The upcoming conference takes place against the backdrop of Liberia’s return to the comity of nations, with the holding of the first free and fair elections in the nation’s history. In the past year, since assuming the leadership of a country that was once the poster child of failed statehood, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been a cause célèbre, feted like a rock star everywhere she went. From London to Paris and Washington, DC and from Beijing to Lagos and Brussels, she was received with fanfare by all major world leaders. Among speaking occasions, President Sirleaf addressed the joint session of Congress, the European parliament and the UN General Assembly among countless forum.
Liberia has made great strides in the past 12 months but the needs are of such a magnitude that every positive move is suddenly covered by another greater emergency. Liberians have shown to the world that they have turned the page and are ready to build a new country on sound foundations. They have embraced many of the bitter pills that recovery from deep illness requires, including giving up part of their sovereignty and allowing foreigners to oversee every government transactions. The government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has taken bold steps; some of these decisions were far from popular. As she constantly said during the campaign, she was “ready to make the hard decisions,” because business as usual would only lead the country back to where it was. Just trying to figure out what the first priority becomes a challenge in itself.
Faced with the daunting task of renewal, Liberians have in many ways accepted and endorsed the reform agenda by a president who never misses an occasion to remind them that the reconstruction of Liberia and the development of its resources lay squarely on their shoulders. Moving Liberia from its past course will require shifting the mindset of Liberians, from an attitude of dependency – on aid - to that self-reliance.
The upcoming conference is in itself a major policy shift. Rather than refer to it as Donors Conference where “major donor countries” meet with a receiving nation to pass out donations or gifts, President Sirleaf said she was coming to DC at the head to launch a discourse on partnership with Liberia’s long term friends, to think about solutions on how to collaborate to the country back on its feet. “We are not going to there to beg, we are going there to consult with our partners on how to move forward and engage them in a dialogue on how best to work with us if they want to help us,” said the President during a preparatory meeting in Monrovia.
The Partnership Conference provides an ample opportunity for the international community and most importantly the US, to make good on its promises to help Liberia get back on its feet. The US has made great contributions to the process so far by investing in the reform of the security apparatus, pledging $50 million to the government last year and welcoming Liberia into the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which would allow the country to export tax free agricultural products and textiles into the US market. The Bush administration has wholeheartedly embraced Mrs. Sirleaf. But so far, this commitment has yet to be translated into any dramatic push that could provide Liberia with the kind of help it needs to make a real turn.
The US and other partners of Liberia can only help if they are read to take bold steps and take a risk on Liberia. Dispensing food aid and building a security infrastructure are just the beginning of the process. Can the US and others go beyond hand-outs and really work with Liberia to give a new meaning to West-South partnership?
To emphasize the partnership nature of this conference, the government of Liberia is hosting a day-long forum on investments and partnerships in the economic sector. Under the title of Liberia Private Sector Investment, this conference will bring together businesses to learn about investment incentives and opportunities in the new Liberia in vital sectors including agriculture, mining and natural resources, energy, construction, transport and tourism. Potential investors will hear directly companies doing business in Liberia as well as government officials.
In the many speeches she delivered in her travels around the world to spur interest in Liberia and her recovery program, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf pointed to what kind of help Liberia needs and how that aid could be meaningful. She has reduced her needs to two major issues: an action on the spiraling debt of Liberia, standing currently at $3, 5 billions and the lifting of international economic sanctions imposed on the country during the rule of Charles Taylor. The debt was mostly occurred during the military regime in 1980-1985, with back payments and interest accumulating over the years.
President Sirleaf often mentioned when speaking of aid. She called on more than once on the same transparency and accountability from the donors as expected from receiving nations. Because most money given nowadays for aid is channeled through non-governmental organizations (NGO), it is practically impossible to know from both ends how much and how the aid is spent and on what.
The lack of coordination between donors and receiving countries has led to the proliferation of “aid receiving agencies” that are accountable to neither the donor countries nor to the receiving countries. This has become a serious gap in the aid system. A few years ago, a European nation that had pledged to support the rehabilitation of former combatants funneled its funds through an organization which hired graduating students from a high cuisine culinary school and sent them to Liberia for a year to cook for former combatants who get by daily on a diet of rice palm butter and rice. The money spent on each of these students for their upkeep in Liberia could have build many schools and provided other services in other areas had there been a coordination between the two countries.
President Sirleaf insistently pointed to the gap between the time of pledge and the delivery of funding. Almost a year ago, the US Congress earmarked $50 million for emergency aid to Liberia. Very little, if any at all of that amount has made its way into Liberia. Late last year, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Dr. Jendayi Frazer said that the funds were slow in coming because of contractual issues. Current aid flowing to Liberia is mostly commitments made during the transitional era under Chairman Bryant. The electricity project as well the security reform was pledges made in 2004 and had yet to be implemented.
Finally, to be effective, aid fund should target real needs in the receiving country. Recently, the aid of a government institution approached one of the international organizations in Monrovia seeking help with communications. The Liberian official was trying to put in place a system that would allow his office to communicate with its agents in various counties throughout the country. It happened that the international institution could supply a sophisticated network that would allow the official to hold video-conferences with other organizations working on the same issues in places like Japan, South Africa, Brazil or Arizona… but it could not deliver on a system that would link Liberian cities.
When she addressed the European Parliament a few months ago, President Sirleaf said that Liberia was not a poor country, referring to its great natural resources. She said what the country needed mostly was a push to jumpstart its economy.
The Donors Conference will be effective if it help to move Liberia one step further on the path of recovery. Rather than how much would be pledged, the major issue should focus on developing a new paradigm to ensure:
1. Better coordination between Liberia and Donors to ensure that aid target the country’s needs;
2. Greater transparency in how implementing agencies spend the funds to avoid waste and duplication;
3. Reduction of the gap between the time of pledge and that of funding of programs.
President Sirleaf appointed several seasoned Liberian professionals with n decades of experience in the international and development community to strategic positions in her administration. Their ability to negotiate new terms for Liberia with their former colleagues could be the best justification for their presence in the government and at these talks. If they allow current conditions to continue, it makes no difference how much money is pledged, Liberia would continue to struggle with the same ghosts and could easily slide back into instability, fueled by discontent and growing poverty.
This Partnership Conference could serve, in a small way, to pave the way to redefine the very concept of aid as currently practiced. It certainly is a departure from the old donor-receivership conferences.