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Sierra Leoneans to Monitor Government's Use of Debt Relief Funds

Sierra Leone, which was recently forgiven more than $1.5 billion in debt, is now looking at how to spend the extra funds. Some in the impoverished nation say they worry the government will mishandle money set aside to repay the debt and that little benefit will reach those who need it. Kari Barber reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar.

The announcement in January that the last of Sierra Leone's debt to major world lenders, including the World Bank, was forgiven was met with excitement as many Sierra Leoneans saw it as a step toward improved international standing.

This represents 90 percent of the debt owed, with a much smaller portion still owed to private lenders.

However, many are concerned that with pressure off from lenders and a new windfall of cash available, the government will not adopt good economic practices. The government is widely perceived as corrupt by Sierra Leoneans.

Abu Brima of the National Movement for Justice and Development, a Freetown-based civil society organization, said people are waiting to hear the government's plan. "So people are now like, 'So what, the debt has been canceled," he said. What steps are now being taken to make sure the resources are to be used for the real development of the country.'"

Brima says he would like to see the money go toward paving roads, paying teachers and making electricity and clean water available.

Activist Morlai Kamara is organizing a campaign to monitor the spending of the newly freed funds. He said he is asking international organizations and Sierra Leone's civil society to work together to keep the government accountable. "We have to make sure that we continue to keep our eyes on our government and on even international financial institutions to insure that we do not go back to reckless lending and illegitimate contraction of laws," he said.

Timothy Armitate, an economic consultant with the London-based group Global Insight, says the fact that the Sierra Leone government earned debt relief proves it has some commitment to transparency and reform. Armitate says the government is likely to continue many of the practices the lenders required because the country still needs international approval to get much needed aid. "What this does is it puts pressure on the government to comply with deficit targets and local revenue generating targets," he explained. "Also it leads to more prudent fiscal policies as they risk losing the backing of the international community if they do go on renegade spending."

Sierra Leone's debt relief is a result of programs, such as the Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative, which allow impoverished nations to be forgiven debt so that money can be used, instead, to fight poverty. Sierra Leone's government was granted the relief based on efforts to fight corruption and increase economic growth.