Organized by the World Bank and the Government of Liberia and co-hosted by the US government, the European Community, the African Development Bank, the (AfDB), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United Nations (UN), the conference will cover every aspect of Liberia transition from emergency and humanitarian state to sustainable development.
In his opening remarks, President of the World Bank, Mr. Paul Wolfowitz said that the international community needs to do much more and faster and take advantage of this unique opportunity that Liberians have now, after 25 years of instability, to take control of their destiny. He set the tone of the agenda by saying that Liberia’s $3.7 billion debt was clearly unsustainable and an unacceptable burden. He called on the international community to work together to clear the arrears so that the country can move forward. Mr. Wolfowitz paid tribute to what he terms as the “inspirational leadership of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” and added that this new hope must not be allowed to fade away. He said that “Those who remember the horror of the past can hardly imagine that Liberia has now become a place of hope.
On her part, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took the international community to task. She said in her opening remarks: “ I hope we can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of our approach so far, the areas where we as a government and you as partners have done well, the areas where we have not done so well, and how we can all strengthen our efforts - going forward.” While cognizant and grateful for their help to Liberia, she said there was no need for “anyone to boast of a $500 million commitment if the money does not make a difference in the life of our people.” She pointed to the deficiencies of the partnership between Liberia and the international community. According to her, Liberians “don’t really care about IPRSPs, or harmonization and coordination. They have never heard of a multi-donor trust fund, and they don’t care about joint action plans, workshop proceedings, or thick consultant reports. What they want is security, freedom, and opportunity: security in their everyday lives, freedom from abuse and oppression, and basic economic opportunities so they can provide for their families.”
“Time is pressing, and we must never forget that we are here for the Liberian people” President Sirleaf said, adding that “Liberia is still in a fragile state” and called on Liberia’s partners not to allow this unique chance of recovery to pass by, echoing Mr. Paul Wolfowitz.
The President also spoke of her government priorities, the security issues as well as decentralization and the urgency in rehabilitating the roads. She emphasized her government will to fight corruption, a disease “that has eaten away at the fabric of the society.”
President Sirleaf clearly noted, point by point what her government considers as priorities and look for action. She ended her speech on the debt issue: “Finally, it is time to move forward on debt relief. We have done our part in this regard by building up a strong record of policy performance and we are pleased that the IMF has publicly recognized this achievement. We now look forward to the shareholders of the multilateral institutions to do their part to arrange the necessary financing. No other HIPC country so far has had to wait for financing to be arranged. Debt relief is urgent to free up new resources from the African Development Bank, the World Bank, and others. It will help us deliver a clear peace dividend to the Liberian people.”
After President Sirleaf, the US Secretrary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice announced a series of measures that gave the gathering an air of optimism. She announced, amidst applause by the audience, that the United States, besides canceling the $391 million bilateral debt, would also commit $200 million in the next year to help Liberia. She announced that the US government was planning to enter an open sky agreement with Liberia that would allow for direct flights linking the two countries in the very near future.
Dr. Rice noted that the holding of the Private Sector Forum organized by the Government of Liberia through the Corporate Council on Africa will provide another forum for further discussions on the steps the US was taking in encouraging the development of a vibrant sector.
Other speakers, representing the co-hosts, also took their turn to the podium. Mr. Louis Michel, Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid of the European Community, Mr. Donald Kaberuka, President of AfDB and Mr. Alan Doss, Special representative of the UN Secretary General in Liberia all echoed the words of both Presidents Sirleaf and Paul Wolfowitz by insisting that Liberia’s debt was unsustainable and needed immediate attention. In their limited time on the podium, they each alluded to possible strategies to be discussed during the two days of consultations between their agencies and the government of Liberia.
The conference is off to a very good start and it seems that Liberia’s partners have decided to come to her rescue in a meaningful way. The fact that each speaker was candidate in their appreciation of the weaknesses, slowness and sometimes inadequacy of the aid system points to the possibility of a new approach. President Sirleaf said that it was important that as the international community do away with the heavy bureaucracy and the bottlenecks that render aid sometimes ineffective. She said Liberia was doing her part in meeting the expectations of the international community in terms of good governance, transparency, rule of law and the fight against corruption.
The Partners’ Forum will last two days with discussions between Liberian delegates and representatives of Partners. Foreign Minister George Wallace will lead the Liberian delegation during the talks. Issues discussed at the different sessions will include “Macroeconomic Policies and Outturns”, “Progress with Democratic Transition, Economic”. “Economic and Social Development Challenges” with parallel discussions on National Security, Economic Revitalization, Health and all other social and economic sectors of the government.
If the tone that was set at the opening by the sponsors of the conference lingers, the Liberian government could walk away with a very good package, not only in terms of palpable funding but also a new strategic partnership to fund her development. A few days ago, Sirleaf said it was not so much the amount that people would commit at this gathering that would matter as much as the approach that would be taken to address the real needs of Liberia and what can be done immediately.
Among the delegates attending the opening session, the presence of George Manneh Weah and the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives Hon. Mulbah K. Topka was a welcome sign of Liberians united for a national cause. In a short press interview with the press, George Weah said he flew in to show his support for the national agenda under the leadership of President Sirleaf. “This is not about partisanship, this is our country and we must be united and do whatever we can to move things.”
President Bush played a major role in the peace process in Liberia, when, in June 2003, he insisted that Mr. Taylor must leave. The end of that dictatorship opened the way to all possibilities. The measures announced today by Dr. Rice, if emulated by other partners, could help the country get back on its feet. So, far, there seems to be an agreement on the nature of the problems faced by Liberia. Everyone also seems to agree that the way aid has been provided needs a serious overhaul. The next few months and years would show if indeed, this new spirit that the combative President has been pushing will be adhere to. One thing is certain, she will never stop pushing.