For the third year in a row, the United Nations Development Program has rated Sierra Leone as having the world's worst living conditions. Sierra Leonean officials, say, however, they believe prospects for improvement are better this year as the country begins to recover from a 10-year civil war.

With its infrastructure and economy destroyed by the war, Sierra Leone remains last on the list of 173 nations rated by the United Nations Development Program.

The U.N. Human Development Index rates countries based on their achievements in terms of life expectancy, education, and income. This year's index, released Wednesday, also takes into account things like accessibility to clean water, and infant mortality.

Sierra Leone's war, gruesomely famous for the amputation of limbs and other atrocities committed by rebels against civilians, was declared over in January and peaceful elections were held in May. With peace now at hand and infrastructure projects well under way thanks to a large infusion of international aid, experts are confident that life expectancy currently 45 years - and health conditions will improve rapidly.

But there are factors that will likely remain challenges for the long term. A major one is the country's low literacy rate. Only 45 percent of men and 18 percent of women in Sierra Leone know how to read and write.

Officials, however, are optimistic.

The establishment of peace has given the government access to areas once controlled by rebels. U.N. officials say this has allowed for the delivery of services such as health care, immunizations, schools, and water systems to areas that had previously been off-limits. Since peace was declared in January, officials say there have been noticeable improvements in the areas of school enrollment and infant mortality.

Eugene Owusu, a senior economist for the UNDP in the capital, Freetown, says perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is the existence now of a viable political system that he says became evident when Sierra Leone held peaceful elections in May.

"Governance is about dealing with the needs and addressing the needs of people," he said. "Clearly, it has to be a two-way process, where policy formulation is not uni-directional, where policy in itself is being formed by the perspectives and the basic needs of the people. With the democratization process now in place, it has paved the way for consensus on policy formulation. We do see now a very vibrant parliament in place, which will serve as a check and balance on the executive [branch] and we think that in itself is positive.

The Sierra Leonean government is preparing an aggressive strategy to combat poverty, which it plans to implement with the help of international partners including the United States, Britain and the United Nations all of which have already contributed significantly to the country's reconstruction.