Liberians: Caught in Political Dilemma and
New Global Realities (PART I)
By Geepu Nah Tiepoh
"President Charles Taylor has criticized Liberians for what he called their dependency attitude. President Taylor says Liberians are too lazy and expect things to happen by themselves. . . He unleashed his barrage of criticisms Saturday at programs marking World Food Day. . . The President said anyone who wanted to eat imported rice would pay more for it."
The above statement, reported in STAR RADIO DAILY NEWS for October 24, 1999, clearly exposes the callousness and ingratitude of the current regime in Liberia. It is great insensitivity to the plight of the Liberian people to accuse them of laziness in spite of enduring so much suffering in having this regime in power. It is also an utter display of lack of understanding of the real domestic and global policy issues weighing on agricultural development and food sufficiency in Liberia. This two-part article examines some of these key issues, especially in light of what may be viewed as a political dilemma and the new global realities facing the country. In this first Part, we look at the root causes of Liberia's agricultural underdevelopment and food dependency. In Part II, we shall consider the macroeconomic, sectoral, and financial policy issues facing Liberian agriculture in the context of new global realities and as the country enters the new century.
Liberians are facing a dilemma. On the one hand, there is a government in Liberia which, according to the international community, was elected "unanimously in free and fair" elections. With no disrespect to this opinion, it is worth noting that the results of the 1997 elections were dictated more by regional political exigencies than by the free democratic will of the Liberian people. Such exigencies arose as the continuation of a wasteful and destructive civil war became increasingly unacceptable to the domestic political and economic interests of the main regional players in the Liberian peace initiative, and thus many opted for a compromised solution at all costs. The fragmentation of Liberia's civilian political forces during this period did not help in the process of finding a credible compromised solution. So now here we are. We have a government in power, which supposedly has the electoral stamp of approval of the Liberian people and the international community.
On the other hand, however, because said government has failed so far to meet the requirements of good governance, security, and the rule of law, Liberians are being deprived of their socioeconomic and material needs. They are deprived not only by the inability of the government to institute appropriate development strategies and manage national resources efficiently but also by the resulting decline in donor aid and investment flow to Liberia. Thus, in a sense, the political, security, legal and human rights of the people have become a ransom for their economic and material freedoms. In other words, as long as their government fails to deliver good economic and public sector governance, and as long as it does not ensure appropriate security and legal environment, donor aid and private investment will remain scarce, and Liberians will continue to languish in 80 percent unemployment. As long as the government remains incapable of neither aligning its economic management behavior with the new global realities nor providing a credible alternative, the Liberian people will continue to be hungry. And in their pangs of hunger, their "elected" president will continue to accuse them of laziness and dependency attitude.
Roots of Food Insufficiency and Dependency in Liberia
It is the existence of such a dilemma that poses the real barrier to agricultural development and food security in Liberia and not a "dependency attitude" of the people. The fact that we have a government in Liberia which is internationally perceived to have been democratically elected, but under which the people are still hungry due to adverse development conditions and lack of international confidence and financial support, is what poses the real dilemma and obstacle to agricultural development in post-war Liberia and not laziness of the people. Therefore, instead of accusing Liberians, the Taylor government must resolve this dilemma by defining an appropriate role and objective for agriculture in national development and by pursuing sound macroeconomic, agricultural, and financial polices to improve the performance of the sector and increase food security. Any dependency accusation directed against Liberians is misguided because, as far as one is concerned, the only dependency syndrome in Liberian agricultural development is the one historically established and imposed on the people by their successive political elites in collaboration with external capital.
We are aware that from the very outset the Settler State in 19th century Liberia became effectively predisposed towards merchandise trade in cash crops as opposed to agriculture and food production. Such an orientation coincided with the interests of American merchants who needed to have West African trade connections to increase their competitive advantage in, for example, the lucrative palm oil commerce then dominated by the Europeans. It was also consistent with the interests of those aspirant merchant groups within the settler population itself, who preferred quick financial returns yielded by commerce. This concentration on import-export trade, and the resulting neglect of agriculture, created serious shortages in food production and balance of payment difficulties for the colonial regime (1822-1838), thus increasing its dependence on the US-based American Colonization Society. Abayomi Cassell (1970) observed that cultivation of rice declined in the coastal areas in and around Monrovia which were most affected by the palm oil trade. Then came the 1920s, which brought a massive dislocation and transfer of labor from the subsistence farming sector into the Firestone rubber plantations. As Firestone increased its labor force to meet the growing demand for rubber caused by the Second World War, rice production in Liberia fell, and during the 1950s the country became and was to remain a net importer of rice. It is also interesting to note that in order to satisfy the increased demand for rubber, Firestone recruited and assisted many Liberians, mostly political elites, to invest in rubber cultivation so that, for example, in 1955, of the $2 million paid for latex by Firestone, $1.7 million went to 12 large Liberian owned plantations (Taylor, 1956). A key effect of such agricultural neglect, and consequent increases in demand for rice imports, was that it raised Liberia's dependence on the United States since the latter provided the single largest source of these imports.
