Will It Be Business As Usual, Where A Majority Becomes Poorer?


By J. Yanqui Zaza


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 27, 2005


If the current debate about the “Transitional List” is merely about sharing economic dividends among the Liberian elites and not about correcting the economic injustices that brought us where we are in the first place, we will lose an opportunity to right the wrong. Declaring war on economic injustices should go beyond the war on corruption and include committed efforts to reduce, if not eradicate, the concentration of capital in the hands of the privileged few. The war on poverty is urgent and needed in Liberia. This is so because the ladders needed to climb out of poverty such as housing, education, utilities, are not only expensive, but are owned by a privileged few. Those owners, also representing government, are empowered to choose between profits versus losses, a position even a saint wouldn’t want to be in.

The “Iron Lady,” Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf, has already started the war on economic injustices on the good foot when she sought leniency from Liberia’s $3.5 billion dollar creditors through the World Bank, US government, and the United Nations. But the real war will be on the home front if she extends such a concept to powerful Liberian landlords who, because they rent to the Liberian government buildings that housed the Ministries of Defense, Commerce, Planning, Justice, Maritime Bureau, Forestry Development Authority etc, are the government’s creditors. The first step in this war is for the incoming government to require the landlords to commit themselves to the deferment of rental fees paid to them by government. This will not be a panacea, but it will be a relief of financial burden urgently needed. Liberian Churches should also be added to the dialogue. They own significant plots of land (cash cow) and apartments in Monrovia in addition to five of the six universities and countless high schools in Liberia. A reduction in rental fees and school fees would not only give a piece of the dividends to Liberians, but could reduce the cost of living and spur economic activities.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that profiteers will accept a temporary reduction in their profits by reducing the cost of housing, education, etc. However, will they consider the idea of a permanent decline in their profits if the government decided to compete with them by building houses? Common sense suggests that the increase in the number of a particular item at any given time will concurrently reduce the value or the price of such an item. Or should we expect our elites to accept decline in profits that advocates of market and privatization anywhere in the world will reject? Therefore, predictably, the elites will not give in without a fight; as such fights are common in many countries since, according to Henry B. Schacht, former chief executive of Lucent Technologies “investors are increasingly preoccupied with short-term gain and profits.”

By the way, why did our country, since its independence in 1847, with enormous natural resources, does not own government’s offices, let alone build affordable housing and public schools? Or why Liberia, which had accumulated negligible foreign debt before the arrival of Firestone and the mining companies, now owes $3.5 billion dollar debt? Yet, in the wake of this debt, the infrastructure of Liberia remains poor while more than 70% of the population is illiterate, trapping the country in deplorable conditions that two expert economists on poor countries, Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner, refer to as “the resources curse.” Writing in the NY Magazine on December 12, 2005, the two economists stated that, “countries that depend on natural-resources exports experience lower growth rates than countries that have non-resource economies, and they suffer greater amounts of repression and conflict too.” Liberia may have been the victim of such misfortunes.

So what kind of philosophy could the Iron Lady introduce that will encourage the privileged few to focus more on affordability and less on profits, thereby preventing the reoccurrence of civil war in the future? Without a new philosophy, would it be possible to prevent the “resources curse” if her assertion is right that Liberia still has resources? Or is it possible to introduce sustainable economic growth by allowing profiteers to determine policies on housing, education, food, health, etc? Was it not because of greed and profits that the government operated one university and few high schools and permitted profiteers to build limited number of expensive apartments, operate mediocre night schools in Monrovia, and manage failed agricultural farms? In the case of education, did Liberia replicate the United States educational system? In America, according to Brent Staples of the New York Times (11/28/05), the American school system “was designed in the 19th century to provide rigorous education for only about a fifth of the students, while channeling the rest into farms and factory that no longer exit.”

The Iron Lady, having served as commissioner of the Reform Commission, comes to the Liberian presidency with extensive knowledge of where genuine reforms are needed and must take place in the country. Hence, she must begin a crackdown on government employees’ lackadaisical attitude toward work and punctuality. In addition to this, she should entice churches to abandon the old idea of rewarding criminal parishioners with prestigious positions such as “Father of the Year.” Most importantly, Liberia should revamp its old failed educational policy by managing more vocational schools, technical colleges, and high schools through out the country. In addition, the government should not give contracts to consultants in fulfilling the signed Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP) based on the methods used for the two recent contracts regarding contracts for Telecommunication and the $520 million dollars raised in New York in February 2004. The methods the government used in awarding the contract of telecommunication industry, a necessary utility for climbing out of poverty, and the contracts to NGOs, during the Guyde Bryant government, shifted more capital to the privileged few. Using the same yardstick, the most likely candidates to be awarded GEMAP contracts will be those who have accumulated wealth from the spoils of a rotten economic system that have existed since 1847.

Surely, get-rich quick bureaucrats, both of indigenous and Americo-Liberian origins, will exploit loopholes in any government programs such as the GEMAP just as they have done during previous regimes. They usually use fear tactics coupled with the fear of losing donors’ funding to get their way. Subsequently, they always insist on replacing advocates for the poor with get-rich-quick bureaucrats. Thereafter, such a government ends up losing the support of the poor. So in short, if a government, which should be an arbiter between profiteers and consumers, is influenced by either group, it is bound to fail. Therefore, if the “Iron Lady” accepts the GEMAP solutions for wining the war on corruption by giving the control of policies of affordable housing, education, food, utility, etc. to profiteers at the expense of social programs, then the new government will be doing business as usual.

Happy Holidays!