Situation in Sierra Leone: Discussion.

I welcome Ms Zainab Bangura, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Co-Operation of the Republic of Sierra Leone. The Minister is accompanied by Mrs. Florence Bangalie. Also present is Mr. Joe Manning, honorary consul for Sierra Leone in Ireland. Submissions from World Vision Ireland and Trócaire in respect of Sierra Leone have been circulated to members. We are most grateful to World Vision and Trócaire for these.

In 1996, Minister Bangura founded the Campaign for Good Governance, the largest indigenous non-governmental organisation in Sierra Leone focused on democracy, human rights, civil society development, the rule of law and the political and economic empowerment of women. She also provided consultancy services for international organisations in the field of social development. In 2002, she founded the Movement for Progress, MOP, a new political party, and contested the 2002 presidential election as a MOP candidate. She subsequently took on the role of executive director of the National Accountability Group, an organisation aiming to achieve greater accountability and transparency in private and public affairs and to curb corruption. From March 2005 until she assumed her current position as Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Co-Operation in 2007, Ms Bangura held the position of chief civil affairs officer at the UN Mission in Liberia.

The Joint Committee is aware that Minister Bangura's country faces many extreme challenges. We are also aware that her government is making efforts to deliver on an ambitious programme of reform. Members will be keen to hear about the priorities of her Government as well as the development challenges Sierra Leone faces.

Before we commence, I advise the witnesses that whereas Members of the Houses enjoy absolute privilege in respect of utterances made in committee, witnesses do not enjoy such privilege. Accordingly, caution should be exercised, particularly with regard to references of a personal nature. I now invite Minister Bangura to address the committee and we will then take questions from members.

Ms Zainab Bangura

I thank the Chairman. I am honoured to be present at this meeting. My first duty is to thank the Government and people of Ireland for the support they have given Sierra Leone in the post-war recovery period through which it has been going in recent years. Ireland has supported us through our most difficult time. I also thank Ireland for appointing a chargé d'affaires to Sierra Leone because this is an indication of the Irish Government's desire to deepen its engagement with my country. I further thank Ireland for supporting the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Despite the changes implemented in recent years, Sierra Leone still faces many challenges. Our people's expectations remain extremely high and we require Ireland's continued engagement and support, particularly during the difficult crisis that is occurring globally.

My visit is aimed at discovering how we might strengthen, deepen and consolidate the relationship that already exists between our two countries through the sharing of experiences in the context of post-war reconstruction, reconciliation and economic transformation. We are very much aware of the road on which Ireland has come as a country, from which we hope we can benefit tremendously in terms of sharing experiences. As the Chairman mentioned, the president since coming to office has charted a bold new path for accelerating the advancement of the country and he has developed what he calls his agenda for change, which coincidentally he will present to the development partners today. This will be the beginning of a process of continuing engagement with these partners and it will form part of the poverty reduction strategy he hopes to present in London in November to see how we could further strengthen the collaboration we have.

His vision is articulated in his agenda for change, which has key priorities. His first priority is agriculture. Sierra Leone has seven months of rainfall and nine rivers run across the country. It has tremendous potential. The reality is, despite that advantage, we cannot feed ourselves and we import 60% of our food. The president believes that Sierra Leone cannot only feed itself but it can also export and we did it in the 1960s. Part of the challenge is how we move from being a net importer to an exporter not only in the context of the food and rice we consume but in regard to other cash crops. Success in agriculture is a must for the president. We have to do it because he feels the potential is there but, how do we move from potential to reality.

There is also the energy sector in which we need to develop the capacity to produce more energy to encourage private sector development. There are other areas of infrastructure. One cannot support agriculture without infrastructure. The United Nations Development Programme social indicators in the health and education sectors put Sierra Leone at the bottom of the list. The challenges are huge but the President believes we can do it. He is working towards working with Ireland and other partners and we will engage with each other in November in London to see how they can continue to support Sierra Leone to move us from a country that is donor dependent to one that is self-sufficient and provides support.

For us, Ireland stands as an example of a success story, an economic transformation. It is crucial for us, which is why the president had me pay this visit to Ireland, to see how we can work together in the two countries and help us in the economic transformation of our country, moving it from potential to reality.

Sierra Leone is rich in natural resources with a population of 5 million. Poverty is very extreme. We lag behind sub-Saharan African countries and we have no business to be poor. The war is over and we have put it behind us. We have worked on serious structural changes and reforms in the security and public sectors and many other reforms but we still have a long way to go. We still need Ireland's support to move us from the immediate level to a country that is self-sufficient.

Another challenge that faces us as a post-war country is that statistics show 50% of countries that emerge from war revert to war within ten years. Many of the countries do not address the causes of the conflicts, which in our cases was corruption and mismanagement of state resources. A great deal of focus is being paid to the issue of the consequences of the conflict. Sierra Leone is working seriously in these areas to make sure not only that the country becomes a success story but that it does not revert to conflict.

The incidents that happened in March were an indication that we are still a fragile state and no matter what we do we must remember that there are certain things we have to address. However, we were extremely lucky. When those incidents happened and there was political instability, we were able to deal with them very quickly and we succeeded in signing an MOU. We have learned lessons from that experience. We are implementing them adequately working together again with the development partners, realising that there are things we have taken for granted, which we will deal with seriously and work on.

