For once, in more than two decades, Liberia made headlines for something positive rather than the savagery of its civil war or the irresponsible behavior of its leaders. President Sirleaf received accolades in Washington, DC and in New York. The question that follows is what benefit would the visit bring to the people and how much of the great promises from Congress, the White House and the World Bank would ever materialize?
Those who promised to help have to be reminded to make good on their pledges and as President Sirleaf said, they must “shorten the time between the commitment and the issuance of the check,” In the past weeks, Liberian Ambassador Charles A. Minor has been working the corridors of the State Department as well as the US Congress reminding every one that Liberia is in need of an urgent push to jumpstart its economy, embark on a new social order under a new political leadership.
Last week, at a meeting with the Liberia Watch Group
– a conglomerate of non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) supportive of Liberia – Ambassador Minor
repeated that the greatest challenges facing the country
are the burden of the international debt as well as
the international sanctions imposed on Liberian timber
and diamond. After thanking the group that obtained
for Liberia some $200 million during the transition,
secured a supplemental aid in the current US budget
and was instrumental in getting the President to address
the Joint Session of Congress, the Ambassador told
them that Liberia was far from being out of woods.
The Liberia Watch group, led by Vivian Lowry-Derryck
of the Association of Educational Development (EAD)
promised to intensify its efforts near Congress and
the Bush Administration to ensure that commitments
made to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf during her
visit are translated into actions. The Union of the
Liberians Associations in the Americas (ULAA) and
the Concerned Citizens of Liberia have also lent their
support to the Liberia Watch Group by mobilizing their
constituents to call on their legislators.
The discussion, which took place on the same platform where President Sirleaf spoke from just a week earlier, was presided by Marco S. Vicenzio, the Executive Director of the Global Strategy Project.
Amongst the many challenges underlined by the speakers and the participating audience, Jacques Klein emphasized in particular constitutional reforms, restructuring of the security apparatus, decentralization and the strengthening the judiciary. He said that the ultimate challenge for all Liberians is to reach an understanding as to what makes them Liberians first before anything else, something indispensable in nation building.
Mr. Ayub said that the World Bank was working with the Sirleaf government to find a way to bring financial support to Liberia notwithstanding the huge arrears the country has accumulated over the years. He said Liberia’s arrears amounted to $432 millions for the World Bank, $750 million towards the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and $200 million to the African Development Bank. Mr. Ayub said the World Bank was making efforts to curb corruption and put in place mechanisms that would reduce redundancy and the heavy bureaucracy.
Whichever way one looks at it, what the new government needs now in the words of Klein is “cash on hand.” If the Sirleaf government cannot come up with real cash not only to pay civil servants but also to undertake development projects in the areas of social services, it would face mass discontent and corruption could again re-surface.
Fielding a question from the audience regarding the role of NGOs in the recovery process, Mr. Klein said that although there were a few doing a commendable job, there were a great number whose very presence on the ground was questionable, with nobody able to pinpoint for sure their role and how they use the money they receive from donor agencies.
In the 1980s, NGOs started to prop-up everywhere when donor countries got wary about corruption and misuse of aid money by governments of developing nations. The alternative to cut aid was to funnel funds through civic organizations formed in developed countries. This has now turned into a new culture where all aid goes through some type of NGO. Many “international “ NGOs open shop in the receiving country and “hire” local NGOs to do the work. A member of the panel said “NGOs have become a way of sending new college graduates on a two-year adventure, with all expenses paid.”
Two years ago, while visiting Washington, DC, Chairman Gyude Bryant touched on the same issue. He gave the example of a donor country that had pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars to help with the disarmament process and the rehabilitation of war affected youth sending a dozen of graduates from a culinary school to cook for former combatants.
In an exchange with World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, President Sirleaf said that for every expert the Bank sends to Liberia, she can hire 10 Liberians from the Diaspora, who could not only do the same job, if not better, but most importantly would invest much of their earnings in the country, by building homes and supporting other family members.
This week, Riva Levinson, a close friend of President Sirleaf and a lobbyist, has launched also a new campaign to ensure that Liberia receive more than $80 million in supplemental funding from Congress. Working closely with Liberia Watch, she is making sure that members of Congress and the Senate are reminded of urgent needs facing the Sirleaf administration. If she gets her wish, Liberia could end up with close to $100 million. The amount in itself is small and rather symbolic, but it puts Liberian issues in the US spending basket, breaking a tradition of neglect.
The ideal situation would be that the US establishes right now direct budgetary support for Liberia while there is much goodwill. The US has funded transitions in Iraq, Afghanistan and in many countries in Eastern Europe. Liberia has every right to expect such help, having served and supported America’s foreign policies on the continent whenever it was needed. The one reason Moammar Kadaffi gave for financing Charles Taylor was that Samuel Doe had become a stooge of the United States during the Cold War. This political alignment led to the destruction of Liberia.
Even if Congress were to approve the $100 million dollars for Liberia, the money would end up being spent through various NGO projects. The NGOs would only send 15 to 20 percent of what they receive to Liberia. Once on the ground, they would again take 10 percent for overhead and a mere 5 percent would trickle down to Liberia’s need. It was in reaction such a situation that the current Minister of Planning and Economic Development, Dr. Toga McIntosh said that he heard that the US spent a billion dollars in Liberia but he could not find a trace of it anywhere.
This Friday, Ambassador Klein, former Interim Minister of Justice Professor Philips Banks and others will lead a conversation on post-Taylor Liberia at the United States Institute of Peace. They will certainly come to the same conclusions: Liberia can move forward, there is a responsible government made up with responsible people but there are also lot of adversities. The number one problem of the Sirleaf government is cash. With enough money now, she can put idle youth to works, pay living wages to workers, bring electricity and water to the nation and pave roads for farmers returning to their villages.
But is anyone really paying attention to Liberia’s
real problem beyond the sensational Taylor issue?