Development helps peace take root in Liberia

Liberia is at the onset of what can be considered a rebirth, a new beginning for its people. In the last half-century Liberians have attained what once seemed so elusive: peace. This small West African country has rid itself of government corruption and ethnic violence and has worked to fully comply with disarmament operations led by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). Today there are minor squabbles, but no civil war.

In just over three years, Liberia has proven that it can embrace peace and also reinforce it with free and fair elections. In 2005, it elected Africa's first female Head of State, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Still, even with this unprecedented political leap, reconstruction cannot depend solely on one leader. Although the President is a trained economist, she has no magic-wand solutions for the country. But in an effort to regain the trust of the international community, Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf has moved to implement a number of new economic policies, including cancellation of non-compliant forestry concessions and fraudulent contracts, requiring senior government appointees to declare their financial assets, implementation of cash-management practices to ensure fiscal discipline, and meeting the eligibility requirements under the United States general system of preferences.

UN officials stated that without development, peace would be short-lived. "The peace is a fragile one. Liberia is recovering, but far too slowly. Most funding has gone towards helping the country to demobilize combatants and to provide emergency aid. The Government has not received any direct budget support", said Oumar Diallo, an economic affairs officer with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Since the resignation in 2003 of Charles Taylor, Liberia's former President, donor support has increased significantly. Much of it, however, has been channelled to external social and community development projects, which means that many internal government initiatives are not being fully funded.

Internationally-backed development initiatives could be the golden elixir for the country, which has been under UN sanctions since 2001 due to allegations that the Taylor administration supported the rebels and the supposed trafficking in diamonds from Sierra Leone. "Now there is hope. The UN sanctions are still in place, but they will be reviewed in late June. A strong commitment by the new leadership to implement measures to improve public revenue collection and better managed public expenditures are good signs", Mr. Diallo said.

In search of long-term solutions, Liberia's Finance Minister Antoinette Sayeh said that the Government was eager "to attract development aid for reconstruction, as compared to the usual humanitarian or relief aid". To give the country's suffering economy a boost, the current Administration hosted a development conference, especially for donors, who were brought together in July 2006 to support a new Liberia. However, it is trade that will re-energize the country, but UN sanctions must first be lifted.

Average Liberians, many of them ex-combatants, live on less than $1 a day, which is below the absolute poverty line as defined by the World Bank. The country's national infrastructure-a cluster of broken-down roads and bridges-serves to stifle humanitarian access to rural areas, prevent the opening of markets and thus thwart self-employment opportunities. From 2004 to 2005, the donor community dispersed $460 million of the more than $800 million pledged to support non-governmental programmes within the country. This funding did not include the cost of maintaining UNMIL. In order to finance the Mission from July 2005 to June 2006, a budget of more than $760 million has been approved.

The United Nations, in collaboration with the Government of Japan, recently agreed to put forth $4 million in assistance towards reconstruction. Through a joint project called "Rebuilding Communities in Post-Conflict Liberia-Empowerment for Change", the funds will aid in "supporting communities to restore their livelihoods by encouraging members to participate in decision-making processes in the reconstruction activities at the community level", Japanese officials said. The project will carry out a number of activities, including forming and training district development committees to identify local development needs. It will also support training programmes aimed at improving local farming and providing agricultural inputs. These programmes seek to create employment opportunities and improve access to social services, such as sanitation facilities, clinics and schools.

Liberia remains one of the world's poorest countries. According to Mr. Diallo, its national debt is around $3.7 billion, while the gross domestic product is $1 billion. The country had great economic potential, with its arable land, natural resources and tropical climate, he explained. But "there remains much to accomplish in the areas of social and economic development. Currently a variety of solutions are being considered-solutions that will sustain both the peace and the economy". It is apparent that international and national aid initiatives focused on governmental and community development will be a key to preserving peace and democracy in Liberia.