The Slow Success Story of Liberia Transformation  From War To Development

By Wollor E. Topor, PhD

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
July 9, 2014



The origin of Liberia’s diverse problems is well established: a unique history of immigrant settlers or freed slaves who “snatched” the indigenous people’s land and declared independence from an American NGO, Christianizing the “natives” to become civilized. The elites benefited by plundering the nation’s resources with a weak infrastructure economic system that is  based principally on swidden farming with a subsequent low productivity, lack of rule of law and transparency. Additionally, a 14-year of civil war has retarded the country’s human development considerably, decimated its rural areas and natural resources further. The very poor educational system that is worst in the countryside has even added to worsen the condition.

The year 2005 became a vital milestone in modern history not only Liberia, but the whole of Africa. The first and only female president was elected on the African soil and for Liberia based on international elections observers ‘a free and fair multi-parties elections were held.’ The State was leaving the almost ‘failed state’ nomenclature to regaining control over its borders, anticipating restoration of lasting peace.     

Interestingly, based on Gross National Product statistics for almost a decade, Liberia is still considered one of the poorest countries on Earth. Despite the fact that Sirleaf led-United Party government has attracted enough foreign capital investment that places it in a good position to organize and manage economic take-off. Moreover, Liberia has also received extensive technical assistance from international organizations and donor countries. The African region was able to provide ample know-how and technical expertise to Liberia. In spite of these, the cancellation of the July 26 independence celebration in the southeast due to bad road condition adds to the debate on the progress of the Sirleaf led government that has been championing the course close to a decade. There are two simple reasons for this official neglect of the southeast particularly Grand Kru: depopulation or insignificant voters and relatively no noteworthy   economic activities to compare government in constructing all weather-motor roads.

There are many questions than answers to this hot debate, some of which are: can there be inclusive economic growth with the current trend of social injustice, rampant corruption, increasing income disparities, rising unemployment and environmental degradation?  Could these be the reasons why poverty is still on the rise?

The Issues of Development
Policy-makers are yet to conceptualize how to reduce poverty in a destitute country like Liberia. There is a simple magic bullet, which is Domestic Production, especially in the rural areas where the bulk of the resources (human and materials) are located. If I may paraphrase Gregory Mankiw’s 8th  Principle of Economics, ‘ if people produce more goods and services, they are able to take care of themselves and improved their standard of living with respect and dignity, rather than relying on dole-outs from government or donors, the dependency syndrome.’ Despite of the abundance of needs of Liberians, the local markets are yet undeveloped.  In this sense, reference is being made to ‘market economy’ such as cottage industry or smallholders - gardening/livestock production, small-scale refining of coconut and palm oil, weaving, fishing, etc. Besides enforcing property rights, which is another critical issue, the government needs to invest in the human capital; this is the provision of basic skills, knowledge and the ability for individual to pursue different livelihood strategies. This goes with financial capital like access to credit, right to land use that could be used for financial investment.  These should stimulate the local economy with ripple effects on international trade. Hypothetically the Liberia Maritime Industry has registered and licensed 1,500 vessels. If Liberia had developed a nautical college like Ghana there could have been a condition wherein the ship takes on not less than five well trained seafarers on board before a ship is registered under the Liberian flag. Assuming   that all of 1,500 ships take five Liberian seafarers, it means 7,500 seafarers are to be gainfully employed. Considering Liberia average family of 5 per household implies 37,500 members should be depending on seafarer for subsistence. Each of the 7,500 Liberian seafarers sending back home on an average of $1,000 (One Thousand United States dollars) to their respective families, the total annual remittances  will be equivalent to $7,500,000 (Seven Million Five Hundred United States dollars) within the national economy. Could Liberia Maritime give this a thought as one of the means of reducing unemployment?  Other agencies should follow this suggestion by developing programs within their agencies for inclusive economic growth, which is closely related to production and very much concerned with gainful employment as opposed to hidden unemployment.

