$200 a Day: Why Sierra Leone will get Screwed at Copenhagen

Published on 15th December 2009

For ten days delegates will meet in Copenhagen.  Ideas will be thrashed around, meetings will be held in public, behind closed doors, in doorways between other meetings.  The world will watch with baited breath, panting at press conferences and analysing every utterance, silence and gesture to piece together a picture of an outcome.  All of this is to be expected.  But behind the smart suits, tinted windows and Swiss fountain pens there are delegates from poorer countries who struggle to attend the conference, struggle to  fund themselves whilst at the conference, and struggle to have a voice amongst the well polished rhetoric of the EU and American delegation.  One such country is Sierra Leone.


Professor Lansana is director of the Sierra Leonean Meteorological Department and is one of seven delegates going to COP15.  He is also in a bit of hurry.  He has to leave to catch the plane to Copenhagen in four hours. He hasn’t packed yet and his desk is still covered with papers.  His office can’t afford a taxi to take him to the airport and there are rumoured to be problems with the public ferry taking him. ‘Somehow, I will make it’ he says ‘this flight is my only chance to get there’.


The state of Sierra Leone has never been able to afford to send a delegate to climate chance conferences.  Up until 2006 there was one delegate, funded by the UNFCCC.  Perhaps realising the inconsistency the UNFCCC then upped the number two.  So now they were properly represented. They are part of the Least Developed Countries (LDC) group representing the 49 poorest countries in the world.  They currently rank 180th (out of 182) on the human development index. The country’s civil war caused a flood of people to wash over the capital, Freetown.  The resulting coastal slums are regularly swamped by high tides. The surrounding rainforest has been decimated by people desperate for fuel, whilst the government faces pressure to ensure food security for an increasingly urban population.  Dr Lansana's office (and its radar) were used for target practice during the civil war and they haven't yet been able to raise funds to repair them.


The seven delegates going to COP15 are funded by the UNDP and EU. This funding covers the flight and a per diem allowance of $200.  This allowance has to cover accommodation, food and any other expenses that they incur.  Doesn’t sound like much?  One day is the same as Dr Lansana’s monthly salary.


The extent to which $200 disadvantages Sierra Leonean delegates only becomes apparent when you start to analyse how much it costs to ‘do’ COP15:


Hotels: COP15 website advises that hotels in Copenhagen cost between $300 - $400 a night.  So they’re out.


Hostels: Well, the Best Western Bel Air is $100 per person per room for a three bed private room.  It will be cosy, but it is en suite.  If that’s full (which it is) you can get a 9 bed mixed dorm at the Sleep in Heaven Hostel (safe AND clean) for $34 a night. Otherwise there are hotels in Sweden which are reported to be much cheaper (around $150 a night).


Food:  The Bella Centre is on the outskirts of Copenhagen and there are limited cafes outside the centre.  Most government officials will be eating at the Bella Vista restaurant in the Bella Centre.  However at $100 per person for the a la carte (plus wine) its looking dear.  Instead there is the Climate Care kitchen in the NGO area offering hot and cold food in the ‘low price range area’.


Meeting rooms:  A vital private space in the chaos of the conference.  This is where agreements and disagreements will rage into the early hours. The smallest one  - a 24sq/m room with 8 chairs and a table comes in at $14220 (the Sierra Leonean delegations entire spend for the conference) for the ten days.  Even if they got one for free, catering for these conference rooms is $162 per person per day.


So where does $200 a day get you?  Bed and breakfast and a small lunch if you are lucky.


Is this a familiar situation for Siera Leonean delegates?  Of course it is.


‘At the Barcelona convention it was impossible’ says Dr Lansana ‘We could only afford two delegates to attend. We had nobody to go to the informal meetings where the relationships were made and decisions taken. America had people in every meeting.  They had rented an office for their team meet at the beginning and end of every day.  The two of us were lucky to chat over our lunch.’


And nations far wealthier than Sierra Leoneare also suffering.  Professor Isabelle Nyang, has been involved in the Senegal delegation for many years:


‘In Bonn, all the meetings took place in a five star hotel which we couldn’t stay at.  Meetings would go on well beyond midnight, by which time all the restaurants would be closed. The EU and American delegates would have sandwiches provided, but the hotel restaurant was too expensive for us.  Some delegates would even have to leave the conference early to get the back to our hotel because they couldn’t afford a taxi.  It was a good way of expunging people from the negotiation.’


And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Sierra Leone’s budget does not fund climate change research.  If Dr Lansana does make it and has a chance to speak, he will be presenting material gathered by volunteers, part timers and foreign exchange students.


When the Bali conference announced that all LDCs would have to put together a National Action Plan for Adaptation (NAPA), GET (Global Environmental Trust) gave Sierra Leone $300 000 to assist their research.  The NAPA plan was each country’s assessment of the threats posed by climate change and an outline of possible adaptation projects they hoped to undertake.    None of GET’s money reached Dr Lansana in the Department of Agriculture.  He carried out his research for free after work or at the weekends.  His assistant helped him when he could.  In a department of fifteen people two of them worked in an ad hoc basis preparing one of the country’s most important documents: the NAPA plan is the document that funding bodies use to assess which countries merit funding. What hope does Sierra Leone have?


COP15 represents a huge possibility for change.  The global attendance shows a fantastic culture of willingness.  However the current imbalance in preparation and attendance is a stumbling block which desperately needs to be overcome.  As America’s delegates unwind in their hotel gym every night, Dr Lansana will get on the bus and cross the border into Sweden.  His Sierra Leonean colleagues will be scattered around Copenhagen, comparing notes by text message and phone call.  In twelve days he will spend the equivalent of his yearly salary on sandwiches and sleeping.  The least he can hope for is an agreement at the end of it.


Article and photos by William Lorimer. 



After leaving Cambridge University with a first class degree in Social Anthropology, Will went to film school in Manchester before working as a cameraman in Palestine, Poland and America.  He has worked on productions for the BBC and Channel 4 as well as directing programmes for Five, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.


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