Liberia, unlike the other 18 poor countries that have won billion dollars of debt relief from the World Bank, has few options to fight the war on poverty. Our country, short on funds, must simultaneously address the high rate of unemployment, which includes former combatants, and provide food and housing. This is compounded by the facts that it lacks skilled manpower, electricity, water, etc. making it unlikely for investors, if any, to invest in Liberia. Therefore, if government took a leading role in producing rice, it would help in reducing the 70% rate of unemployment because the agricultural workforce (i.e., including rubber and coffee workforce) alone is about 70% of the total Liberian employable workforce. (United States 2003 Report). Unlike private rice farms, a government-rice farm would employ a significant number of workforce within nine to sixteen months, thus creating a quick economic benefits for the country.
Coincidentally, scientists and experts at West African Rice Center (WARDA), a research center to produce rice, have eliminated the fear of low rice harvest in Liberia in particular, West and Central Africa in general, leaving only the fear of corruption and mismanagement. Now that experts from international institution would be managing many of Liberia's revenue generating programs, the fear of corruption shouldn't prevent us from feeding ourselves. More so, many anti-poverty advocates have begun to argue that reducing poverty surpasses any other fear such as corruption. One of those advocates is a rock star lead singer of U2, Brono. The celebrity, now turned “Anti-poverty Statesman” after pleading with world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in July 2005 to cancel 40 billion debts, says the fight against poverty is an “emergency.” Also, leaders of Europe, especially Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair have joined the anti-poverty crusades. And the US former President, William J. Clinton is also part of the crusades. At an interview in Europe during the World Economic Forum, the former US President said that, “corruption and incompetence of many African governments should not be used as a pretext to withhold aid from Africa.”
Most importantly, the Katrina Hurricane has created a window of opportunity for a war-torn Liberia to join the current wave of the ideas for government to invest in programs. So it wouldn’t be an alien idea if our national leaders piggy bank on President George Bush’s acceptance of the old-age idea that government’s activism is good for improving conditions for sustainable development? Hurricane Katrina’s calamitous effects on citizens of America, apparently, had coerced President George W. Bush to abandon the idea and those profiteers who believe that government should have limit role in lives of its citizens. On September 8, 2005, Thursday, President George W. Bush announced that the Federal Government would undertake a massive program and build over 300,000 homes for residents in the South, “…one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.”
In fact long ago before the call by President Bush to use taxpayer's money to build new homes, Mr. Conrad Egan, President of the National Housing Conference, an affordable housing advocacy group based in Washington, District of Columbia, U.S., said that, "the market cannot provide affordable housing for many Americans, even those who are financially secure." He added that states and cities in America, as incentives to professionals to keep their residence within their communities, have extended subsidies from renting apartments to subsidies for buying their new homes.
President William R. Tolbert Government built affordable housing in the suburbs of Monrovia, including Matadi Estate, New Georgia Estate, etc., but shifted the responsibility of the production of Liberia’s staple food to profiteers. The food production experiment was not successful, even though many proven Liberian investors got funding from many lending institutions such as the Liberian Agricultural Development Bank.
His successor, Samuel K. Doe had preferred government’s involvement, but local rice-importers crushed the idea from the onset. Profiteers and those who oppose government's roles in public projects did prefer private investors, and not the government, to invest in food production. Environmentalists, at the time, had rightly argued against massive destruction of the forest and heavy use of herbicides. (WARDA 1996 and 2004 Annual Reports). Subsistence farmers in West Africa don’t have to cut down new forests every year and import herbicides to increase their harvest. The new rice varieties, a cross mixed of the O glaberrima, an African rice varieties, and O. Sativa, an Asian specie, did not only resolve the issue of harvest. It has also removed the concern of environmental organizations.
The launching of a nationally-government sponsored food production program would not only reduce the high rate of unemployment, but would create incentives for residents in urban cities to relocate into their original communities. It would be a good idea to invest in both private and government food production programs. However, focusing on providing loans for private groups to produce food wouldn’t work as the experience of the past clearly shows. For example, unlike a government program, private groups, amid many reasons such as poor planning and lack of resources, would not significantly reduce the rate of unemployment.
More so, private groups, just as any profit driven investors, would invest their loan in projects (rubber, coffee and cocoa) that yield quick cash and high profits. Further, they might find it harder to compete with the importer rice Liberian preferred, except government intervenes by increasing the price of foreign rice. Such an increase would indicate that government is enriching a special group. However, were the government one of the producers, an increase in the price of foreign rice would encourage consumers to change their taste without the fear that government is enriching a special group. In addition, unlike private investors, government would produce sufficient rice to replace the shortage of importer rice. It should be stated that having sufficient local rice is important for the price increase to encourage consumers to buy local rice. The supply and demand concept suggests that importer would just shift the added increase to consumers who would end up paying more for the same items, if the quantity of local rice is insufficient. This was part of the reasons why citizens rejected President William R. Tolbert’s proposal to increase the price of foreign rice, especially so since his family was in the business of importing rice. Liberian consumers didn't see an adequate supply of local rice and felt that President Tolbert was intending to give more money to his family.
A government sponsored food production program would not only produce sufficient rice for the market, help to reduce the rate unemployment, relocate combatants from urban cities to rural towns, but would also reduce Liberia’s trade deficit, and spur economic activities within rural communities around the country. As former President William J. Clinton said, let’s not allow the fear of corruption and mismanagement to discourage us from launching a war on poverty such as the Liberian government producing its staple food.