue for rural and urban development and environmental protection.

Published / Updated: August 2010