Unbowed by Ebola, Sierra Leone seeks Canada’s blessing for bank leadership bid

OTTAWA — It seems the ravages of Ebola have done nothing to diminish the political aspirations of tiny, troubled Sierra Leone.

As the West African republic struggles to recover from one of the most devastating disease outbreaks in modern history, it is seeking help from Canada — not to rebuild, but to prosper.

Bockari Stevens, Sierra Leone’s ambassador to Canada, says his country is seeking the presidency of the African Development Bank.

Stevens says Sierra Leone wants Canada’s endorsement for the coveted position in a race that is pitting the tiny West African country against seven other African candidates.

He says the ambitious bid speaks volumes about his country’s determination to get past Ebola and resume the positive growth it was enjoying before the full fury of the disease landed last year.

Still, Stevens and aid experts agree there is still much to be done for Sierra Leone to fully recover from the outbreak — and Canada and other developed countries can help there, too.

“We are moving to the stage of post-Ebola recovery — that is a Herculean task we are facing,” Stevens said in a recent interview in Ottawa.

He came from Sierra Leone’s embassy in Washington, which covers Canada, to make the special pitch for the presidency and to lay out his government’s Ebola recovery plan.

Sierra Leone wants to have an impact beyond its borders, he stressed, noting that his country’s foreign minister, Samura Kamara, is well qualified to head Africa’s regional development bank, as a former senior executive at the International Monetary Fund.

Canada has some clout among the bank’s group of non-African members, controlling three per cent of voting shares, ranking it in eighth place.

A spokesman for Development Minister Christian Paradis said Canada has yet to decide who to endorse for the position.

The multilateral organization controls billions in grants and loans to fight poverty and stimulate economic development in Africa.

“We are already benefiting from it, but we just want to profile our country, small as we are, that indeed we can produce good people,” said Stevens.

Melanie Gallant of Oxfam Canada recently returned from a three-month stint in Sierra Leone, where she saw the evidence of many building projects on hold because of the Ebola outbreak.

“Sierra Leone seemed to be on a path of economic growth,”she said. “They were one of the most dynamic economies in West Africa, and you can see that first-hand.”

Now, it must reduce Ebola levels to zero to avoid the risk of a wider outbreak.

Stevens said a key step will be the reopening of his country’s schools on April 30, seven months after they were shut down to help halt the spread of the disease.

“It’s a huge logistical nightmare,” Stevens said. “We need to train our teachers, disinfect the schools, sensitize the children, have sanitation materials in place for students and teachers to use.”

It is essential for Sierra Leone to get its schools open again to avoid undoing the country’s remarkable recovery since the end of its long-running civil war a decade ago, said Dr. Bruce Aylward, the special representative for the UN World Health Organization’s Ebola response.

“You can’t lose a generation to school again after what these countries have come out of.”

The violence that gripped Sierra Leone, along with its neighbour Liberia, claimed 50,000 lives, and some of the starkest images of those conflicts are of women and children who fell prey to machete-wielding rebel forces.

This past week, the Ebola crisis claimed its 10,000th victim since last year’s outbreak in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Canada has contributed $110 million to fighting the problem.

Aylward said the UN would like to see another $25 million to $50 million from Canada to completely eliminate the disease in humans — the only true measure for successfully defeating the outbreak. The government says it will consider its options at upcoming international funding meetings.

Stevens praised Canada’s efforts so far, particularly its contribution of military personnel, who worked alongside British forces setting up laboratories, which significantly reduced delays in diagnosing the disease.

“Having enough laboratories shortened the time to know if somebody has Ebola or not,” he said, “and that’s the time between life and death.”

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