SOURCE: WOLLOR E. TOPOR, PHD. UNIVERSITY OF THE PHILIPPINE
It is disheartening that in spite of the attraction of ‘16 billion United States dollars foreign investment’ by the Liberian government during the last eight years, millions of Liberians are still unemployed and/or underemployed. Economists termed it as “jobless growth.” This phenomenon debunks the myth that “the nation is stronger, safer, secure and steadier than it had been in many years” as stated in the President’s 9th Annual Message to the Third Session of the 53rd National Legislature on January 27, 2014.
The level of unemployment is a critical issue and a major challenge to the Liberian government. Meanwhile, the country is not short of proposals to embark on alleviating unemployment and poverty; unfortunately, there is no short-term solution or a magic bullet in this fight. All essential tools are known to President Sirleaf’s administration and her predecessors. Creating the air that will attract investors to put money into establishing factories could be one of the ‘inclusive means for growth’ but which is not the case. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons for which the ‘16 billion dollars foreign investment’ in iron ore mining, oil exploration, large oil palm plantations is yet to trickle-down to the most needy. Why this gigantic amount for such a small country in terms of population (3,476,608 million people, 2008 census) has not trickled-down? The simple answer is that most of these investments are calling for highly skilled professionals, which Liberians are not technical qualified. So, it boils down to the 1960s “Open Door Policy”– where qualified non-Liberians were imported to work. Liberians had little input in creating the national wealth, which resulted to capital flight, that makes Liberia what it is today. Liberians are watching history repeating itself. On the other hand, oil palm plantations call for semi-skilled laborers (where most Liberians could work) but then the issue of land acquisition wherein government through the eminent domain theory, communal or ancestral domain lands were “grabbed” and given to these foreign investors, is another embarrassment to both the government and investors. This issue needs to be handled with care for amicable settlement. The giving of large scale lands to multinational companies without clear and appropriate compensation violates the rights and livelihoods of the affected project communities (APC).
Liberia economy’s unending problems of high unemployment, snail-paced poverty reduction and very low investment are reflections of the government’s failure in treating industrialization lightly. Industrialization includes innovating and manufacturing. These should considerably lessen unemployment and trim down poverty. Liberia’s “economic growth” in the past decade has been fueled with “briefcase investors” like the Buchanan Renewable Energy (BRE) and the exporting of the raw materials like iron ore, rubber and sooner the unrefined oil. Also, emphasis in job-creation is placed on the service sector – vacation students sweeping the streets or brushing roadsides, store boys working in Indians, Chinese and Lebanese stores, etc.
The industrial sector is a genuine means to create job opportunities for the poor and is expected a much higher ripple effect on the economy. Coupled with this is a call for honest and committed support to the educational system, providing marketable skills, training initiatives that correspond to industrial needs of the country and rehabilitating and/or constructing of infrastructure to achieve ‘inclusive economic growth.’ The lip-service to the industrial sector has been the key reason why Liberia economic growth has remained stagnated and far from inclusion. Moreover, the country’s raw natural resources are exported without value added. China Union or ArcelorMittal exporting tons of thousands of ores is just the same as in the 1960s. Could anyone tell me the difference between LAMCO in the 1970s and China Union in the 2013, in terms of value added to Liberia’s iron ore?
Liberia’s economic problems had been overstudied, and overdiscussed by local and international experts, but remained unsolved. According to President Sirleaf, ‘Monrovia is not Liberia’ and she has invited the Monrovians to visit the countryside to see true development. I had the opportunity to serve as the socio-economic consultant on the Mount Coffee Hydropower Plant that was built in the 1960s and now under rehabilitation (this is another story for another day). This Plant is approximately 30 km away from Monrovia, the national capital. In these communities Liberians go to bed on empty bellies, neither have they seen or consulted a medical doctor because they cannot afford the nominal fees considering that Monrovia, Bensonville or Kakata City are located at most 30 km away. It was further revealed that families pawned or even sold their belongings, besides their little mud houses with thatch roofs. They had no collateral for obtaining loans; and their children had little or no education. Children whose parents could afford and were interested in formal education had to walk for two to three hours in order to get to schools. These communities had little farming skills, no cash to buy farming inputs and never saw an extension or community worker. These communities which can be considered as rural Liberia were among the poorest like millions of Liberians with little choice of shifting to another occupation. Such observations jives with Siakor (2013) findings that a decade after the civil war, the socioeconomic condition of the Liberian people is basically the same, meaning social injustice is very much immovable and structured, historically stubborn, and policy-immune as evidenced by the huge joblessness and income disparities despite the ‘16 billion dollars foreign investment.’
If majority Liberians are not feeling the direct benefits from the so-called ‘16 billion dollars foreign investment,’ but these multinational companies are still operating in the country, it is obvious to say that only the few privileged and opportune are enjoying their ill-gotten wealth from the plundering of the state’s natural resources. This illegal money is used for patronage that permits the former warlords to be elected over and over and now building political dynasty. This premise will continue to hold true until the government can prove otherwise in pointing out its gains in the provision of better and functional educational system, improved health delivery service, potable drinking water, stable electricity, etc. for the majority.
One of the best sources to focus concentration is the agricultural sector. The reasons are simple: Liberia is an agrarian economy, agriculture requires semi-skilled laborers (that which the country has in abundance) and raw materials from the farms can be fed into the industries. Why should Liberia be contented with just producing raw rubber, iron ore, and coffee for export? The government must make it conducive for investors (this is overdue for Firestone Rubber Company) to put money in factories and manufacturing facilities to bring to a step higher such as processed agricultural product and/or melt the ore to at least pellets if not metal sheets. Liberian tappers need not forever be carrying rubber buckets on their shoulders; let’s say our parents did such work, we, the children, need to be upgraded by working in a rubber slipper or even a tire factory. But then, the President admitted the weakness of this sector ‘to produce more food, due to the existing low funding level to build a solid foundation for a high productivity’ during her 9th Annual Message. She is right; agriculture is like any other business that needs capital to function appropriately. But does the government have the political claw?
The private sector investment contributes significantly to national development if only the right business culture is cultivated. There is a need for political will, I do not know whether these can be achieved in the next 40 months of Madam Ellen’s presidency; on the part of the government to build roads, sea and air ports and other needed infrastructure as well as re-check business regulations to remove the ones that are not applicable to current demands. This should enable the private sector to perform its duty by investing in job-creating activities mostly in the rural areas were the natural resources are harvested.
Moreover, this “you eat, I eat” philosophy that is creating unnecessary bureaucratic bottle-necks must be done with. As Dr. Sawyer once said, “Corruption is the price we have to pay for peace.” Are the poor to continue paying for peace while the privileged and opportune beep up their foreign accounts?