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Life can change in Liberia--and hasThe following post was first published on Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog, where Radelet, a CGD senior fellow, is one of several guest bloggers. Radelet lived for many years in Africa and Asia, taught at Harvard, and worked at the U.S. Treasury. He is currently serving as an economic advisor for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

I am witnessing a truly remarkable turnaround. I’m in Monrovia, Liberia, in the midst of what until recently was a horrible war zone, but is now a place of hope. Led by the indomitable President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected head of state in Africa, Liberia is beginning to rebound from its devastating civil war and the monstrous incompetence of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor that nearly destroyed the country. Liberia is at peace, the economy is growing, democracy is taking root, kids are going back to school, and families are being united.

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It would have been nearly impossible to imagine these changes just four-and-a-half years ago. Monrovia was in chaos as rebel groups shelled the city in an effort to oust Taylor. By that point the 14-year civil war had killed 270,000 people – an astonishing one out of every twelve Liberians – and forced another 250,000 to become refugees. The economy had completely collapsed, with GDP falling by more than 90 percent between 1989 and 1996, one of the largest collapses ever recorded anywhere in the world. Children as young as ten had become pawns in the violence, with warlords abducting them from their families, stuffing them with drugs, and arming them with AK-47s (for a first-hand account from a former child soldier in neighboring Sierra Leone, read the riveting A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah).

But UN peacekeepers put an end to the conflict in 2003. Taylor first went into exile in Nigeria and is now in The Hague facing war crimes charges for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone. The UN and thousands of brave Liberians organized elections in late 2005 which resulted in President Sirleaf’s election. And she is resolutely moving the country forward by rebuilding institutions, restoring basic services, reviving the economy, and beginning to heal the deep wounds of war.

The signs of change are evident all around. This is my 12th visit here in the last 20 months, where I have the privilege of working with the government on a range of economic issues, most importantly the resolution of its massive foreign debt. Each time I come there are new signs of change: schools and clinics are being reopened, stores are restocked and repainted, the streets are ever more crowded with commercial activity, and electricity and water are being restored (there was no piped water or electricity except generators anywhere in the country for 14 years). Liberia’s “control of corruption” index, as measured by the World Bank, registered the second-largest improvement of any country in the world this year.

At the same time, the challenges and risks are daunting and at times seem overwhelming. The infrastructure was completely destroyed, and there is little money to rebuild it (although with donor support, the process is underway). Many skilled Liberians were killed or fled, making rebuilding government institutions more difficult. And there are a small number of people that profited handsomely from the conflict and seem prepared to do anything to regain power.

How long should the 14,000 UN peacekeepers stay? They have done a tremendous job so far, and the country is at peace. But if they leave too quickly – perhaps pulled off to Darfur or Somalia – there is a risk of a return to violence. But staying too long would undermineLiberia building its own institutions. The phase out is likely to be a 5-10 year process, allowing Liberia the time it needs to rebuilds its own security forces.

And what of the foreign debt? Most was borrowed by Samuel Doe in the early 1980s, and has not been paid since 1984. With penalty interest, Liberians today are stuck with the bill: $4.5 billion, equivalent to a massive 3,000 percent of exports, the highest ratio in the world. The major creditors all have pledged to forgive Liberia’s debts, but the process is stuck at the IMF, where the Board has been debating for a full year how to share the costs of the write-off. A solution seems at hand, but it isn’t done yet, and meanwhile Liberia must wait (if you feel so moved, write this week to the Managing Director of the IMF (email publicaffairs@imf.org)and ask for fast action to resolve Liberia’s debt crisis).

The new government faces many other challenges. The risks are high, and there is no guarantee of success. But the overall direction is clear, and the progress is tangible. Liberians are hopeful and positive, wanting to look forward and build a better future. I hate to be a sexist, but maybe we ought to put more women in charge in tough places around the world.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.