With declining revenues from rubber and iron ore exports due to global economic crises in the early 1970s, the Liberian State shifted emphasis from rubber and iron ore to smallholder farming (cocoa, coffee, and rice) and timber as new sources of revenue. In order to implement such a policy change, the government of President Tolbert began three Integrated Agricultural Development Projects (IADPs) under a five-year National Socio-Economic Plan (1976-1980), which were to be financed through heavy borrowing from international sources. Surprisingly, however, 26 percent of the total planned expenditure for the IADPs ($712 million) was spent on construction works for the 1979 OAU Summit (Pereira-Lunghu, 1995). It is instructive to note that in the early 1970s the Liberian government had the option to utilize a labor-intensive system for increasing rice production using a strain of "swamp rice" developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Instead, the government chose to introduce a more capital intensive and overmechanized form of wet rice cultivation. Some believe that this approach to capitalization of rice production was influenced in part by the desire of the government to create investment opportunities for the Liberian elite. Following the introduction of large scale capitalized cultivation, rice production increased rapidly from 74,000 tons in 1971 to 256,000 tons in 1977 (Rice, 1991). These increases were short-lived, however, when in October of 1978 the US Federal Reserve Board, in order to strengthen the dollar, began to sharply increase interest rates. American higher interest rate policy not only caused an outflow of US dollars from Liberia but also constrained credit and working capital to the rice sector that had relied heavily on international borrowing. Consequently, acreage under rice cultivation as well as productivity per acre and the national rice harvest declined. President Tolbert attempted to remove the resulting rice shortages through price incentives to producers, most of whom were members of the ruling elite. We all know the political machinations that followed this move. The 1980s were marked by heavy domestic and international borrowing, which later became unsustainable under poor fiscal and monetary polices. Unable to meet its debt obligations, the Doe regime was barred from receiving further international loans, thus leading to a halt of all externally funded projects, such as the IADPs that had been established in the 1970s to promote state revenue and self-sufficiency in rice. And while, relative to other sectors, agricultural exports performed generally well over most of the 1980s, such performance was predominantly based on timber exploitation. Between 1957-1977, 33 timber companies exploited Liberia's rich forests; but in 1988 that number stood at 46 (Pereira-Lunghu, 1995).
The tendency toward generating quick state revenue through external borrowing and natural resource-based investment and trade, at the neglect of the subsistence economy, is a main root cause of Liberia's agricultural underdevelopment and food dependency and not laziness on the part of the people. This tendency, which began with the foundation of the Liberian State and persisted over the past decades, is continuing to this day. After being plundered in the War years, Liberia's timber resources are now again the largest source of investment inflow for the Taylor government, even though most of the three dozen logging companies involved are being poorly regulated and monitored. The government is also having difficulties managing mineral resources. Liberia's assistant minister for mines estimates there are about 6,000 illicit gold and diamond miners operating in the country, but only 400 miners are officially registered (Panafrican News Agency, November 29, 1999). Therefore, instead of accusing Liberians of laziness, the Taylor government must effectively mobilize and manage Liberia's resources and apply them to the development of agriculture, particularly food production. In Part II of this article, we will examine the policy and institutional issues facing Liberian agriculture in the context of new global realities. The demise of the Cold War, the pressures of globalization, and the ongoing fiscal downsizing in industrialized countries are all impacting the level, structure, and direction of international finance. Under these circumstances, not only are unstable regimes, like the one in Liberia, being used as pretext to restrict foreign aid and investment to poor countries, but such regimes must also adjust to the new global policy and institutional frameworks. In this context, the Taylor government must either fall in line or provide a credible alternative.
Geepu Nah Tiepoh is a development economist and consultant with ACLAD Development, Canada.
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