What Would George Washington Say about America’s Relations with Liberia after 200 Years? (A Rejoinder)
March 15 was Joseph Jenkins (JJ) Roberts’ Birthday in Liberia, a day celebrating the life and accomplishments of the nation’s first president. The United States of America and the Republic of Liberia have close consanguinity. Liberia was founded by freed slaves from the United States of America in 1822, 200 years ago. So it was no surprise that the United States government through its embassy near Monrovia would make a statement commemorating this day for Roberts, who was born in Virginia in the USA.
As the day began, Liberians were awakened to a strongly worded Op-Ed piece by Michael A. McCarthy, U.S. Ambassador to Liberia. The diplomat bluntly confronted the Liberian people for what he considers serious lapses in governance, reflected in corruption, lack of basic drugs in clinics and hospitals, bemoaned the mountain of garbage in the nation’s capital and demanded to know why Liberians are incapable of removing dirt from the streets of the nation’s capital. The Ambassador did not include a caveat in his Op-Ed that the evils he recounted were not new and were in fact challenges that had bedeviled previous administrations.
No one can deny that Liberia has historically faced challenges with corruption, lack of accountability and during the postwar period, waste management has shown to be a difficult task in the city of Monrovia due to the inorganic population growth from the 14 years of civil war. Moreover, the government of Liberia is urged to take seriously the concerns of the American diplomat. But the public should be warned that the Ambassador took the liberty to rant and rave at a poor country, mostly dependent upon aid from the United States and other donors and conveniently omitted from his narrative that the country’s existence has been characterized by neglect, exploitation and collusion of the international system with corrupt elites. Resultantly, the neglect, exploitation and collusion led to a fratricidal conflict and a failed state, with all institutions mostly destroyed and human capacity substantially reduced, while the Americans stood by as the carnage engulfed the entire nation.
Not only did the US government stand by idly during the war, but Firestone Plantations Company of Akron, Ohio, the American rubber giant actively supported and gained financially by alliance with one of the factions, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) led by Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president. Taylor is currently serving time for war crimes, including recruitment of child soldiers, gross human rights violations, amputation of limbs and sexual slavery. Had Firestone not supported the NPFL, the war would have ended sooner saving hundreds of thousands of lives and preserving Liberia’s infrastructure that was almost completely destroyed during the senseless conflict. Firestone’s role in the economic history of Liberia is also connected to slave wages, mistreatment of its workers and exploitation of the Liberian economy by transfer pricing and other commercial malpractices.
In contrast, there is La Cote d’Ivoire, next door to Liberia, a former French Colony, also a post conflict nation, with fewer than 200 years association with that European nation, but a country that is an agricultural giant, with infrastructure that includes 94 percent electricity penetration and modern roads and amenities. The GDP of La Cote d’Ivoire was 60 billion dollars in 2021, with a per capita GDP of 2300 USD. In contrast the GDP of Liberia was 2.95 billion dollars, with a per capita GDP of only 743 USD.
The Ambassador made many statements that should not go unchecked. To the uninitiated, the diplomat’s claims about the quantum of United State aid to Liberia, about 110 million dollars including 79 million dollars to the healthcare sector annually seems like direct support to the government of Liberia. This is far from the truth. US aid to Liberia is coordinated by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and a multitude of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), known as implementing partners. In 2020, more than 8.5 billion dollars went to Sub-Saharan countries. The aid industry in the global South known as poverty reduction is larger than most sectors. A phalanx of so-called “experts” from the United States and donor nations administers more than 90 percent of aid monies coming to developing nations. Distressingly, most aid procurement contracts are largely mechanisms used to fund support to commercial enterprises in the home countries.
The United States Ambassador was inaccurate in the quantum of aid to Liberia. For the last year reported in 2020, the quantum of aid to Liberia, as updated by the USAID on February 21, 2022, was 120 million dollars. Liberia was only at 21st place in the amount of US Aid sent to Sub-Saharan Africa. Ethiopia received 1 billion dollars, at 1st place and the Gambia at 22nd. The monies spent in the name of Liberia went to the following sectors:
54 million dollars to health and population
24 million dollars in administration costs
11 million dollars to governance
18 million dollars to education
7.1 million dollars to agriculture
2 million dollars to infrastructure
1.7 million dollar to humanitarian aid
3.0 million to other unspecified activities
The Ambassador was inaccurate in his characterization of the quantum, character and form of aid sent to Liberia in the last year reported. Moreover, the Ambassador did not indicate the level of aid effectiveness of the monies spent as required by the Busan Declaration. The Busan Partnership agreement “sets out principles, commitments and actions that offer a foundation for effective co-operation in support of international development. The Busan Partnership agreement is a consensus that a wide range of governments and organizations have expressed their support for.” Simple put, aid must be effective with quantifiable outcome indicators and despite the nearly 5 billion dollars of US aid spent in the name of Liberia between 2006 and 2017, the United States government through its ambassador cannot state clearly how that aid benefitted Liberia and why poverty persists in such magnitude nearly 20 years in the country’s postwar dispensation.
The United States Ambassador complained that health care facilities in Kolahun, Lofa County and Saniquellie, Nimba County make do without basic drugs. This was a disingenuous attempt to place responsibility on the government of Liberia or officials for the diversion or theft of drugs from public healthcare centers to private ones. The act of diversion of drugs from public to private clinics is as old as the Republic of Liberia and is in fact not an uncommon occurrence in Africa.