Regarding our relationship with our neighbours, we have a very good relationship with Liberia. The President of Liberia was in Sierra Leone less than a week ago and the same thing with Guinea. We are in a union, which comprises four members of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS – La Cote d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. The headquarters of the economic union which we are working towards revitalising is based in Sierra Leone. The chairman of the union is the President of Liberia. Within the past year since coming to office, we have hosted the Heads of State in November last year. The president has a very good working relationship with the President of Liberia.

Quite recently, before the coup and the death of the previous President of Guinea, we had worked closely with the government of Guinea, but, after the coup, we had to give an opportunity to the international community to engage with Guinea to make sure a transitional programme was put in place. As soon as we had the conviction that Guinea has developed a programme, we started to re-engage with the country. I was there last week. I met the chairman and I had a meeting. The day I left, Thursday, the President of Liberia went to Guinea and on Friday she came to Sierra Leone and our President will visit Guinea in July to continue the pressures put on by the international community that Guinea has to stay on course. Destabilisation in Guinea has devastating consequences for Sierra Leone and, in as much as we support the African Union and the ECOWAS in suspending Guinea, we believe, as a neighbouring country, we must work with Guinea and continue to engage with Guinea to encourage those involved to continue on the path of democracy and to make sure they keep up to the timetable.

We are quite engaged with the rest of west Africa in the ECOWAS summits. At the last summit of the African Union our President was elected deputy chairman. We are also engaged at that level. Sierra Leone is taking its rightful place once more in the international arena both at sub-regional and regional level because we believe that Sierra Leone is where it is today through the concerted effort of the international community and the only way we can pay back is by being a success story. As the President mentioned, failure is not an option for us. We cannot afford to fail. We must succeed to get the world to know at least there is one success story and Ireland's investment in Sierra Leone was not wasted.

We do not want to maintain thestatus quo. We want to develop to a success story, which means we will need continued support to be able to move to a level where in a few years we will not need the aid money and it could be given to other countries that need it considerably. By and large, I am here to say thanks to Ireland for the years of support it has given to us and the continuous engagement with Sierra Leone and we still look forward to the support from this country, which we value very much and especially its engagement. I again thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs for helping to organise this meeting and the Irish honorary consul who has been extremely useful and supportive to us. I met him before I was sworn in as Foreign Minister.

The Chairman referred to the international accountability group. Irish Aid was one of the groups that funded me when I started working on transparency and accountability mainly because that is what caused the conflict. The main reason for the conflict was corruption and mismanagement. When I took up the challenge to start working in that area, Irish Aid was one of the first international organisations to provide support for me, which I appreciated very much. I thank everyone very much. The remaining issues will be addressed as we come to the questions. I thank the Chairman.

I thank the Minister. We appreciate the great difficulties she is experiencing and the work she is doing on the agenda for change. She mentioned the tackling of corruption. It reminded me that when we visited Malawi recently we saw its structure for tackling corruption, an issue which it emphasised. I will give the Minister a copy of our report which outlines what is happening there. It is a major problem. While Malawi has had great success with the more major projects, there is still considerable corruption on smaller projects.

I welcome the delegation. The Minister, Ms Bangura, has a very impressive record in working for human rights, transparency and better governance in Sierra Leone. I am also aware the honorary consul, Mr. Manning, does considerable good work on that country's behalf with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The statistics Ms Bangura mentioned in her submission are frightening — a mortality rate of one in five children under five years of age and life expectancy of 42 years. The figures forper capita earnings are also frightening. We feel hard done by with the pension levy but the statistics for Sierra Leone put things in perspective for us. Therefore, it is very important for us not to make a disproportionate cut in the overseas aid budget just because it is a soft target. It is important that we strive to reach the figure of 0.7% of GNP by 2012. We have cut back on our percentage payments in the past year and the cut has been disproportionate relative to the cuts made in other areas. I call on the Government to change its approach.

Ms Bengura has mentioned that Sierra Leone is rich in mineral resources. I ask her to elaborate on the diamond companies, many of which were under the influence of Mr. Charles Taylor. Where are the mineral extraction companies operating in Sierra Leone based and where do their profits go? Does Sierra Leone benefit from their presence? Does Mr. Taylor still have influence? Does he have support? Is his regime still in existence?

The brief states Irish Aid gave approximately €20 million between 2006 and 2008 directly to the government programme, with perhaps another €10 million to the NGOs working in the country, including GOAL, Trócaire and Christian Aid. How effectively has the aid been administered? Does Ms Bangura have a total figure for all the money given in aid to Sierra Leone from all sources? If she does not have it with her, perhaps she might supply it at some time in the future.

Female genital mutilation is a very emotive issue for us in Ireland and I would like to get Ms Bangura's views on the matter. What steps, if any, has her Government taken to address it, or is it so embedded in the culture that it cannot be tackled? Countries such as Sierra Leone might adopt the approach that it is part of its heritage and tradition and that people in western European countries such as Ireland do not have an understanding of it.

