Visit Monrovia, the capital of my country Liberia, on a Thursday night and in one of its many lively bars you will witness both what is good and bad about the international development community. You’ll find aid workers at the karaoke, blasting out the lyrics to “We Are the World” – and reminding the locals “We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving.”
What they are giving – at that precise moment – is money toward the salaries of hundreds of Liberian bar staff: a good job to hold in a country where as much as 85 percent of the young population are unemployed. Indeed, despite the attention international agencies have lavished on Liberia since the end of our civil war in 2003, there’s not much to show for the effort.
Of course, aid is appreciated. Over the past 14 years, donor generosity has promoted peace and confronted and defeated the Ebola epidemic. Yet there comes a point when charity can become a barrier to treating and respecting people and a nation as partners.
Whether Liberia has reached such a point is for others to decide. However, there are certain facts concerning Liberia that are beyond dispute: Fourteen years after our civil war, meaningful economic development is still not within reach for most Liberians; Liberia still ranks amongst the 10 poorest countries in the world; even among those who are employed, 78 percent are considered to be in vulnerable employment (which means that they are own-account workers or contributing family workers); and 56 percent of Liberian females between the ages of 15 and 24 cannot read a sentence in English.
It is clear the current model isn’t working. Donor support is supposed to be a transitional arrangement: enhancing resilience, generating opportunities for trade and fostering the growth of a vibrant private sector to draw investment. This has not been Liberia’s experience. Instead we have become trapped in a pernicious cycle of reliance in which aid begets more aid. This means a rethink in the balance between aid and trade is overdue.
This must begin with the government looking beyond aid to deliver Liberia’s future and taking the lead in setting the priorities and framework for delivering services such as health care and education.
This is not to argue that it should be the role of the Liberian government to directly deliver such services itself; rather that international nongovernmental organizations and intergovernmental agencies have taken, in some cases, complete control of the traditional functions of the democratically-elected government to set policy and deliver services. Without sovereign, democratic control and accountability, Liberia is not in fact sovereign or democratic at all: Its people are not free to chart their own course.
Aid can never fulfill the full swath of a country’s needs; it cannot be a substitute for political action. The government must recognize this and improve the general lot of its citizens – or be held to account for not doing so at the ballot box.
Trade and investment are the most effective means to achieve lasting advancement. Only through economic development can we break the cycle of dependency. Yet the policies to cultivate this are woefully lacking. On the World Bank’s 2016 Doing Business Index, Liberia ranks a dismal 174th. Fluency in the language of international aid is all very well, but Liberia needs leadership with a proper grasp of development economics.
This means shifting from an extractive to an agro-based economy. Despite the fact that most Liberians live on farms, the nation imports the majority of its food. Through the re-establishment of the Agriculture Corporation Development Bank, we can provide subsidized equipment, fertilizer and improved seeds so farmers can expand their output and feed the country once again.
Corruption should also be tackled. Investors do not have the confidence that their capital will reach its intended destination. Even worse, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government – while feted by the international-aid community – has allowed a culture of impunity to develop at home where kick-backs and bribes have become common currency. This will stop only when corrupt officials are prosecuted and an example is set. Foreign investment will follow soon after.
Ultimately, the people of Liberia want the dignity of work. They don’t want to rely on charity to feed their families. The current government has had 12 years to deliver on this, but we find ourselves economically where we began – if not worse.
Liberia is now less than two months away from a general election. The coming contest will decide if Liberia will continue to rely on aid from the rest of the world, or extract itself from the development life-support machine. But whatever happens, Liberia must take back control through determining its own priorities and terms of engagement. It must prioritize investment and trade over development aid. Only then can it break the cycle of dependency and earn the dignity the people of Liberia deserve.
Benoni Urey, a presidential candidate for the All-Liberian Party in the forthcoming Liberian general election. He is the founder of LonestarCell-MTN, Liberia’s only nationwide cellphone network