February 12, 2007—It’s not uncommon to see children in Monrovia doing their homework at night under street lamps where once there was only darkness.
Lights were restored to Monrovia’s street corners just months ago as part of an international effort to help Liberia rebuild. They’re a sign of hope that Monrovia may once again be bustling and prosperous.
But Monrovia—and Liberia—still have a long way to go.
Fourteen years of civil war shattered the country’s infrastructure and economy, leaving few passable roads, rampant unemployment (the Liberian government estimates 85 percent of formal workers are unemployed or underemployed), low average life expectancy (47.7 years), high illiteracy (approximately 70 percent), and an estimated 76 percent of the country’s 3.3 million people living on less than US$1 a day.
A high-level meeting this week in Washington, DC, takes a close look at Liberia’s prospects for recovery and growth, its progress under a year-old democratically elected government, and its critical role in maintaining peace in the West Africa region.
The Liberia Partners’ Forum is co-hosted by the World Bank, United Nations, International Monetary Fund, United States Government, African Development Bank and European Commission. Participants include Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, African Development Bank President Donald Kaberuka, EC Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel, IMF Managing Director Rodrigo de Rato, UN Special Representative to the Secretary General Alan Doss, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and World Bank Group President Paul Wolfowitz.
The forum also includes delegations from at least 21 countries, many of whom contributed to US$500 million in pledges for Liberia at a donors’ conference three years ago.
With those emergency funds running out, and hundreds of millions (in US dollars) still needed to rebuild the country, the forum seeks to secure international approval and support for the country’s reconstruction and development strategy, and explore new funding possibilities.
During her time in Washington, Liberian President Johnson Sirleaf is also looking for solutions to Liberia’s staggering US$3.7 billion debt, a major roadblock in the country’s ability to recover from the economic and social downturn that occurred after a military coup in 1980 and continued until armed conflict ended in 2003.
Many in Africa and elsewhere view President Johnson Sirleaf—former World Bank economist, former head of the Africa Bureau of the UN Development Programme, and the first female head of state in Africa—as capable of turning the country around.
Her challenge is great. Long-running civil war killed a quarter of a million of the country’s 3 million people, and caused hundreds of thousands to flee into neighboring countries. Another 101,000 former soldiers, many recruited into the army as children and exposed to extreme violence, have to be reintegrated into society.
The war destroyed roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools, and cut off clean water, electric power, and other services. It orphaned an estimated 230,000 children, along with HIV/AIDS and other diseases, according to UNICEF.
But the country has become more stable and secure during Johnson Sirleaf’s first year in office, thanks in part to the continued presence of 15,000 UN peacekeepers, says Luigi Giovine, Liberia Country Manager for the World Bank.
Liberian exports increased by 25 percent, clean water and electricity were restored to parts of Monrovia for the first time in 15 years, economic reforms increased government revenues by nearly 50 percent, and the economy grew at a rate of 8 percent, with growth expected to continue at that rate.
Giovine says this kind of evidence shows that the new government is “committed to change” and worthy of support.
“The difference between the resumption of chaos and recovery in Liberia is to a great extent based on continued donor commitment to this administration, and the government’s continued commitment to redress the problems that exist now,” Giovine says.
The World Bank has contributed US$103 million in trust fund money and grants to the rebuilding effort and has been working closely with the government to restore 950 km of critical roads, including 400 km of rural road, Monrovia’s crumbling port, and the country’s only international airport. The Bank lends further support to public financial management, forest management, agriculture and community driven development in the country’s rural areas.
While much more needs to be done, including providing health and education to isolated rural regions where such services are practically non-existent, and restoring power, water and otherwise rehabilitating urban areas, major changes have occurred since Giovine arrived in Liberia nearly three years ago.
“It has been an almost constant progression for the better since then, with a significant improvement in the last year coinciding with the period after the election,” he says.
Part of the Bank’s mission is to strengthen the government’s ability to manage the kinds of large development projects needed to rebuild the country.
Gylfi Palsson, a transport specialist heading up the Bank’s major infrastructure projects in Liberia, says it became clear over the last 10 months that it would be as important to help the government expand its capacity to manage and plan for development as to build new roads or shore up crumbling infrastructure.
The new government is “progressive” and “very proactively addressing the problems of the past,” but lacks experience in procedures, processes, procurement, and supervising contracts—skills the Bank team has helped the agency build over several months, says Palsson.
“The lesson here is that in addition to the actual physical infrastructure that needs to be addressed, one has to start looking at the institution and the policy issues.”
“Ten months ago, the only discussion was geared toward physical infrastructure and dealing with the emergency of absolute collapse of part of the infrastructure. Since then there has been an evolution in thinking toward addressing the management of different infrastructure sectors.”
Mindful of the country’s high unemployment rate, projects to improve roads, agriculture, and public works aim to hire as many local people as possible, says Giovine.
But projects have also been hampered by lack of skilled personnel willing to come to Liberia to work, Palsson says. Such workers may view Liberia as too risky, he adds.
While factional strife has decreased over the last year, more needs to be done to support a secure environment for development, acknowledges Giovine
“The construction of a viable and committed army, bound by the Constitution, and the re-establishment of police force are critical areas that still require funding. Without additional security, it’s not possible to rehabilitate the country securely, and it’s not possible to provide better services.”
The UN peacekeeping force has been a “key deterrent“ to strife since the September 2003 peace agreement that ended the war and “continues to be critical” to maintain peace and allow the country to rebuild, Giovine says.
He says such peace-keeping efforts benefit not only Liberia, but help keep the peace throughout the region.
“A stable Liberia is a critical factor affecting the stability of the entire region.”