Cookie-cut­ter ap­proach won’t work

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - By ANDREW MOODY in Guangzhou an­drew­moody@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Olu­niyi Rob­bin-Coker, the charis­matic for­mer Sierra Leone en­ergy min­is­ter, said Africans need to have the con­fi­dence to chart their own fu­ture di­rec­tion.

Now a busi­ness­man, he in­sisted coun­tries like his, which suf­fered a bit­ter civil war in the 1990s and a re­cent Ebola epi­demic that killed about 4,000 peo­ple, do not fit eas­ily into best prac­tice mod­els im­posed on them by such Wash­ing­ton in­sti­tu­tions as the World Bank and the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund.

“You have a lot of good qual­ity peo­ple in these in­sti­tu­tions but you also have a lot of oth­ers who are not par­tic­u­larly bright who have this cook­iecut­ter ap­proach,” he said.

“There is no place on earth where you have had a civil war fol­lowed by a pub­lic health emer­gency. You can­not solve our prob­lems that way.”

Rob­bin-Coker, a youth­ful 49 and now chair­man of the Sierra Leone In­vest­ment and Ex­port Agency, was speak­ing in the lobby of the White Swan Ho­tel in Guangzhou at the end of the re­cent 2nd In­vest­ing in Africa Forum.

He said the fact the forum was jointly or­ga­nized by the World Bank, as well as the Guang­dong mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ment and China De­vel­op­ment Bank — the China pol­icy bank which funds many in­fra­struc­ture projects on the con­ti­nent — partly held the key to Africa’s de­vel­op­ment.

“African gov­ern­ments need to learn to work and part­ner with all these var­i­ous par­ties and not just one,” he said.

He said that one coun­try that has suc­ceeded in do­ing this is Rwanda, which lost up to a mil­lion of its cit­i­zens in the geno­cide of the 1990s but un­der Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame has forged one of the most suc­cess­ful de­vel­op­ment mod­els of any African coun­try.

“They have a very clear agenda and they don’t com­pro­mise it eas­ily. They say to out­side in­sti­tu­tions and oth­ers that if they want to sub­scribe, they can come on board and join their train and help them move for­ward but tell them at the same time not to get in the way,” he said.

“Not all coun­tries have that kind of agency. You need to be clear about pur­su­ing what you want, whether you are deal­ing with China, In­dia, the IMF, the World Bank or the African De­vel­op­ment Bank.”

Rob­bin-Coker said China, with its mas­sive in­vest­ment in in­fra­struc­ture and other projects, has brought a new di­men­sion to African de­vel­op­ment.

One of the big­gest Chi­nese in­vestors in Sierra Leone is Shan­dong Iron and Steel, which ac­quired the Tonko­lili iron ore mine, the sec­ond-largest in Africa, last year. Iron ore is vi­tal for the Sierra Leone economy, ac­count­ing for 60 per­cent of ex­ports in 2013.

The com­pany now also has fi­nan­cial in­volve­ment with other par­ties in a $2 bil­lion in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment, which in­cludes a 200 km rail­way line and port re­de­vel­op­ment

“I wouldn’t say it is eas­ier deal­ing with the Chi­nese than the World Bank, but you are more likely to get re­sults more quickly with Chi­nese in­sti­tu­tions than the World Bank. And I say this hav­ing worked for the World Bank my­self,” he said.

Rob­bin-Coker was born in New­cas­tle upon Tyne in the UK, where his fa­ther was train­ing to be a doc­tor and his mother was study­ing at Durham Univer­sity.

He was sub­se­quently brought up in Sierra Leone but at­tended sixth form in the UK.

Af­ter com­plet­ing a de­gree in eco­nomics Olu­niyi Rob­bin-Coker, and so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Sur­rey, he at­tended Cran­field School of Man­age­ment in the late 1990s.

He later went on to work for Cit­i­group in New York in a num­ber of ex­ec­u­tive roles.

His ini­tial in­volve­ment with the World Bank came when he was work­ing as the found­ing ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Sierra Leone Busi­ness Forum, on loan from the Wash­ing­ton of­fices of the In­ter­na­tional Fi­nance Cor­po­ra­tion, which comes un­der the bank.

He then worked in the of­fice of Pres­i­dent Ernest Bai Koroma as an ad­viser on the pri­vate sec­tor.

This led to him be­ing pro­moted to the key po­si­tion of min­is­ter of en­ergy and wa­ter re­sources in 2012, al­though he was “re­lieved of his du­ties” two years later.

Rob­bin-Coker said the pres­i­dent wanted to make a change be­cause he did not feel there was suf­fi­cient co­or­di­na­tion be­tween his own of­fice and those in charge of the en­ergy sec­tor. He was one of five who went.

“It is the pre­rog­a­tive of the pres­i­dent to re­lieve the team of their du­ties. (My) con­tin­ued par­tic­i­pa­tion in sup­port­ing his ad­min­is­tra­tion speaks to the fact it was is­sue-based and noth­ing else,” he said.

The for­mer politi­cian be­lieves that Koroma, who is due to step down next year, has had a pos­i­tive agenda for Sierra Leone since be­com­ing pres­i­dent in 2007.

“He came with a real agenda to de­velop. He is a busi­ness­man with a back­ground in in­sur­ance. He wanted to build in­fra­struc­ture, at­tract pri­vate-sec­tor in­vest­ment and grow the economy.”

The economy, which was grow­ing at 35 per­cent in 2013, was, how­ever, se­verely hit by the col­lapse of iron ore prices and then by the Ebola epi­demic, which proved to be a pub­lic health dis­as­ter. The eco­nomic ef­fects of this were also dev­as­tat­ing, with the economy con­tract­ing by 23 per­cent in 2015.

“Even now I can hardly bring my­self to say that name. It is not some­thing for a so­ci­ety to eas­ily re­cover from,” he said.

Rob­bin-Coker re­mains ac­tive in the en­ergy sec­tor, since he be­lieves power gen­er­a­tion is one of the keys to de­vel­op­ing the Sierra Leone economy and that of West Africa gen­er­ally.

He also be­lieves Chi­nese in­vest­ment could play a ma­jor role in fa­cil­i­tat­ing this and it was one of the rea­sons for him at­tend­ing the Guangzhou forum.

“I have come to China to seek fur­ther co­op­er­a­tion with the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties, es­pe­cially in fi­nanc­ing small and medium-sized en­ter­prises and also to so­licit game-chang­ing in­vest­ments,” he said.

WANG ZHUANGFEI / CHINA DAILY

Olu­niyi Rob­bin-Coker, for­mer Sierra Leone en­ergy min­is­ter, says African gov­ern­ments need to learn to work and part­ner with var­i­ous par­ties.

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