The emphasis of this author is on sustainable employment from productive activities and not only from services (e.g. store boys, car-loaders, house girls, etc.) and small trading or hawking business. With reform of downsizing like the recent case of the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs emerging with Ministry of Finance, meaning there are reduction of state employees, assumingly with basic knowledge in administration and management, and some skills in accountancy. People of this nature could gradually enter the productive labor market. It is hoped that those that were downsized, a considerable number could develop the attitude towards entrepreneurial activities in the productive sectors.  By so doing, they will be able to play a key role in national economic development. There is no doubt that most of them have little or no savings due to the small salaries they were making. In this light, there should be a scheme that would enable them to have some capital to start their own business.

Food Security
Liberia food security issue should claim an immediate attention of policy makers. Almost half the country’s land mass is under different land use, ranging from mono-cropping of rubber/oil palm plantations, mining concessions to ‘multi-usage of sustainable forest management.’ Most of these concession agreements are for 25 years and more.  The subsistence agriculture which serves not only as the food-basket, but also as a way of life for most of rural dwellers is very labor intensive and characterized by low productivity or ‘from hand to mouth.’ In addition, the issue of genuine land tenure and unavailability of appropriate technology and lack of other extension services further complicate the matter of food security. As a result, this sector may not be compatible with the rising changes in socio-demographic and economic realities. 

Despite the rudimentary farming and fishing methods of the rural communities, they have been the backbone to having food on the dining room tables in Liberia. Their indigenous or traditional knowledge needs to be revolutionized through strong research system concentrating mainly on what we eat, improved extension services (acquisition of relevant skills and knowledge) as well as some seed capital to improve the productivity in farming and responsible fishing to meet the current market demands. All of which requires appropriate policy formulation. Also, the issue of land tenure is highly significant in boosting agriculture. A farmer will grow enough food for the market if he knows the land he is tilling is his. Without a substantial increase in production, local markets will be unable to flourish and local trade will not take-off. 

Educational System
The educational system is a “mess” says President Sirleaf. Therefore, a comprehensive reform is needed in this sector. I had the opportunity of visiting a high school in the Philippines where the children were learning by doing simple research with proper instructions. It was very impressive and it reminded me on how bad the Liberian educational system is. In Liberia, hardly can one see even graduate school students conducting Special Problems or Thesis. Schools, by and large, organized in an even more outdated and stratified manner. Teaching is still to encourage students to learn by memorization, and hardly are there textbooks even at the university levels. The problems of real life and how to solve them are not part of the curricula. Teachers mostly rely on spoon-fed methods and hardly promote participatory learning or self-guided studies. Moreover, the teachers themselves need additional training. They are not only under paid but salaries are delayed for which some have to rely on extracurricular activities to upgrade their living.  And whenever they speak out, they are been threatened with to be replaced, as if qualified teachers can easily be found in Liberia.  Many studies have shown that strikebreakers or the so-called recruited teachers, in the case of Liberia, are incompetent and therefore counterproductive and could further add to the very poor educational system. The conflicts at these institutions are due to poor communication and a lack of openness and not being responsive to the needs and aspirations of the students and teachers. Naturally, a good school administration would do all within its power to avoid conflict with either teachers or students just by being opened and franked as well as giving timely information to the faculty and students. This should make them understand the institution’s point of view. Both the students and faculty may not appreciate the set of incidents (e.g. delay in releasing their salaries), but they are likely to be more accepting if the whole story is being told to them.  The scenario explained above holds true to all Liberian educational systems and probably a major limitation to national development next to the subsistence economy early described. 

There is need to develop an integrated teaching and learning as a part of the national transformation process. Both formal and informal education has to be addressed in reducing the mass illiteracy in the country. Attainment of knowledge alone is not enough. It has to be practically connected to real life situation. For instance, to enable rural families enter the market economy, they need to be given the workings of the market mechanisms like cost price relations, basic book keeping and simple marketing methods.

