RAPAPORT… Does anyone care about the people of Sierra Leone? I’m not talking about the “problem.” I am talking about the people. Look at the picture on the cover of January’s Rapaport Diamond Report. Do we in the diamond industry have any obligation to that person? And what about the other one million West Africans like him?
The deep-rooted problems of West Africa are extremely difficult and highly complex. It is a place where good intentions create evil consequences, where no good deed ever goes unpunished. Sierra Leone, our window to the world of artisanal diggers, is also a mirror, reflecting our failed humanity.
Limited to 500 attendees
We must learn the truth about Sierra Leone and diamonds, recognize our responsibilities and confront the moral dilemmas that diamonds create. With our knowledge, we must seek an understanding that awakens our compassion and humanity. An understanding that enables us to take action.
Poverty is the root of evil. Can anyone care about anything or anyone when their children have nothing to eat? What would you do if your children were starving? What wouldn’t you do?
Poverty is driving West Africa crazy. More than anything else, people need jobs. Without jobs and income, society disintegrates. Physical survival becomes the only reality. Power, the only security. Life at the edge of existence requires a gun. Without food, people kill each other.
In an aid-dependent society like Sierra Leone, food arrives and lives are saved. But subsidized aid systems support only the most basic of human needs, leaving an angry, frustrated population who want more than a subsistence existence. Over time, an endless cycle of dependence develops and new ways of doing “business” evolve. Needs are fulfilled by donors in a top-down distribution scheme. Access to aid is power and corruption is the lubricant of distribution. The key to improving quality of life in a donor economy is figuring out how to use connections to get things from donors — how to get a piece of the action.
Government officials often control or influence aid allocations, thereby entitling themselves to a fair share of the distribution “benefits.” Such benefits need not be cash kickbacks, just mutually beneficial arrangements. It is, however, impossible to rationalize how government employees can live off the ridiculously low salaries they are paid.
Elections in an aid-dependent society are more about allocating economic resources than political power. It is rational for people to sell their votes to the highest bidder when they have no other way to earn money. Frankly, there is nothing unusual about politicians using their allocation power to buy votes. It happens in Washington all the time. The difference in an aid-dependent society is that most voters have no jobs and no other way to get economic benefit. They rely on elected officials to help them get the food they need to survive. When elections are about survival, they become very important and dangerous. In West Africa, elections often drive bloodshed and sometimes wars.
The aid experts in Sierra Leone know that they are sitting on a powder keg. They can keep people alive, but unless they enable them to move on from a subsistence existence to employment, gangs (aka rebel groups) seeking to grab resources for themselves will start wars. Today, in the Congo and Ivory Coast, people are literally dying for jobs.
The only solution to the terrible development problems of Africa is job creation. We must recognize that a most basic human right is the right to work, earn an honest living and improve one’s lot in life. I am not talking about the right to get enough charity so that one does not die. I am talking about the right to be an independent, self-sustaining human being. The right to build a better future for one’s self and one’s children.
The people of Sierra Leone have been denied their economic rights. That is why the last war happened and, G-D help us, that is why the next war may begin.
How can it be? Seventy percent of the population of Sierra Leone is living below the Sierra Leone poverty line of $0.75 per day. That’s right, 75 cents — the price of a can of Coke. Twenty six percent of the population is classified as “extremely poor” — unable to meet 50 percent of their daily needs. Two-thirds of the population are subsistence farmers. (See table on this page.)
Twenty eight percent of Sierra Leone children die by age 5, the highest child mortality rate in the world. These people are so poor they cannot keep their children alive. Why shouldn’t they go to war and grab diamonds — or anything else they can get their hands on? How bad does it have to get before we reach out and help them? Do 50 percent of the children have to die? How about 75 percent or maybe only 100 percent?
Let me make it clear — we can help! It’s going to be difficult, but we, the people of the diamond and jewelry industry, can make a difference. We can help the people of Sierra Leone. And we can learn from our experiences there how to help other people in West Africa and the rest of the world.
Our first step in trying to help the people of Sierra Leone is to recognize that the problems we are confronting are way over our heads. That does not mean that we can leave the problems to experts. Unfortunately, development experts are not able to create sustainable jobs. It’s not a question of money, either. Humanitarian-aid spending in Sierra Leone is more than $300 million a year, yet very few sustainable jobs are being created. Development problems cannot be solved by simply throwing money and experts at them.
Fact is, the only way to solve the basic humanitarian problems of Sierra Leone is through job creation. Create sustainable economic activity and people live; destroy a critical mass of sustainable economic activity and survival wars start, infrastructure falls apart and people die. That’s the lesson of Sierra Leone.
