The US and Liberia: Can We Prevent A Repeat Of The Haiti Scenario?

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

March 4, 2004

Gyude Bryant
Back in December 2003, at a meeting of NGOs organized under the umbrella of a group named “Liberia Watch”, a US State Department representative said that the Donors Conference on Liberia was expected to raise $300 million in New York. In the end, some $520 million was raised. Two months later, an elated Chairman Gyude Bryant said this went beyond anyone’s expectations, given the background of Donors fatigue with Liberia.

However, pledges are but signs of goodwill and good intentions until someone writes a check. Getting nations of the world to pledge is one thing, translating those pledges into cash, goods and services is another matter. This is where the real work begins. The transitional government will need to go around the world, knock on the door of every donor to ensure that whatever was pledged in New York is put forward. Pledges made to Haiti never materialized. The billions promised to Afghanistan are yet to be seen.

During the “Liberia Watch” meeting, the NGO community raised the concern that most of the $200 million the United States was planning to contribute to Liberia would go to the military. Speakers, many of who work in the areas of health, education and other social services, voiced their fears. The NGOs worries were genuine. Indeed, the US is said to have spent $500 million in Cold War Liberia. That money went to build an army that could not stand in the way of a ragtag army of child soldiers. A gift horse is still a gift, an act of goodwill. However, a militarized Liberia is the last thing anyone needs in the region. In Monrovia, during the preparatory phases of the conference, the government said that it planned to define its own reconstruction and development priorities.

If the US pledge were to be spent on building a military superstructure in a society traumatized by big guns for the past two decades, it would be a disservice to the people of Liberia. While a strong military in Liberia would not guarantee freedom and democracy, it could easily become a tool of oppression in the hands of any future leader faced with an impoverished masse of people. The pledges made by the US and other nations should serve to lay the foundations of a nation able to tackle its basic social needs.

Pledges In US$ (millions)
RFTF* Pledges
Demark $1.20
France $1.25
Germany $13.54
Greece $0.04
Iceland $0.015
Ireland $6.27
Italy $1.25
Nigeria $1.00
Norway $10.00
Sweden $8.15
Switzerland $3.2
United Kingdom $16.82
United States $200.00
AfDB $0.50
European Union $125.41
Global Fund ATF $24.00
World Bank $25.00
Total RFTF Pledge $437.65
Netherlands $4.39
Sweden $3.39
Finland $1.67
European Union $75.24
Humanitarian Pledges 84.69
Total Pledges $522.33
To achieve this, the US relation with Liberia needs to move from dependency that so far characterized it - with its load of paternalism and infantilism - to a real partnership. To achieve this, Liberians will need to lead the way. There are tens of thousands of Liberians working in the US and there’s a testimony that a Liberian middle class really does exist, all it needs is the appropriate environment at home to flourish.

If China wants to help, this may not be the time to spend millions of dollars for the rehabilitation of the SKD Stadium nor the completion of the unfinished buildings of the Defense Ministry. Liberians would have ample time to erect colossal monuments once they are resettled in their cities and villages, with safe drinking water, school for their children and healthcare centers to get malaria shots without spending their monthly income to buy chloroquine tablets in expensive city pharmacies. Rebuilding and restructuring the multi-million dollar John F. Kennedy hospital in Monrovia may not be as much a priority as providing basic health care to remote parts of the country.

The NGOs came out of their December meeting determined to keep pressing the US government to spend its contribution where it would make a real difference in the long-term postwar development and stabilization of Liberia. Peace and stability would largely depend on the ability of Liberians to create a social and economic environment where no one would have to steal to meet basic needs. At the present, a dose of malaria preventive cocktail – of chloroquine, aspirin, and antibiotics - would cost a schoolteacher 2 to 3 month salary. Parents have to make the decision between buying a school notebook for a child or a cup of rice for the rest of the family. Faced with this type of choices, workers have to make ends meet anyway they can. Liberians are not more corrupt than any other people in the world; they have simply been entrenched in a continuous state of survival.

