Thursday, November 18, 2010

Liberia: The Other Lone Star State

After an epic two-day overland trip involving motorcycles through the bush, creaking minibuses aboard which I garnered the name “Obama”, sleeping in a village at the border, and over 20 police checkpoints (and 4 forced bribes on the Cote d’Ivoire side), I found myself in Monrovia. If the capital city sounds vaguely presidential, it’s because Liberia is one of only two African countries with American ties (the other being Ethiopia).

Liberia had been on my hit list for a while because of its US connections, but more due to its being a reconstruction economy. Ranked 162 of 169 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, Liberia is a country starting from scratch. Two brutal civil wars in 1989 and 1999 (to be detailed in a following post), which basically spanned from 1989 until 2004, left over 200,000 dead and the country’s infrastructure in shambles (the Guinness brewery, which I toured, was left alone, unsurprisingly!). When I told a US Foreign Service Officer that I was interested in development and wanted to meet USAID officials, he asked what part of development, and explained, “Liberia is rebuilding literally everything. Everything is in development.”

He was right. But it’s not just thephysical guts of the country, but the human capital. Over 1 million people fled from a country that only has 3 million to begin with, and as of 2005 half of those remained to be repatriated. Many are educated Liberians. On a flight, I happened to sit next to one, who had left before the war and only been back three times to see his grandparents. He said something interesting about Red Light, an area in Monrovia with which I was familiar, and which was notorious for muggings. It’s one of the trashiest places in the city – the side of the road seems like a soggy landfill. Being in Africa for nearly a year, I dismissed this as just another African street, but he explained in 1980, when he left, it was never like this. Liberia, he said, was like “the United States of Africa”. It was one of the shining stars of Africa, years ahead of now prominent countries like Ghana.

So Liberia has gone from African standout to devastated failure. What to do? The country made history in 2005 by electing the first, and still only, female president in Africa – and a sharp one at that. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (pic above, credit: is a Harvard-trained economist and former director at the UN and Citibank, among other institutions. She has a stellar resume and Western connections and support rarely privileged to African leaders. The US Ambassador to Liberia, in a fascinating NY Times article I suggest you read, explained, ”We see her as one of us.” Much more than other African politicians, she takes a fiery, no-nonsense approach. Fed up with corruption that was proving difficult to stem, just two weeks ago she dissolved her entire cabinet except one minister.

Mama Ellen, as she’s affectionately called, is known for being a tireless worker, even at age 72. I had the opportunity to have dinner with one of the directors of Liberia’s Philanthropy Secretariat. The unique unit resides in the Office of the President and is tasked with helping attract and channel philanthropy money from private donors (like Gates Foundation, not USAID) to on-the-ground projects. The employee I talked to explained that there is almost never a night when he leaves and Sirleaf’s office light is off, and he works late hours.

Her hard work seems to be paying off, at least internationally. She has attracted big MNCs like ArcelorMittal and BHP Biliton, two of the world’s largest steel companies, and has renewed contracts with Firestone, there for the country’s rubber trees. Her biggest accomplishment has been convincing the World Bank and IMF to cancel the country’s $4.6 billion debt (the country’s GDP is $876 million). Most Liberians I talked to felt she was doing a pretty good job and some even spoke overwhelming positive about her – they couldn’t come up with much negative, except for her work on the domestic front, which they say has taken a backseat to her focus on international relations.

What is most clear, though, is that these people have hope. They believe things are getting, and will continue to get, better. This was quite the opposite of what I saw in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise when you’ve hit rock bottom.

(Note: 3rd picture is cassava leaf and rice, which I ate a lot of.)

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