I thank the Minister, Ms Bangura, for her overview of what is happening in Sierra Leone. We are very conscious of the work done by Irish Aid, missionaries and NGOs in the country and I know much progress has been made. In the short to medium term does Ms Bangura envisage the continuation of good governance and administration? What can Ireland and the European Union do to help Sierra Leone's economy? Has ECOWAS been affected by the global downturn, or is it coping with the difficulties the world economy is experiencing?

I agree with Deputy Timmins on the issue of female genital mutilation. While I accept there is a cultural issue, Sierra Leone signed an international human rights agreement. What progress is being made at Government level and in dealing with the leaders of some of Sierra Leone's communities? I understand some of them have decided to eliminate the practice of female circumcision altogether.

On the question of the abuse of drugs, I know that drugs are brought into Sierra Leone and sometimes find their way to Europe from South America. What progress is being made in combating the problem?

Poverty must be a source of major concern to all of us. I ask Ms Bangura to speak about the Chinese investment in Sierra Leone. What is its involvement in mining and other developments in the country?

I join other members in welcoming the Minister, Ms Bengura. I pay tribute to her, not just for what she is trying to do here on her visit, but also for what she has achieved in the past.

I find it very difficult to discuss Sierra Leone, as the figures are horrific and challenging. The loss of women in childbirth is extraordinary. The very high infant mortality rate and the short life expectancy are horrific. While I strongly support what Irish Aid is giving and what the Government is trying to do, the challenge is enormous. In a curious way, it raises issues of the success or otherwise of the multilateral agencies, or the scale of their work through the United Nations in impacting on the programme. The figures are the highest in the world or certainly in the top three which presents an immense challenge. I do not believe a committee such as this can stand aside from the health, population and health education issues raised.

On the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, I do not believe a cultural statement can defeat a human right. When we were in Africa last year, we put a question directly to parliamentarians in Tanzania and Uganda about what they were doing on the issue of female genital mutilation. The reply was more or less that when the people were for it, the government would do something about the issue. As a sociologist with some training in social anthropology, I reject the cultural defence for the abuse of human rights. Female genital mutilation is an abuse of a woman's rights and falling back on a cultural explanation is evasive. It is interesting that the politicians from other countries in Africa with whom we discussed this issue were all male. What I found pathetic on our visit was the low level of resources available to small non-governmental organisations trying to make progress from a woman's point of view. This is one of the reasons I pay tribute to the human rights perspective in the Minister's background.

On another issue, about which I remain sensitive, Ireland provides aid for issues of governance. While I cannot recall when I last looked at figures on Sierra Leone, I understand, although I could be completely wrong, that where food production has increased — 40% to 60% of food is imported — it has been due to women's labour which accounts for about 80% of agricultural production.

One must also remember that women may not have land titles. One has a collision, as it were, between this fact and insensitive and silly programmes emanating from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank which speak about the necessity of titles as a source of collateral for investment by banks. This ignores entirely the fact that the productive agent in relation to the soil is a woman who has no land rights. This is one of the fundamental contradictions that stares one in the face when one reads about a country such as Sierra Leone. If I am wrong, I am willing to be entirely contradicted. I do not consider this issue of title to be a cultural one either because it has no basis, even in early African history. It is bogus.

On the question of countries neighbouring Sierra Leone, the note we received from the Department of Foreign Affairs refers to the origin of a terrible war in which many lives were lost and many people displaced. The war was connected to diamonds. Illegal diamonds are still finding their way into the European Union. People may argue that, as the point of destination, there is a direct connection with the war and, therefore, a responsibility on the international community.

I am glad to note the report citing good relations, at least at head of government level, between Sierra Leone and its neighbours. I have read other reports indicating that relations may not be so thorough.

On the Irish aid connection, World Vision and Trócaire do very good work in the region and the latter has a governance programme. We should do everything possible to make available skills to the legal and administrative structure and in terms of the connection between human rights and development and so forth.

It would be entirely dishonest of me to omit to mention that cuts in Irish aid will affect some vital programmes. Let us hope we will be informed that these programmes will at least remain intact and neither the Government programme nor those of the non-governmental organisations in the country will suffer. Ireland's reputation has been damaged by the decision to impose a disproportionate cut of 22% in the aid programme. We should not run away from this issue. I hope the aid budget will be back on track soon.

I was highly impressed by the presentation of the Minister, Ms Bangura, which reflected her previous work as described by the Chairman. I wonder why the Minister was not elected president in 2002 and would be interested in hearing, in a nutshell, the reasons.

I am concerned by the Minister's statement that 50% of countries where there has been a conflict return to war within ten years. What is the probability of countries in the region, including Sierra Leone, going backwards rather than forwards?

On gross domestic product and economic growth, many Spiritans, an order previously known as the Holy Ghost Fathers, spent a long time in Sierra Leone and we often praise the work they have done. I regret more business people and economists were not involved in the country as it would have benefited the economy.

That would depend on the economist.

Yes, economists differ.

If it were Charlie McCreevy, we would have no hope at all.

Annualper capita GDP in Sierra Leone stands at approximately €300. I have done a few sums which show that at an annual growth rate of 10%, it would take seven years to double per capita GDP and 25 years to increase it to €3,000 per annum, which is less than one tenth of average annual per capita GDP in Europe. To reach this figure — €30,000 — would take 50 years, which is much too long. What can be done to equalise wealth in the world more rapidly and, specifically, to improve per capita GDP in Sierra Leone? It seems to be an impossible task when one does the sums.

