BLOG: Kate Gross in LiberiaWednesday, May 30, 2012 in Africa Governance Initiative
Newly reconstructed Vai Town Bridge in Monrovia
Walking over the newly reconstructed Vai Town Bridge in Monrovia, amid the hustle of the Waterside market, you get a sense of a country on the move. Over the past 6 years since the war ended, President Johnson Sirleaf has brought in over $16bn of inward investment, mainly into the growing extractives sector – and Chevron have just begun to drill for offshore oil. This year, Liberia’s growth rate will near 9%. The lights are coming back on in the capital, with power generation forecast to double in the next 2 years. And Liberia is ranked as one of the fastest improving African nations according to the Mo Ibrahim governance index, and two successive democratic elections have begun to bed in a fragile peace. So the signs are good, and my last trip there filled me with optimism for the country’s future.
But though the economy is growing, life is still tough. I visited the Liberia Women’s Sewing Project, which makes T-shirts: unbelievably, Liberia’s only value-added export. The blue-chip concessionaires like Golden Veroleum and ArcelorMittal, which the government has worked so hard to bring in, are yet to create the jobs and growth the Liberian people so desperately need, with less than 20% of people employed in the formal sector. The country’s infrastructure is still a shell of what it needs to be. There are just over 500km of paved roads and no grid electricity to speak of outside the capital. Scholarship on post-conflict countries, like the excellent Fate of Young Democracies, tells us that the first ten years after conflict are crucial – and that economic growth helps. If democracy survives that long, the chance for future peace and stability is far higher. Liberia is nearly there, but not out of the danger zone yet.
President Johnson Sirleaf therefore faces a big delivery challenge in her second and final term in Office. Tony said in his speech this month at Stanford that when you are in government, the gap between promise and delivery is agonising. He’s absolutely right. The Liberian people are impatient for change. The prospect of commercial oil finds has only raised expectations further. President Johnson-Sirleaf’s administration is doing the right things: staffed with some incredible, visionary individuals, taking tough decisions day after day and working tirelessly to lift the country. But the institutions of State are still very weak: they need a bigger cadre of skilled people, and better systems for delivery. This is where the international community has to come in, to back a government that is clear on its priorities and what it needs from donors, but lacks the capacity to achieve them alone. A government that wants to set new standards for the management of its natural resources. A government that knows what kind of foreign investment it wants to regenerate its economy, and what conditions it will place on those investors coming in so that as they develop Liberia’s oil, mineral and agricultural sectors the people truly benefit. Most importantly, a government accountable to its people, so that they see that the point of elections is to change their lives, not just to put a different member of a remote elite into power.
At AGI we are proud to be partnering with Liberia, playing a small part in the exciting transition the country is making. We’ve been working with the President and her team since 2009, and are proud to be scaling up our support, helping the government develop the institutions, systems and processes necessary to deliver the change Liberians are so desperately awaiting, and which I feel sure they are now going to see.