In a country of abject poverty, a strong military and police force could become easy tools in the hands of would-be-dictators, because sooner or later, poverty will lead to discontent. Haiti was provided with a “well-trained” police force but there was no effort at changing the dire poverty. Pledges that were made when Aristide, the “Haitian Mandela” was brought back to power never materialized. Discontent developed. Corruption continued as usual. Aristide had to rely on the police to maintain his grip on power. The Liberian transitional government and the US should take a close look at the Haitian case.

NGOS Are Not the Ideal Vehicle
The other side of the coin in the aid paradigm is the NGO way. In the 1970s, faced with “corrupt practices” throughout the Third World, donor countries reverted to their citizens to funnel aid to poor countries and the non-governmental organizations became the channel to this. The Samaritan ideals that brought about the aid principle is still out there but the NGOs have become, in many cases, self-serving entities. Currently, and we stand corrected, the most generous NGO spend less than 20 percent of the funds it raises in the country where it works. By that account, Liberia would probably get no more than $100 million in real investment if the donors were to spend the $520 million through NGOS. This would not help Liberia.

There is no denying that during the past horrible years of civil war, international NGOs have rendered great services to Liberia. They provided food, water and medicine when the international organizations fled. The few hundred Liberians with a decent income are employees of NGOs. Names like Africare, Red Cross, Save the Children, Medecins –Sans Frontières are synonymous with hope in Liberia and in many countries. However, the work of these institutions is conceived to deal with emergencies rather than long-term planning. They bring the band-aid to stop the bleeding but are not equipped to provide long-term development plans. They have a role to play in Liberia, as the country moves from war, as refugees return to be resettled and children need urgent attentions.

Between spending the money on the military and giving it to NGOs, there is a median solution that the Liberian government could work with the international community to explore. Again, at the risk of being repetitive, the US and other donor nations have to be genuinely prepared to help Liberians by empowering them to recover from two decades of trauma and destruction. If the past three decades are any indication, aid as currently conceived has all but deepened poverty in most developing countries. Most African nations are poorer now than they were in 1960. It is time to review conditions under which aid is provided and used, and nations emerging from war and receiving reconstructions money could be a good start.

Capital Flow, Credit Facilities and Debt Cancellation
The pledge made by the US to Liberia reconstruction, by far and understandably the largest among all donors, will only help rebuild the country if it trickles down into the hands of Liberians. One of the areas mentioned many times by the Chairman Bryant during his tour in US was the need for small business development. He said that about $35 million from the World Bank would be directed to providing credit to small businesses. This infusion of capital would help create an economic structure with lasting impact on the future of Liberia.

The banking system needs to be revitalized and credit facilities open to Liberians in various sectors of the economy. Farming, fishing, livestock production are among the many areas where Liberians have proven their ability to excel. Before the start of the war, Lofa was the breadbasket of the nation, even exporting to neighboring countries. It and can get that status again if investments are made in agriculture.

To stop the ghosts of the recent past from re-emerging, the transitional government will have to lay the foundations for new economic structures. In a small country such as ours, with the immense natural resources and the many talents scattered around the world this can be achieved.

Certainly, until there is an elected government committed to the rule of law and transparency, private money will not to rush into Liberia, but pledges made by donors can jump-start a new economic order.

Finally, in this domain, the cancellation of debt, especially in the case of Liberia, can never be emphasized enough. The Bryant administration committed itself to pay $50, 000 to service the $3 billion debt it inherited. Nobody in Liberia can point to a single house, factory, farm or road built with that money in the past 25 years. Just as the US has been trying to get Iraq’s debt cancelled, it can help Liberia reach the same arrangement with its creditors. And definitely, Liberians would be most grateful.

To accomplish all this Chairman Bryant must put on his traveling wings and all the charm he can muster to go after every cent that was pledged at the Donors conference. He will need to sit with officials from the US, World Bank/IMF and Paris Club to make a strong case about debt cancellation. As the largest donor and certainly the most persuasive friend Liberia has, the US can help greatly; not only in ensuring that pledges are paid but also that also those pledges are used to lay foundations for a new Liberia. Like individuals, countries can make pledges and forget and if that is allowed to happen, Liberia could find itself where Haiti stands today in a very near future.

* Results-Focused Transitional Framework 2004 -2005