I thank the Minister for providing the joint committee with information on Sierra Leone to allow us to become more knowledgeable about her country. I will certainly follow developments with great interest.

Senators have to leave the meeting for a division in the Seanad.

I thank the Chair for pointing that out as I had intended to inform the Minister that I intended no discourtesy by leaving the meeting. Unfortunately, a number of further divisions will be called and I will be sporadic in my attendance as a result.

I am glad to have heard most of what the distinguished Minister had to say, on which I will make a couple of comments. We are all aware of the terrible reality of war in Sierra Leone. I received information about it from a source in the country in the form of a handwritten letter and photographs of the two children of the correspondent, a woman, both of whom had been severely mutilated. I sent some money which was immediately met by an increased demand. When I got in touch with some of the agencies I discovered this was a scam. Mutilation is terrible but it is not particular to Sierra Leone. It happens all over the world. The human animal is very ingenious. That is not confined to Sierra Leone or to Africa. What saddened me about it is that the injuries were real, and that I had seen similar injuries previously, embedded in reports from Sierra Leone. I thought it was rather miserable to try to profit from the tragedy that had befallen other people. I accept absolutely the very difficult circumstances out of which Ms Bangura's country has emerged. That is the first thing.

Second, I am rather ashamed about our overseas development aid situation. I am one of those, of whom there were many, who argued that there was no necessity to cut it whatsoever, given the guarantees that have been extensively given. Apart from anything else, with the shrinking economy and taking into account that our target was expressed as a percentage, it was going to fall anyway. It was a kind of self-regulating cut. What we committed ourselves to was to reach 0.7% of whatever we had. If we have a lot, it would be a lot but if we have a little, it would be a little. I inform the Minister and her colleagues that this matter is the subject of a Private Members' debate in the Seanad this evening at 5 p.m. We will argue that case very strongly.

I applaud what the Minister said about it being the intention of her Government to move from being aid-dependent to being self-sufficient. That is an admirable aim. We are all interrelated. We know that very well in the present economic blizzard that is blowing around the world. Nobody is completely independent.

I will put that to one side and end with a reference to a particular situation which I am not sure has been extensively aired, namely, female genital mutilation. I hope it will not be considered an impertinence for me to raise it because I am not a woman. I am an African though because I was born on the equator in a neighbouring country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was then a rather miserable colony that was badly treated by the Belgians. Whoever called it the Democratic Republic of Congo had a deep sense of irony. I understand that the practice of female genital mutilation is endemic in Sierra Leone. The figures that have been quoted to us is 90% of the female population. That is a clumsy, dangerous and frequently disastrous intervention with the human body and exposes the victim to considerable dangers in terms of health, especially given the kind of instruments that are used, which are not sterilised. Infections can result and the transmission of serious diseases such as AIDS.

I am sure Ms Bangura is much more familiar with the issue than I am. I recognise that this is an area of sensitivity because it may be presented as relating to culture, as it has been to me. I do not believe it is an area of culture. It is an area of human experience that is so basic that it is not covered by these kinds of margins of appreciation and grey areas. What is the Government's attitude towards it? One assumes that it is true that the persistence of the practice is at levels of 90%. I do not intend any disrespect to the Minister but a representative from Nigeria, for example, deliberately misled the press and a committee similar to this on the prevalence of the practice in her country. She simply did not tell the truth and she was very aggressive about it. What she said was not true, not only that but she was contradicted by her own representative who made a report to the United Nations. That worries us. I am not sure of the extent to which these figures can be established. They are very high.

Apparently, there is no law against female genital mutilation and no educational programme in Sierra Leone. I realise that one is treading on dangerous ground giving other people in a sovereign Government advice, but in the case of something that is so deeply damaging I wonder whether it would not be a good idea to consider an education programme to bring the people along with the Government. It does seem, at least from outside, that this is a negative practice, one that is not life enhancing. I happen to believe that the removal of the possibility of sexual pleasure, for example, by a group of people from a young person in this very brutal way is revolting. Some people might think that is frivolous but I do not at all, it is one of the great life-enhancing joys. I wonder what is the situation and whether there will be an education programme. Will legislation be introduced?

The Minister has heard the comments. Mr. Richard Lemoshira, a counsellor with the Embassy of Kenya is present in the Visitors Gallery. His Excellency, Ambassador Anas Khales, has just left. Alexia Haywood, is a programme development assistant with Christian Aid, and John Moffet is head of programme development with Christian Aid. Ms Aoibhín de Búrca is from the school of politics and international relations in UCD. Mr. Brendan McMahon is from the Department of Foreign Affairs and is head of the programme countries. He has a deep interest in the work under discussion. Anne-Marie Callan from the Department of Foreign Affairs is based in Sierra Leone and Claire McCarthy is also from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

I will hand over to the Minister, Ms Bangura, to comment on what has been said and to answer any questions. We could discuss these matters for some time. At the end of his contribution Senator Norris introduced education, which is a significant requirement in the circumstances and is fundamental in terms of underlying all the developments the Government hopes to put in place. I invite Ms Bangura to reply to the questions.

