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Billionaire George Soros Visits Sierra Leone

Karamoh Kabba, Freetown, Sierra Leone, February 18, 2008

George Soros, chairman of Soros Fund Management, listens during a debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. (Photo: Fabrice Coffrini / AFP-Getty Images)

The paradox that Sierra Leone is the poorest country in the world despite its abundant mineral resources is an inconvenient truth that is about to change. As part of his tour of West Africa, billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros was in Sierra Leone this month to pledge his support for the country's economic recovery.

Foreign Affairs Minister Zainab Bangura took great pride in introducing Soros to members of the media community in a press conference at the Bintumani seaside hotel pressroom in Freetown on Feb. 10. Bangura also introduced Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute in New York, and Nana Dakor, executive director of the Open Society Initiative for East Africa, an affiliate of the Open Society Institute. The Open Society Institute promotes democracy and good governance in African countries

Before opening the floor to comments and questions, the moderator, Presidential Affairs Minister Alpha Kanu expressed great satisfaction in the fact that Sierra Leone is now able to attract such a great personality as Soros.

In his opening remarks, Soros spoke of his involvement in what he called the "big change" in the former Soviet Empire that created the "big opportunity" for him to become a philanthropist. He said he was in Sierra Leone to assist a nation that has held "free and fair elections, a process that is now leading to a democratic transition…

"We want to help build a free and open society."

Kanu noted that the world has 3.5 billion people who depend on oil, most of whom are among the poorest on earth. "There is a shifting of blame from government to the [extractive] companies and from the companies to government," he said. Citing Sierra Leone, he continued, "The people are not benefiting from the minerals. We don't benefit much from our extractive industry." He further explained that the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (E.I.T.A.) was formed by Western countries to ensure that the people benefit from the mineral resources of their countries.

Indeed, based on a fair assessment of the prevalence of poverty in Kono district, the former home of the third largest diamond in the world and the place of the infamous "blood diamond" coinage in the recent past, the E.I.T.A. does not seems to be working in the interest of the people.

When pressed by reporters to offer specifics on how he would help the people of Sierra Leone, Soros said his organization would help this previously war-torn West African nation in the area of "extractive mineral industry transparency policy formulation" and in "the development of civil societies." He maintained that the natural resources belong to the people but that very often rulers used the resources to benefit themselves creating what he referred to as "the resource curse."

Knowing very well that he would be preaching to the choir, Soros said, "I don't need to explain to you what is resource curse. You have suffered much from it in the recent past."

It appears that Soros and his Open Society are in Sierra Leone at the right time. But if by "recent past" Soros referred only to the infamous blood diamond days then he needs an update on the recent unrest in Kono district. Police and mining security officers responded in December to a demonstration for mining policy reforms with brutality that led to the shooting of at least one youth activist.

This incident was the reason for the suspension of mining activities that the foreign minister mentioned in her opening statement when she spoke about problems in the mining industry and the government's reaction to them, although she failed to state the reason for the suspension and the subsequent government inquest into the matter.

Soros, however, told the audience of mostly reporters demanding specific ways he intended to help Sierra Leone that his organization in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program would create a capacity-building fund that will help the people of Sierra Leone with intellectual capacity building through fellowship funding. He explained that the program would help qualified Sierra Leoneans who want to return home to work in the interest of the people do so, as opposed to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund expatriates who "have their own agenda that often works in the interest of governments and the institution they represent."

Later, outside the press conference, Lamin, a concerned citizen said, "This is the point; [one] especially developing economies often find difficulty grappling with. But coming from a world-renowned financial speculator, political activist, and philanthropist would likely drive the message through."

This explains why Foreign Affairs Minister Bangura felt such a sense of fulfillment and pride in her effort to orchestrate the arrival of the billionaire in Sierra Leone.

Her sense of satisfaction was so obvious that a reporter picked up on it and asked, "Why are you beaming?"

"I am beaming," Bangura said, "because it took us four and half years to invite George to come here." She went on to explain: "When George speaks, the world listens. He is the man that predicted the recent recession; you must have seen it on CNN. He had a very good discussion with government and he is carrying a good impression of us. His opinion will help open many doors for us rather than us going about knocking on doors."

Responding to Bangura's comment, Soros said, "I was able to listen to the president and hear his ambitious plans, which I am sure he would be able to deliver." But he also noted that he did not intend to become a "bed fellow" of government.

Soros engaged his audience in a lengthy explanation that his support was not unconditional though he may have liked what he heard. Once in power, he said, governments are tempted to do differently from what they originally set out to do. As an example, he cited the Rose Revolution in Georgia, which was "a bad experience" for him. Although he was "quite impressed" with the Georgian leader at first, his organization became the main critic of the government when that ruler became autocratic.

"I don't expect such in Sierra Leone," Soros said, expressing his optimism in the leaders here.

I asked Soros about his being referred to by his critics as more of a political activist than a philanthropist. He responded that his organization would be embarking on the development of civil societies, something entirely different from the intellectual capacity-building project in the extractive mineral industry he would be helping the government of Sierra Leone with through the formulation of transparent mining policies. In his own words, he called himself a "political philanthropist."

The deputy minister for trade and industry, Mabinty Daramy, has since her appointment demonstrated an unfaltering commitment to the building and encouraging of a strong private sector economy, which she has said "would help to reduce the growing youth unemployment in Sierra Leone." At this point in the press conference, she found an opportunity to interject her ministry's agenda into the equation:

"Mine is a commentary as opposed to a question. As a financial speculator your [Soros'] reflexivity, financial markets, and economic theory resulted in huge financial profit for you in 1992. When Britain failed to adhere to all European financial market trends, you bought 10 billion pounds that made 1 billion pounds profit on black Wednesday from the Bank of England for which you were dubbed 'the man who broke the Bank of England,'" she said with comic effect. "We welcome you along with your ingenious financial speculations skills and unparallel philanthropy to Sierra Leone. On a serious note though, we will not mind to dub you the man who built the bank of Sierra Leone."

Kanu, in his closing remarks, lauded Soros' intellectual capacity-building plan by alluding to Matthew 4:19: "When you teach a man how to fish, you feed him for life. When you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. We are looking forward to you to teach us how to fish."

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