Post-War Liberia seeks way out of poverty, chaos

She told the UN Security Council last week that she would continue to count on “the unstinting assistance of the United Nations and the international community” to resolve the political and economic problems facing the country. But Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, says promises made by the international community have fallen short of delivery because “these pledges are rarely honoured”. In 2003, she said, over 550 million dollars was promised to Liberia at an international donor conference. “Yet little of those pledges actually materialised,” Woods said. “What is needed is real support, beyond symbolism and rhetoric, that will transform the country ‘ that has relied on illicit activity for 14 years of trade in blood diamonds, stolen timber, raped rubber, and the flow of illegal arms ‘ into an economy that brings productive activity for the now 85 percent unemployed,” she said. At a White House meeting on Monday, US President George W. Bush told Johnson-Sirleaf: “You’re the first woman elected president to any country on the continent of Africa, and that requires courage and vision and the desire to improve the lives of your people.” In a report to the Security Council last week, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the Liberian government is facing “formidable economic and social challenges”. The new government, which was installed after Johnson-Sirleaf took office in January, will need to expedite its efforts to generate and manage its own resources. “The lack of state control over the natural resources of Liberia remains a potential source of instability,” Annan said. He warned that the illegal occupation and exploitation of rubber plantations needs to be “urgently addressed”. The government of Liberia and the United Nations have established a joint task force to review existing concessions and management agreements on rubber plantations, as well as the continued occupation and exploitation of these plantations by former rebel groups. After nearly 14 years of factional fighting, a ceasefire agreement was signed in June 2003. The signatories included Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia and the government in Monrovia. Since September 2003, Liberia’s stability has been anchored on the presence of a 17,700-strong UN peacekeeping force (UNMIL), currently reduced to about 15,000, sustained at a cost of over 760 million dollars annually. The mandate of UNMIL has been extended until March 2007 when there will be a gradual reduction of troops ‘ “security conditions permitting”. “Beyond peacekeepers, the international community should help give Liberia a chance at a fresh start by agreeing to cancel the country’s external debts, accumulated under past dictatorships,” Woods said. Currently, those debts, the equivalent of some 680 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), undermine the capacity of the new government to tackle the problems of rising HIV/AIDS infection rates and a lack of functioning schools, electricity, and other infrastructure. In particular, the US government should also use its leverage to ensure that US corporations operating in the country act responsibly, paying proper fees, taxes and wages, and respecting labour rights and protecting the environment, said Woods, a national of Liberia who visited her home country last year. For example, she said, “Bridgestone/Firestone is now taking advantage of deals with unrepresentative governments and the desperation of many poor Liberians to profit from operations that employ child labour, destroy the environment, and violate other international standards.” In his report, Annan paints a bleak picture of the current situation in Liberia. “There are no functioning public utilities, and the vast majority of Liberians have no access to electricity, water, basic sanitation facilities or health care,” it says. Almost all medical services, Annan pointed out, are provided by international and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and UN agencies. “The education system is dilapidated, with a dearth of qualified teachers and available resources to rehabilitate school buildings. Roads and bridges ‘ which are needed to open up markets, increase employment, sustain humanitarian access to rural areas and expand the overall protection of the environment ‘ are in dire need of repairs.” ‘

March 2006
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