Ms Zainab Bangura

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee. I will begin with the subject raised by the Chairman, namely, corruption. It was one of the causes of the conflict. What the President has done is enacted a new anti-corruption Act last year which gave prosecutorial powers to the commission on anti-corruption. The procedure was that before we came to power all the files had to go to the attorney general's office, which made it very difficult for him to prosecute ministers and top level people. Before the commissioner can prosecute he must get a fiat from the President. We have in place some of the most progressive anti-corruption legislation.

I am a member of the commission. The aim was to develop a national anti-corruption strategy. I am chairman with responsibility for the implementation of the strategy at the top level. Recently when they graded the ministries, my ministry got 40%, which was very embarrassing for me as chairman. Basically, each ministry now has to have a committee. We are making efforts and progress. It is also necessary to develop the system because corruption is not only a matter of prosecution. We do not want to emphasise prosecution alone but also prevention and public education. The strategy must be holistic. That means one has to prevent corruption but one also has to prosecute it and have education awareness. Offices are now being set up across the country.

We are making an effort because we know that if we deal with the problem of corruption then we can move from the potential to the reality of Sierra Leone achieving the vision of the President in terms of addressing poverty. Corruption results in a lot of wastage. I would like to read the committee's report. We will give it to the commissioner who is one of our best human rights lawyers. He is very young and dynamic. He was in the transitional justice initiative programme before he was brought in by the President. Corruption is high on the President's agenda and he is insisting on tackling it. For the first time ministers, public servants even police officers are now being required to disclose their assets. A couple of minutes after he signed the Act, the President disclosed his assets. One has to declare everything, including the number of pairs of shoes or earrings one has. Thus, one's accounts are monitored yearly to determine how much one is spending and the extent of one's spending capability and earning power. We are working toward that and it is very challenging. Recently the DFID Minister gave £2 million to the anti-corruption commission. We have even subjected our overseas embassies to scrutiny. The commission is setting up structures to investigate them. The problem is so deep rooted that it affects the ordinary policeman in the street. Corruption, as members know, operates on a small scale and on a massive scale, in respect of contracts, for example. An effort is being made in this regard.

With regard to diamonds, I am sure members are aware that part of the outcome of addressing the problem with diamonds in Sierra Leone is the Kimberley process, the certification process. Diamonds did not cause the war in Sierra Leone but fuelled it. When the rebels took hold of the mining area, they had additional resources to buy more arms. At the beginning of the war, they were not in control of the diamond areas. However, when they took hold of them, they exchanged the resources for arms. Diamonds fuelled and prolonged the war and this is why the whole world focused on the blood diamond issue, thus leading to the setting up of the Kimberley process.

The challenge is that, as I speak, Sierra Leone only benefits from a diamond tax of 3%. We are considering this issue. When the Government came to power, we suspended all the mining agreements. We are renegotiating them and, in the process, we are developing new mining regulations to ensure the national resources in Sierra Leone will benefit the ordinary citizen. The President suspended all the contracts he inherited. He reviewed them, brought lawyers from overseas, as Liberia did, and considered the contracts. The director general of the mining Ministry is a British technical assistant who was provided by the DFID. The whole mining sector is being reviewed to ensure Sierra Leona benefits from what it produces.

The influence of Charles Taylor is very limited because, once one contains the rebel power, one contains Charles Taylor's influence. Once he was arrested and everybody knew he was behind bars, it completely dissipated his influence in Sierra Leone, which was limited to the top level of leadership. This is even the case in Liberia. I worked in the UN offices in Liberia where Mr. Taylor had a political party, a rebel movement. The Government in Liberia has succeeded in containing it. There is some semblance of loyalty but not in Sierra Leone where the influence of Mr. Taylor has been minimised considerably. He was dealing with the leadership of the Revolutionary United Front, which was wiped out. Many died, including the top commander, Sam Bockarie, and those remaining were tried. Mr. Taylor is no longer an issue for us in Sierra Leone because, as far as we believe, he was arrested and is gone forever. We are not really worried about him.

On the question of the effectiveness of donor aid, there is a considerable challenge. My portfolio covers both international affairs and international co-operation. I realised there was a little co-ordination among donors. We sat down with them and considered their different objectives and are now working on having a co-ordinated approach on general funding. As I stated, the first meeting of the development partnership is being held with the President. We are to have continuous and regular aid co-ordination. We are also taking into account success stories such as that in Mozambique and Rwanda to determine how they managed aid co-ordination effectively and got donors to focus on certain areas and develop their skills. We are studying their comparative advantage so we can reduce duplication and wastage. We have the complete co-operation of the donors.

The UN family itself has a joint vision to reduce the number of working objectives and address how they align with the Government's key objectives and priority areas. Further relationships and collaboration are now developing between the donors, Government and others. It is still a huge challenge because donors ultimately feel what a particular country wants to fund does not have any relation with what the country in question wants. We are dealing with all these issues.

We are also considering cases where the donor is not on the ground. I refer to the Nordic countries with a view to determining whether a general fund or basket fund could be used or whether they could work through other donors. We have tried to expand our support. I have been to Brazil, India and other countries trying to bring them on board also so we can increase the participation of other donors.

