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Time Now for Donors to Help Liberia: Q&A with CGD board chairman Ed Scott

July 22, 2008

CGD chairman Ed Scott visiting Liberia - Summer 2008 (Photo by Peter Bregg)

Edward W. Scott Jr., the founding chairman of the Board of the Center for Global Development, recently visited Liberia together with members of his family and a group that included CGD board member Belinda Stronach. It was Scott’s first visit but far from his first involvement with Liberia. In 2006, after listening to Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf outline the challenges she was facing in rebuilding the country following 14 years of civil war, Ed offered to provide her with some special assistance aiming to finance a need she would identify that most conventional donors would not support. After consulting with CGD senior fellow Steve Radelet -- who has been assisting President Sirleaf as an economic advisor since her election in late 2005 -- on options to be considered for this special assistance, he decided to sponsor a select group of highly trained young professionals to serve in Liberia for one year as special assistants to members of Liberia's Cabinet. The program is called the Scott Family Liberia Fellows program. Its first group included three Liberian expatriates and three young professionals of other nationalities. This first group of fellows began working in Monrovia in June 2007. The program is now in its second year and has grown to 16 Fellows with four additional sponsors (the Open Society Institute, the McCall MacBain Foundation, Humanity United, and the Nike Foundation).

In advance of Liberia’s Independence Day on July 26, CGD director of communications and Lawrence MacDonald spoke with Ed Scott about his first visit to Liberia.

Q: What impressed you most?

CGD chairman Ed Scott(right), members of his family, Liberian president Sirleaf (center, in green) and CGD board member Belinda Stronach (4th from left) [Photo by Peter Bregg]

A: The extraordinarily high quality of the senior governing team, from the president and the cabinet ministers to their subordinates. They are very savvy and totally dedicated to rebuilding the country. President Sirleaf has been able to attract back to Liberia members of the Liberian diaspora who have been very successful in other fields—investment banks, major corporations, research, and other fields.

Q: What is it like to be on the streets of Monrovia?

A: So much was destroyed by the war that even with strong and effective leadership, recovery is extremely slow. People say it’s improved a lot but compared to other cities in Africa, the contrast is dramatic. While it has been five years since the actual fighting stopped, Monrovia still has not been put back to any kind of level that one would call “normalcy.” There is hardly any electricity from the public grid, and virtually no public water. The public buildings are a wreck, hotels are a wreck, and there is garbage everywhere. Everything that can be broken is broken. The resources being put at the disposal of the government are so limited -- Liberia’s entire national budget is just $200 million -- so they have little choice but to crawl out of this mess in baby steps inch by inch.

Q: How would you describe the attitudes of the people that you met?

A: There is clearly a desire for peaceful forward motion. Almost everybody I met spoke about their hopes for peace and development. You have the impression that this is a country that has all the ingredients necessary for a major successful rebound, maybe even to a better status than before the war. The population is relatively small. The quality of the governing group is very high. They have an abundance of natural resources -- iron ore, timber, diamonds, rubber -- plus the ship registration business that they have had for more than half a century. There is absolutely reason why the country shouldn’t thrive again.

Q: In your view, what’s the biggest single challenge that the country faces?

Monrovia

A: The large number of young people, basically ages 15 to 30, who have never been to school because of the war and in many cases are illiterate and cannot do simple arithmetic. These people need jobs and income but are not trainable to do anything because they cannot read or write. Liberia has a teen and adult literacy program, but it’s not adequately funded. It’s just crazy that the official donors have not invested more money into this and other educational and “make-work” programs that could reduce the risk that Liberia will sink back into conflict.

Q: I would have thought that donor money is pouring into Liberia. Isn’t that the case?

A: Some is, but a large amount is tied up in World Bank, IMF and foundation mumbo-jumbo. For example, Liberia was just a few points short of qualifying for an MCA (U.S. Millennium Challenge Corp.) grant. Why didn’t the US administration just say “screw it!” and give them the grant!!? With the right support, Liberia can be a model of how the rich world can help to pull a well-deserving, well-governed country out of post-conflict chaos. Several years after the end of the civil war, some European countries still refused to support debt relief for Liberia because of bureaucratic hurdles. This is now changing, but the process has been slow.

Q: Give us an example of the sort of program you think the donors should support right now.

A: Take the simple task of cleaning up Monrovia. There ought to be a "make-work" program to clean up every single piece of trash in the city. This could have a five to ten year time horizon creating jobs that would give people hope. The psychological boost of having the city trash-free would be tremendous. In the meantime those employed in this “make-work” program could be given baseline literacy education and some skills training. Few would disagree with this kind of approach, but donors won’t fund it because it does not fit their model of funding only projects that they see as central to long-term sustainable growth. My response is that if the 85 percent of the society that is unemployed and mostly unemployable decide to take up arms again and resort to violence because they are despondent and without hope, then you won’t have to worry about “long-term sustainable growth.” It’s completely irrational.