Aid workers enjoy the beaches and bars while Sierra Leone suffers

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In the bay, two young men frolic about on a jet ski. On the beach, the big question facing two pinkish women is which sarong to buy. Later on, the shiny all-terrain vehicles will roll up to the Lagoonda Casino.

Drunken men from all over the world will part with hundreds of dollars. Later, they will stagger to their 4x4s, roll down the hill and buy some sex from a teenage girl by the roadside.

This is Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, where life expectancy is 36 years (the lowest in the world) and 80 per cent of people live on less than $1 a day. "Welcome to Sierra Leone," says the billboard at the airport, "if you cannot help us, please do not corrupt us."

But the message is currently falling on 40,000-odd deaf ears – those of aid workers, UN employees and soldiers enduring this "hardship posting". Could I be becoming a puritan after three-and-a-half years of covering Africa? Perhaps, but I don't think so.

When I was here in January 1999, I was talking to a man outside Connaught Hospital when he was hit by a stray bullet. Blood sprayed everywhere. Around us, people wandered aimlessly and in terror, limbs half hacked off after botched machete attacks. People bled to death in the streets.

Now, peace of a sort has arrived. Decisions that are made now – about politics, justice and infrastructure – will determine whether or not the war returns from its supply bases in neighbouring Guinea and Liberia.

Yet many of the 20,000-odd UN staff in Sierra Leone – including the biggest peacekeepers' operation anywhere – are behaving as though they are on holiday. The world's taxpayers are coughing up millions of dollars a day but a lot of their money is being spent in the best bars and restaurants that Freetown has to offer. Freetown is protected by 550 British troops who never leave the city – at least they understand the value of a good image and have the decency to wear civilian clothes when they get drunk at Paddy's Bar or go to the disco.

There must be 3,000 charity workers in Freetown, falling over each other to do good work in the cramped capital, just so long as they do not have to venture inland where the real need – and danger – resides.

To be fair, there are many among the expats who find the mood distasteful. "I have just come from East Timor," said Miles Vernon, a UN transport manager, "and there is real commitment among the UN workers there. Here, from day one, it became clear to me that people are just thinking about getting drunk and having a good time." Tony Conlay, from the Department For International Development's (DFID) emergency response team said, after a trip to the war-ravaged Kono district, that he was struggling to "get implementing partners out on the field". The reason, it seems, is that Freetown is too comfortable for the aid workers. The rest of the country – which urgently needs wells, water and medical facilities – still seems a little too risky.

But I am disgusted because what is on display is yet another Western double standard. We condemn the rebel Revolutionary United Front for using diamonds to buy guns. Is it any less mercenary of a man engaged in the business of peace-keeping or rebuilding, to use his daily allowance to buy a local woman's body? And while we're on the moral high ground, is it acceptable that money given to European charities is used to fuel 4x4s that ferry aid workers to the beach? I don't think so.

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