Female genital mutilation has more to do with illiteracy than other factors. I agree it presents a considerable challenge but people tend to underestimate how quickly it is being wiped out. Perhaps the statistics are not as accurate as they might be. I come from a village in the heartland of the Northern Province, the seat of traditional Sierra Leone. A woman cannot even be a traditional leader there as it is impossible. A woman is traditionally part of her husband's property when he dies in the part of the country from which I come. However, I broke the barrier through education and other means.

When I wanted to build a compound – the family compound was destroyed during the war – I was given land. The chief signed the paper giving it to me. These may not be matters that are documented but circumstances are changing with education and literacy. I was given a piece of land and stated I needed a document to prove I owned it. I come from a traditional family. The family got together, the chief drew up the paper and everybody signed and I paid the necessary token – I could not buy it because land belongs to the community, the family. As a woman I could not buy it because my grandfather had two daughters and the daughters had daughters. Although I have a son, we obviously lost ownership to the male part of the family, even though I am still a member of the family. We were able to sit together and say we have to move ahead. Quite recently I went to my uncle, who is a prominent chief, and stated I needed investors to come to the region to invest in agriculture. Our chiefdom is the biggest in the part of the country from which we come. The chief said to me he would give to me whatever amount of land I needed. The belief is that the land will not be taken away. Even if an investment covers a period of 50 or 100 years, the land will always remain in that part of the country.

The psyche is changing. It is a matter of dealing with the issue that land is money and that land has value. Sometimes educated people, such as lawyers, are the ones holding the country to ransom. I do not believe the traditional people are doing so. Some of these issues must be dealt with head-on and the Government is doing so. People such as the Egyptians want to invest in land. The land was given to them by the Government because, in Africa, the Government has a power of possession. Once somebody wants to invest and this is made very clear to the community, there is no great challenge. We had a law reform commission and are trying to change the law. The proposal has gone through Cabinet and we are considering land tenure. However, it does not present a restriction.

Both of my parents were illiterate and I am of the first generation to be educated in the family. I now have property and the house is to be roofed this weekend. I have the ownership document that was given to me. I do not refer to the land and series of properties I have in the city but to my house in the village, the part of the country that people believe to be the most traditional.

With regard to female genital mutilation, many people of my generation who are educated do not bother to have the procedure performed on their children because nobody will harass them. One challenge I faced as a human rights activist occurred when I sat in my office and people visited and stated I was seeking political asylum because I would be subjected to female genital mutilation compulsorily if I went back to my country. That is not true, regardless of who says so. One can quote me anywhere. I do not deny that the procedure may be performed on children below the age of 15 or very young children of the first generation but there is no story to the effect that one is arrested and forcibly subjected to the procedure. That is not possible.

Many of us of the first generation to be educated do not have our children subjected to female genital mutilation because we have read about it and realise how harmful it is. Many of us of the first generation could not refuse it as we did not understand it and went through it. However, I have many nieces who have not gone through female genital mutilation. Nobody would now ask them to go through it. With education and an increase in economic independence, it will die out as a practice.

In the Kambia district and other parts of Sierra Leone, communities are voluntarily talking about banning it. Five years ago, one could not have done this. When I contested the last election and went to certain parts of the country, people threw stones at me because they said I was against female genital mutilation. The people were indoctrinated to believe that, as I was a human rights activist, I had been used by Western powers to campaign against female genital mutilation. Now these same communities are voluntarily discussing it with the village chiefs accommodating debate. The first time one of my officials reported this I was shocked that the people were prepared to discuss it.

With more women being sent to school and an increase in women's economic independence, discussing female genital mutilation is no longer an issue in itself. When my mother was initiated into the Bondo society, it was seen as a substitute for education. She was in it for a whole year, in which time she learned many skills, formed friendships and networks. There were up to 100 women in it which was like a camp or a school. Now people question the need for it; it has lost the value it used to have. It is seen more as a punishment or not even necessary.

I accept there are still some families and ethnic groups that are traditional and believe in it. However, many of them just do not bother anymore. The more educated a family becomes, the less interested it is in the procedure. As people move to urban areas, they also become less interested in it. The rate may have been 90% some 20 years ago; today it is not so high. Every weekend when I go back to my village, one does not even hear the musical ritual associated with the society because people are more preoccupied with other matters.

We still must get people to understand how harmful female genital mutilation can be. Sierra Leone is part of the African Union protocol on women's rights. As soon as it is ratified, female genital mutilation will become illegal in Sierra Leone. I have many nieces and nearly 99% are not members of the society. It simply just does not occur to them.

As politicians never want to lose votes, the Sierra Leone Government prefers to work with NGOs and women's groups to see the procedure die out naturally. In certain parts of the country, the women who performed the operation were given an alternative source of income to stop doing it. It was a money-making operation for many because for every operation, the family paid a certain amount of money.

After the civil war, the Sierra Leone Government embarked on judicial reform. The country has two systems, the traditional and the modern. Due to high illiteracy rates, people tend to access the traditional system as it is less expensive, less complex and less cumbersome. Reform of the system has been embarked upon to divert people to a more modern system. Police reform is also taking place. Other governance reforms are being introduced such as the establishment of a human rights commissioner and an anti-corruption commission. These all aim to improve the rule of law and prevent human rights violations. The President recently signed various Acts — one targets domestic violence — which will realise our international commitments relating to combating violence against women.