Health System
The health care system in Liberia has been a critical issue long since. The war only exposed how bad the health care delivery system has been. Before the civil war, NGOs such as the religious groups were providing health services in mainly rural Liberia. The  Luteran Hospital in Zorzor, Lofa County, the Phebe Hospital in Suakoko, Bong County and the Dr. George Harley Hospital operated by United Methodist Church in Ganta City, Nimba County are just few examples. Despite the international community intervention during and after the war,  Liberia’s health delivery system is still yet to improve.  Often the poor and weak subsidize the rich and strong. For example, whenever some well-connected government official falls sick, he or she is risk-off by going to Ghana and even further to the West. Who pays? It is the poor taxpayer’s money.

It is about time Liberia leaves this authoritarian structure of health care-for-profit system and starts to take the profit making concept out of the health care. Good health and care in sickness, presumably basic human rights; in other words, should be equally accessible to rich and poor in the Liberian society. Holding to the philosophy of health as a basic human right, and in spite of Cuba and Sri Lanka limited resources and agricultural economy, both introduced a free quality health care system as a national priority which transformed their health delivery systems. They considered health as fundamental human rights.

Now here we are with Ebola. It is thriving on the fact of the region’s poor health system and low level of literacy.  It is a virus that destroys the human host, meaning human beings are not a perfect host. Tracing the perfect host in which this virus lives comfortably is now a challenge to researchers and public health specialists. However, it is associated with forest areas, for which the entire Upper Guinea West Africa forest region – Togo, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia as a biodiversity “hotspots” nation should be worrying. Is it sprouting due to ecological imbalance? Could it be that its host is or has gotten extinct for which it is preying on humans?  Hence, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been able to contain this virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and elsewhere; no doubt the WHO and other related health agencies could end such serious epidemic in the West African region. However, this it is surfacing in three countries (Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia), and in urban areas that gives it a very new dimension. Although, according to WHO’s Dan Epstein, the same principles in fighting the virus can be applied despite the above scenario. But cautioned on the five important measures, “… improved tracking and identification of the virus, cross-border co-operation, dialogue between local communities, co-operation between the WHO and its other partners, and a sub-regional checking centre to be set up in Guinea.” In the meantime, good hygienic practices like hand washing clean and surroundings, early reporting of suspected cases and avoidance in coming into direct contact with a suspect should be for now.    

It is about time that Liberia leaves this authoritarian health structure (“health for profit care system”) by taking the profit making concept out of its health care. The Cuba and Sri Lanka experiences need to be studied and adopted.

Development Perspectives
Looking at the development problems of Liberia in a synoptic way, there seems to be no place of euphoria and simple solutions from any angle. Will there be an economic miracle based on the country’s plentiful natural resources (forest, fertile soil for agriculture, abundance of water, oil exploration, etc.)?

Liberia with closed to 50 percent of Upper Guinea West Africa forest region and a long-stretched coastal zone from Cape Mount to Cape Palmas could be an advantage for adventure/eco-cultural tourism that could help reduce abject poverty by creating employment and provision of cash benefits to more people which can, in turn, be channeled to improve nutrition and food security, housing, health, and on the whole, to an increase in the standard of living of the rural dwellers. At the same time promote the conservation, protection and further development of the environment by the rural folks themselves. The participation of the rural people in wealth creation should lead to inclusive growth. But this could need reliable transport and communication system as well as better hotel facilities.

Furthermore, in recent times the relationship between forest and global climate change has received considerable scientific and political attention for combat global warming. Forest helps in reducing the concentration of CO2 through the ability of trees and soil to capture and lock up atmospheric carbon in a process called carbon sequestration. The absorb CO2 is converted to carbon and stored in the wood biomass of the tree. Reducing emission from deforestation and forest degradation or REDD+ mechanism is intended to stop forest destruction and the drivers of deforestation; this could be a competitive advantage for Liberia. Major conditions for a successful REDD+ include:  guinea decentralization or cleared and defined local government units (LGUs) responsibilities and fair shares of generated income.  
Although, there are arguments and counterarguments on decentralization, with regard to natural resources management, it has been proven in majority of countries who successfully implemented community-based resources management (CBRM), that the key role in renewable natural resources management jurisdictions is left purely with local government authorities. Many studies have shown beyond doubt that there are risks associated with imposing standard models for natural resources management without taking the locales into consideration; this has the potential to undercut any environmental recovery initiative. Decentralization makes local planning and budgeting to be harmonized with the development needs of the locality.