Development experts have been trying to create jobs for decades. Talking about poverty, Ian Smillie, research coordinator of Partnership Africa Canada (PAC) and chairman of the Diamond Development Initiative (DDI), says, “It isn’t a question of dumping money in there and fixing it. The problem is jobs. If we knew how to create jobs for illiterate, untrained people, we would have done it 50 years ago.”
Frankly, it does not surprise me that development experts have not been able to create jobs. The amazing thing is that governments have been throwing billions of dollars at them to do so. Development experts are among the smartest, most devoted and decent people, but why would anyone expect them to be able to create sustainable businesses in the most difficult places on earth? They are not business people. I wouldn’t ask my yoga instructor to pilot an airplane, certainly not through a hurricane. Development efforts have been failing because they have been using the wrong people to do the right job.
The solution to the problem of development is that business people, real ones like you and me, must create jobs in places like Sierra Leone. The vital missing ingredient from the development equation is the private sector. Government, development experts and the private sector must work together to solve development problems. If the private sector is excluded, then the development effort fails.
If the only way to solve basic development problems is through job creation and the only people that know how to create sustainable jobs are in the private sector, then why hasn’t the private sector been part of the development solution? Perhaps no one invited us because nongovernmental organizations (NGO) have relentlessly painted us as evil, as part of the problem, not part of the solution. That needs to change. Perhaps, many of us business people are missing the altruistic gene. We are too profit-oriented (i.e. selfish) and only do what is good for us or our shareholders. We are not really interested in making the world a better place, only in making ourselves look good for business reasons.
I believe that the diamond and jewelry industry is blessed with an abundance of great, generous, big-hearted, altruistic people. And I am calling on them to join me in an effort to take on this seemingly impossible challenge.
LET’S HELP SIERRA LEONE
Sierra Leone is our model. Job creation is our objective. Our strategy is to work together with development experts and government, use our business sense, skills, connections and money to accomplish our objective.
Job creation may sound simple, but wait until you hear about Sierra Leone. No good roads, electricity, or drinkable tap water. Plenty of malaria and tuberculosis. Lots of eager, untrained, uneducated workers who can work for relatively low wages.
Says that it will strongly support job creation, but there are persistent reports of corruption. From the moment you arrive, everyone expects small bribes for everything. Local NGOs are very suspicious of business and unions will try to extract payments. The general attitude is that if you are doing something in Sierra Leone, even if it is helping people, you have to pay for the right to do it. Also, laws and regulations are archaic and nonexistent. Most people just pay someone off — something we cannot do.
About the jobs:
They need not have anything to do with diamonds or jewelry. It’s not a good idea to base any venture on imported materials. Jobs must be sustainable, which means the venture makes money and is not based on charity. Local managers should be hired as expatriates will be much too expensive and/or they could get sick easily.
Mode of operation:
We start very, very small and move slowly, with maximum transparency and support. This is not an objective that can be accomplished quickly.
China and India have come out of similar situations — albeit starting with much better infrastructures. These countries have become much more prosperous and their wage rates and local currencies are increasing greatly. Can Africa become the new China?
Current Rapaport Group activities in Sierra Leone
1) Developing Fair Trade model for local diamond diggers.
2) Establishing gold dust extraction program with local women’s groups.
3) Supporting the U.S. ambassador’s education fund with a $100,000 donation in 2007.
Create a group of like-minded business people interested in helping to develop Sierra Leone for humanitarian reasons.
Plan trip to Sierra Leone for later this year.
Still interested? Contact [email protected].
Rapaport Conference, February 5, New York Hilton; the next day (by invitation only,) February 6, starting at noon, same venue. Contact [email protected]. Conference fee is $495. All net proceeds will be donated to charity for the children of Sierra Leone.
The diamond and jewelry industry should make efforts to assist the people of Sierra Leone. Our motivation should not be guilt or pressure from NGOs. We should do what we can on the basis of humanitarian altruism.
We must make efforts to recognize the people of Sierra Leone. We should relate to diggers as members of our industry — perhaps visit Sierra Leone in an organized trip or support a specific child from Sierra Leone. The idea is to personalize the issue and slowly develop your ability to understand it. Recognize that whatever you do, it will take time to do it right. Learn and work with others. Use the internet to gain information, but do not be overly influenced by sensationalist or hysterical rhetoric. Keep in mind the goal of helping people and test what you read by that standard.
This article seeks to transcend the issue of diamonds in Sierra Leone. I believe that the diamond and jewelry industry has much to offer the development community and that by working together, we can have great impact on the development agenda. Furthermore, it is not coincidental that millions of artisanal diggers all over the world dig up our diamonds, gems, gold and other metals. We have an obligation to help artisanal diggers, who are often the poorest of the poor, attain their legitimate right to earn an honest living and obtain a fair share of benefit from the products they produce. As an industry, we have an opportunity to reach out and help these people. In doing so, we will not only make the world a better place, we will make ourselves better people.