We accept there are problems with Sierra Leone trade and investment with the European market. Our President believes in private sector development. We are examining how the European markets could open access to Sierra Leone goods and services. For example, Sierra Leone has a large fishing industry but it is not allowed to export its products to the EU. Due to the civil war and resulting damage to infrastructure, even the agriculture sector's potential has been reduced. We have established a Sierra Leone produce marketing board. It is really a resuscitation of the company that used to export various commodities such as cocoa which went bankrupt during the civil war. It will invest in the agriculture sector which will concentrate not only in food production but cash crops.

Agriculture has the potential to turn the country around. Up to 70% of Sierra Leoneans work in the agriculture sector but most of it is subsistence. We intend to mechanise agriculture to transform the lives of ordinary people. By putting more money in their pockets, they will be able to pay for their children's education and access to medicines.

The collapse of the global banking system has not affected many of the banks in west Africa as most of them are not integrated into the international banking system. The crisis has affected, however, the diaspora sending money back home from abroad and donor assistance. For example, Sierra Leone gets between 40% to 50% of its budget support from international donor funds. If that is reduced, our ability to deliver services will be affected. The other problem is with exports. Once people do not have extra spending money, exports may drop.

Illicit drugs are a problem not just for Sierra Leone but for the whole of west Africa. Guinea-Bissau is the bedrock of the problem. Recently, a plane loaded with 700 kg of narcotics landed at Freetown airport. Fortunately, we managed to arrest the people involved. We have introduced one of the most progressive anti-narcotics laws. This was the first time I attended a Cabinet meeting in which there was one agenda — to examine the drug law line by line. Three of the people arrested were actually expelled to the United States because they were wanted there. They received heavy sentences and fines because the message from the President was to the effect that this was not a place where illicit drug dealing could take place and that it would not be allowed. Even the Minister for Transport, whose brother was arrested, was dismissed from his job and is still under suspension. We are looking into what will happen to them. There is a serious problem in Guinea because the leader of the drug cartel in Sierra Leone fled there. We worked very closely with the American ambassador to try to bring him back, but, unfortunately, we discovered that the children of the late President of the previous government in Guinea were involved in the drugs trade, with the result that we were not able to bring him back. The new Government in Guinea attempted to pursue him, but he has escaped. I am sure the committee is aware that the two sons of the former President are in prison and that the new military leader in Guinea is taking a strong stand on the issue of drugs. We are working together and a position was taken at the last ECOWAS summit that a special summit be convened to address the drugs problem within ECOWAS. Therefore, the problem will be examined at sub-regional level because it is not an issue we can address individually since we do not have the capacity to do so. In Sierra Leone there are a great many islands and many of the drug dealers come on boats and there is not the ability to monitor the territorial waters; therefore, we are looking at a regional and sub-regional neighbourhood strategy to consolidate whatever support we can receive. It is not just a question of Sierra Leone; we need to improve the naval capacity of our neighbours.

At this time we do not have an agreement with the Chinese on mining development in Sierra Leone. They have one in Liberia, but we do not have a signed agreement with them on mining or other industries. However, I know they are very interested in iron ore; therefore, discussions are ongoing. I am sure that in the not too distant future something will come out of these talks.

I agree that the infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. It is an enormous problem and the President sees it as a personal challenge to see how it can be addressed. We are looking at different methods, but it is challenging. We have a medical school but lose 90% of the nurses and doctors to the United Kingdom. We do not have the expertise. I had to go to Cuba where I negotiated for about 50 doctors. We also asked South Africa to pay for the local component. We have been looking at successful strategies such as that used in Malawi to see how we might improve the standard delivery system in Sierra Leone. It is an enormous problem which the President discussed with the UK Prime Minister when we visited that country to see what could be done because we are losing our nurses and doctors to Britain since we cannot pay them. Unfortunately, if they are paid the equivalent of $200 at home, they can go to England where they will be paid £1,000; therefore, they run away. These are challenges and at this emergency stage, we are working with the Cubans.

I went to Egypt to look at mobile clinics. Building a clinic in every town will be extremely difficult, but the Egyptians have experience in developing mobile clinics which move from community to community as moving hospitals. The Egyptians have donated two mobile clinics for us to use to see what valuable work may effectively be undertaken in the short term to address the problem. We can work with other donors to secure additional resources until we are able to develop the capacity to address the challenge outright, but it is an enormous problem. In the last discussion I had with the Minister for Health he told me the statistics had improved. I do not have the details, but it is agreed that the problems are being addressed. Again, it has to do with the war.

