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Ebola-hit West Africa calls for $6 billion to rebuild economies

Sierra Leone’s president urges World Bank, IMF to follow through on promises to relieve debt

The Ebola-stricken nations of West Africa will ask the international community to cancel their debts and donate $5 billion to $6 billion over two years to help rebuild their economies, which have been devastated by the deadly disease, Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma said Thursday.

"Our social services are ruined, our economies have halted, and we need a real Marshall Plan to take us out of the woods," he told Reuters.

The leaders of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are unveiling their regional reconstruction program at a meeting on Friday with the heads of the World Bank, the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Koroma said he wants World Bank President Jim Yong Kim to deliver on his promise last year of regional reconstruction on the scale of the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after World War II. The three nations need about $4 billion in debt forgiveness in addition to the relief already provided, he said.

"If that [debt] is canceled and support is provided to our regional program, it will take us a long way forward in our transformation agenda," Koroma said.

The international community has pledged $5.6 billion to tackle Ebola and the damage it has wrought. More than 10,000 people have died since the virus struck West Africa a year ago, and 25,791 people have been diagnosed with the disease, rocking a region still recovering from civil wars.

The IMF granted Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone debt relief of about $100 million in February and urged similar action from other international creditors to help the countries deal with the economic fallout of the epidemic. The grant would allow each country to service their IMF debts over the next two years, according to the fund. The organization also offered the nations $160 million in zero-interest loans, subject to board approval.

Koroma said that now that the health crisis is ebbing, more such support is needed and that a regional reconstruction plan led by the World Bank and supported by donors is crucial to put the three countries' economies on a secure path.

The number of new Ebola infections has fallen sharply recently, raising prospects for zero infections soon. The World Health Organization reported 37 confirmed cases in the week ending April 12, down from 150 four weeks earlier.

But the social and economic toll has been immense. Health care systems collapsed, schools closed, flights were canceled, and unemployment has soared.

Economic output this year is forecast to contract 13 percent in Sierra Leone and 1.4 percent in Liberia, with no change in Guinea. The global collapse in commodity prices has ruined their export sectors.

Food shortages are worsening. As the disease cut through families and villages, farmers were unable to tend their crops. The World Food Program is providing supplies.

Koroma said he was concerned about the planting season for rice, a staple in his country, and said farmers urgently needed seedlings, equipment and fertilizer within the next few weeks.

"This is very critical," he said. "We have to move quickly and cut through the bureaucracy."

The World Food Program forecasts that the number of food-insecure people in Sierra Leone will increase by one-third, to 610,000 this year.

Koroma said the number will be much lower if the country's farmers do not miss the April and May rice-planting season.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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