The Ambassador also sought to make the diversion of drugs a new phenomenon, when in fact evidence abounds that over the 12 years of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Administration, frequent drug diversion and thefts were reported at the National Drug Service (NDS), a government agency responsible for distributing drugs to government hospitals and clinics, and even theft of funding by officials of the NDS.
In recounting the quantum of US aid to Liberia in the recent period, the Ambassador failed to indicate that overall official development aid (ODA) has been substantially reduced, from a high of 1.4 billion dollars in 2010, to only 597 million in the last year, 2019 when figures were reported. Liberia received on average annually 776 million dollars in aid between 2010 and 2017. The drop in aid, reduced spending from operations of the UN in Liberia including aggregate demand of 200 million dollars annually has put a strain on the Liberian economy. The Ambassador mentioned Ebola, and interestingly did not mention the fact that 2021 was the first year of positive economic growth since the disease invaded Liberia in 2014. Moreover, since the departure of UN troops and security forces, Liberia must now pay for its own security, balance the national budget and provide basic services to the Liberian people. Reading the Ambassador’s piece, one would get the mistaken impression that the sky is falling in Liberia. That is far from the truth. Growth prospects for the Liberian economy have been revised to indicate an uptick of 4 percent in the last year, with more positive growth projected for 2022. The Ambassador did not indicate the progress but instead dwelled on the challenges that exist in most Sub-Saharan countries.
The Ambassador bemoaned the dirt in the city of Monrovia. Unquestionably, the city of Monrovia faces challenges in solid waste management. But the current system of waste management was developed by the World Bank and donors, and does not include an indigenized approach, with greater private sector
participation. Municipalities around the globe are turning to the private sector to provide efficiencies in solid waste management, but the World Bank and donors created a system that is clearly inefficient. The World Bank, Cities Alliance, United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), European Union (EU), Community Based Enterprises (CBEs) including organized private collection firms, civil society, politicians and the public have sought to support improvements in solid waste management in the city, but frustrations persist. Indeed, the city of Monrovia must wean itself from donor funding, but the foundation for efficient solid waste management was sacrificed for a system that included a convoluted system of community involvement in a city with over 1 million people that does not exist anywhere on the planet.
Inefficiencies in the collection and disposal of solid waste management in Monrovia are the results of lack of planning, inadequate financial resources and inorganic growth of the city arising out of the 14 year conflict that increased the city’s population to more than 1.2 million people from only 600,000 in the prewar years.4 Moreover, mostly obstructing Monrovia’s solid waste management are the lack of public support due to limited information and knowledge and a coordinated implementation plan with a model that galvanizes popular embrace, mobilizes resources and sets out clear objectives and demonstrably shows the long term positive impact of the city’s strategic plan for solid waste management. The donor- led system has not worked, and so it is unreasonable for the city of Monrovia, without own source revenues, a veritable tax base and an independent city government to create and implement a solid waste management system without donor support in the immediate term. The meddlesome donor intervention, bringing in companies like Zoom Lion from Ghana did not allow Liberians to create domestic ownership of waste management. We did not ask foreigners to assist us with waste management in the entire history of Liberia. It was only in the postwar period, when donor support was embedded in every activity for private gain, from both the donors to support their commercial enterprises and from government officials beholden to the international system was when garbage collection became an international form of donor support. We did not ask for donor support. The donors inserted themselves in an activity best suited for the private sector and voila we have the mess they created. They must fix it.
44 UNDP 2018
The Ambassador writes about transparency in voting at the legislature and indicating that voting machines were installed in 2014 that would indicate how legislators vote. But this is outrage that was not directed at the government of Liberia, under the pop star presidency of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf between 2014 and 2017? Why now? Why this righteous indignation over the lack of transparency in the Liberia legislature? Where was the outrage when 66 out of 68 concession agreements were being passed fraudulently when American companies were the beneficiaries of the lack of transparency? Chevron. Exxon Mobil. Anadarko. Arcelor Mittal with a major presence in the United States. ProPublica narrates the difficulties of ridding Liberia of corruption in a story involving Chevron. Now the United States Congress is contemplating imposing selective sanctions on Liberian officials for corruption. Why now? What is the motivation? Why was not sanction an option during the 12 years of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Administration, with clear and irrefutable evidence of corruption, nepotism and human rights violations?
Indeed, the motivation is patently political, instigated by the disheveled, unprepared and unconnected opposition political parties, supporters with deep pockets, who are entreating congress by utilizing powerful lobbyists. They are attempting to tip the scales of the election in favor of the political elites in 2023. This is their playbook over the last 42 years. Since the ancien regime was overthrown in 1980, efforts by the political elites to retain power have been assisted by their allies in the United States. The war and consequences thereof were promulgated by these elites, using child soldiers, exploiting ethnic divisions and effectively ruined a once promising country. Thus the question that must be asked is simple: What would George Washington say about the relations between Liberia and the United States that produced one of the world’s poorest countries? With nearly 15 billion dollars in donor support over the postwar period, this is the Liberia we have, and the current government is fixing the mess created by the neglect, exploitation and collusion with the political elite. The Ambassador should do well to read the history of Liberia to understand how this country became what it is today.
Going further, despite the fallacies in the Ambassador’s Op-Ed, the government of Liberia is urged to redouble its efforts to minimize corruption and remain steadfast in its drive to improve the lot of the Liberian people.
Jacob T. Binda
Concerned Citizen in Monrovia