I agree that women's rights issues are human rights issues. That is my background. I believe the passing of the three gender Bills in parliament which have been signed by the President is an indication that he is also committed to women's rights. A couple of years ago even a woman in my position could not go to the police to have a bail warrant for somebody signed, not that it was illegal to do so, but that was how the police operated. Nobody would rent a house to a woman; it was the human psyche not to do so. However, through the agency of public education and awareness raising, all of this prejudice towards women is being wiped out. I can now go to the police station to have a bail warrant for somebody signed. This is a significant advancement because I do not want to live in a chauvinistic society. However, that is what it was. This is one of the successes resulting from the war because it raised awareness of and put on the agenda women's rights issues. Many people have now come to realise that women have more rights. For example, in government we have women working in the Supreme Court. We have five justices, three of whom are women, including the chief justice. Therefore, prominent positions are being given to women — the head of the human rights commission is a woman. These are all indications that the Government is willing to raise awareness. For the first time we have a Sierra Leonean woman as registrar of the special court. In his own way, therefore, the President is trying to pinpoint the fact that women have the ability to hold such positions. Recently parliament set up a women's caucus to look at various issues. I consulted the President on the selection in his office of UN advisers on women's rights in order that this would be a prominent part of his agenda and he agreed. I have to address the modalities with the United Nations to ensure all Cabinet decisions and policies are mediated through the gender lens. The President accepted my suggestions and the United Nations will put a recruitment process in place to select someone to work in the President's office. Through this initiative we shall be able to deal with the issues involved.

On the issue of why I was not elected, I believe it was because I was a woman and that the time was not right. That is the reality. Most believed it was too soon. At the time people realised it was not possible to have a woman President. However, Liberia has changed this and there was an increase in women candidates in the last parliamentary elections. As regards local government elections, we are doing what Rwanda did at the lowest level, what we call the ward development committee. This is the body which decides the development agenda of the local council. We have a 50% quota share for women who are selected, not elected. Therefore, 50% of the members of the ward development committee are women. Once women are encouraged at that lower level and the level of education is increased, they are empowered economically and can then make political decisions. People have come to see women in prominent positions and, therefore, believe they have the ability to manage. Heretofore, they had been indoctrinated. Where I come from, for example, a woman cannot become a chief. That is the cultural belief of the people in the region. However, that women now hold high positions in authority is changing the mentality. Recently when I visited my uncle who is the chief of my village, surprisingly he said: "I am praying that I will live long to ensure you become President." That is the way people are thinking now. They believe there is nothing women cannot achieve; therefore, opportunities are opening up.

As regards the conflict involving Sierra Leone and Liberia, everything possible is being done. The two countries have developed a very close relationship. The Presidents talk at least once a week; the idea is to ensure we share our experiences. Recently the President of Liberia said he wanted his country to move from being a net exporter of war to an exporter of peace. Data are being shared between the two countries and we are also trying to involve Guinea in the process to ensure we work more on the preventive side. Our concern is for Guinea which has 22,000 people under arms. That is why at the last ECOWAS summit it was recommended that Guinea be a candidate for a peace building commission in order that it might embark on a serious security sector reform programme. The international community must realise Guinea is a very militarised society and that it has to keep it stable to be able to protect Liberia Within Liberia and within Sierra Leone, it will be very difficult to go back into conflict because many efforts have been made. However, if Guinea is destabilised, it will have an effect on our two countries. At the last ECOWAS summit, we asked the community to do whatever it could to stabilise Guinea. We share 625 km of border with that country, or four of the 12 districts in Sierra Leone. These are very remote areas without any road networks. That is a worrying concern for us and that is why we are encouraging the peace building commission to embark on the security sector reform for Guinea, so that the military can be demobilised and the number of people under arms reduced in Guinea. This only refers to the military, and does not take into account the police and the gendarmerie. If there is any problem that becomes a crisis and affects both Liberia and Sierra Leone, it will have come from Guinea.

The President has embarked on a bold step towards the transformation of the economy. It is a huge challenge for us, but we need substantial help to move the country forward, to create more opportunities and jobs, and to build a private sector. We have changed the laws. One can now register a company in Sierra Leone in less than 48 hours. One does not need a lawyer to register. We are changing investments and we are looking to create incentives for companies that wish to invest in Sierra Leone, especially in the agriculture sector, to make sure that it is easier for people to invest there. The Government itself cannot provide the jobs. Many of the jobs will be provided by the private sector. The President comes from the private sector and he has appointed a private sector adviser to work with the Minister of trade and to make sure that private sector development is at the heart of his economic development agenda.

I thank Minister Bangura for her extensive coverage of the questions that were asked. We have had submissions from World Vision Ireland and from Trócaire, and we have given copies of these to the Minister.

I also thank the Minister for her presentation today. It has been very interesting and we could have a much longer discussion. Historically, there have been strong ties between Ireland and Sierra Leone. The Irish missionaries had a long-standing role in education and in the health sector in Sierra Leone. More recently, Irish Aid provided more than €11 million in funding for Sierra Leone in 2008, focusing on health, hunger and agriculture.

The college of surgeons in University College Dublin set up a development programme in Malaysia, in which it trained doctors for two and a half years here, and these students did their final two and a half years back in Malaysia, so that they would not leave as easily as they did in the past. As far as I know, it worked reasonably well.

It is clear from today's discussion that Sierra Leone faces great and complex challenges. I know that members of the committee will join with me in wishing Minister Bangura well in meeting those challenges. I hope that Ireland can continue to be a close friend and supporter of the people of Sierra Leone in the coming years. I thank the Minister for sharing her knowledge and information with us. It has been very impressive. She is tackling in a practical way issues that people here have recognised from a distance.

I apologise for being late, but I join committee members in welcoming the Minister and Mr. Joe Manning, from my own town and a brother of former Senator and Deputy, Maurice Manning.

I thank the Minister.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.45 p.m. and adjourned at 4.50 p.m. sine die.