Our two white UN vehicles are carefully moving down the dusty and bumpy road between Kenema and Koindu in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone. We pass dozens of burnt ruins of what were once sturdy brick and stone homes, some with hundreds of bullet holes in their walls – eerie remnants of Sierra Leone's brutal civil war.
About 1,200 of former warlord Charles Taylor's rebels launched their devastating campaign here, leading to years of fighting that killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 2 million people (about a third of the population), disrupting nearly every national institution.
After more than 15 years of successive peace operations, the last United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office (UNIPSIL), closed at the end of March. Since the civil war, the UN flag has been a symbol of hope for the population in this troubled region.
Many of the over 17,000 blue helmets that arrived with the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) also helped to restore peace and bring back a sense of security in this district of Kailahun. Wherever we pass, kids come waving and screaming towards our cars with the huge UN logos, and adults casually give a thumbs up.
On my trip with a joint team of UNDP security-sector experts and UN Police to assess the country's borders, it was still clearly visible that Sierra Leone remains one of the most underdeveloped parts of the world: most of the roads are only passable with 4x4 vehicles, which are out of reach for most Sierra Leoneans. The signs of poverty-induced environmental destruction are heartbreaking: acres and acres of beautiful lush vegetation are being burned down to provide charcoal for cooking.
Even though Sierra Leone is rich in natural resources, including diamonds, titanium ore, bauxite, iron ore and gold, 76 percent of its population still lives below the poverty line. The World Health Organization reports that Sierra Leone has a life expectancy of 48 years, the lowest in the world. The country breaks another sad record: It has the world’s highest under-5 mortality rate.
The Sierra Leoneans we meet have a simple wish list. "What we urgently need are jobs for our youth, an ambulance, roads, electricity and clean water," Koindu's Town Chief Moses Foryoh claims at our meeting with civil society representatives.
During his recent visit to Sierra Leone, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rightly praised the enormous strides toward peace, stability and long-term development in Sierra Leone.
But with Sierra Leone at the crossroads of peacebuilding and long-term development, it is crucial that the international community stays fully engaged and works together on many of the remaining challenges ahead: strengthening civil society, promoting political pluralism, empowering women, creating jobs – especially for young people – and improving education. Sierra Leone also has to invest in women and children’s health, reinforce democratic institutions, fight corruption, protect the environment, deliver on public services and establish sound State institutions.
UNDP will play a key role in addressing some of these challenges and has already started to take over some of UNIPSIL's tasks, such as supporting the Government in the constitutional review process, as well as strengthening human rights and security and justice institutions. With UNDP's help, Sierra Leone’s citizens voted in successive free and fair elections for the first time in their history.
But most of all, to avoid future conflict, I believe it is fundamental to ensure that all people in Sierra Leone, even in this remote border region, benefit from progress being made.