In addition, boundaries between clans, towns and counties have to be amicably demarcated and conflicts over land rights should at a bare minimum. Very crucial to REDD+ is also good governance system in terms of efficiency and equity of benefit sharing which makes REDD+ sustainable. Anything less than the above in REDD+ mechanism, could lead to conflict, increased poverty, degradation and destruction of the very environment. Without tenure rights for people living in the forests limits the formulation of national policy on REDD+. Local people should have significant stake in the management of local resources (forest and coastal). Anything less than that, the efforts of the government agencies in protecting these resources will often be ineffective. The forest people have been depending on their forest resources from generation to generation, but with current population pressure, there is a need to modify the harvest practices to guarantee long-term conservation of the resources. Harvest rate should not exceed the forest’s capacity to regenerate and develop naturally in an effort to assure sustainability. Both nature-tourism and carbon market require protection and preservation of the natural environment and its various resources, including the biodiversity of flora and fauna. Any attempt to excess and uncontrolled growth at the cost of nature, could ruin the very resources that were to be conserved.

In order to fast track development, a certain amount of decentralization has to take place in Liberia. That requires revisiting the so-called “redundant Ministry of Rural Development.” While the Ministry of the Internal Affairs is handling the administrative aspects of the rural people, the Ministry of Rural Development could be involved in project-oriented development approach. In this process, the most critical problem which the government has not taken keen interest in is the issue of change agents/community organizers who are responsible and responsive to the needs of the ordinary Liberians. The nation’s countryside needs, more than ever before, enough competent teachers, administrators, technicians, entrepreneurs; these are to lead the country along the thorny path of socio-economic change.  

Finally, transformation or reformation and social change should not just be about honesty and transparency of government. It should also be about competence, efficiency, effectiveness, equity and dedication to service. Similarly, local entrepreneurs should be able to grasp economic opportunities and manage their business operations profitably; competition is a useful ingredient to market economy. No need to be scared of failure, the popular concept of learning by doing with well planned process of cross-institutional training and upgrading is actually useful in this case.

Wollor E. Topor, PhD

About the author
Dr. Wollor E. Topor is a rural development specialist, an assistant professor at the University of Liberia and currently completing his Master of Marine Affairs at the University of the Philippines. He can be reached through email:


Dekontee Sayway
After comprehensively reading your perspectives on the various sectors of our economy and transformation, it suggests to me that your thoughts are not just recommending but a national suggestion that should be adhered to wholistically by national government and all well meaning citizens. Judging where came from 14 years back or so, it is now time that we as a country, now begin to generate a sense of competition thereby placing us on a path of not just competing with other developing nations in the sub region, but will also allow us as a people and nation to see transformation as s cardinal path to national development. If we are to experience improvements and developments, the need for national leaders to abstain from seeking personal interests need not to be over-emphasized. From all indications, the various sectors on which developments, and better economy hang, have been over looked and jeopardized by those who power have been entrusted to. I also believe, inorder to achieve a transformed nation or society, more attentions should be rendered to rural dwelleders, their sustianability, (health, education etc.). and an urgent need for national leaders to desist from corruptions. Thank you so much Dr. Torpor for your perspectives on those issues that are gradually destroying the fabrics of our beloved country Liberia. Even your contributions in the educational sector of our country will not go un-noticible and history will record you for these things you have said. To conclude, i hope government and our national stakeholders will take cues from your thoughts as a professional and see reasons to consider your recommendations if they actually mean well for Liberia... Thank U... Dekontee Sayway. Student of the University of Liberia, studying General Agriculture...
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