Liberian President George Weah’s first few months at the helm saw much focus on his pro-poor development agenda, which was touted as the cure-all to the country’s ills. But ills abound, and as he heads towards his sixth-month mark as leader on 22 July, Weah will need more than a good campaign line.
So far, attempts to reduce poverty in Liberia have not yielded significant results. A 2016 report found that over 51% of the population was living in poverty, almost 40% was food-poor, and just over half suffered from food shortages. Economic growth in the country has stagnated, with a modest rate of 3.9% predicted for 2018.
The Weah administration maintains that it can kick-start its pro-poor agenda. However, the odds don’t look promising. A staggering 87% of the 2018/19 budget ($488.7-million) is dedicated to paying the salaries of government staff. This leaves only 13% ($73.4-million) to spend on solving the country’s myriad challenges.
The pro-poor agenda focuses on five thematic areas – health, the economy, youth development, infrastructure and education. But beyond financial resources, economic growth will also need social action. The people of Liberia must start to question the way things have been done. Not only question though – but demand the necessary change.
Can these challenges be overcome? It’s clear that Liberia’s sluggish economy must be jolted into action by a rapid influx of capital and skills. If the country’s past taught it to look outside of Africa, it must now turn its gaze inward, and closer to home.
One way to achieve this is through South-South Cooperation – especially regional partnerships. This approach is encouraged by the United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which recognises that cooperation among states in the global south is key to achieving its goals.
These kinds of partnerships have significantly intensified in recent years, according to the UN Development Programme: ‘South-South has liberated and strengthened productive capacity of developing countries. This has been achieved mainly through increasing South-South investment and trade, often with a supportive policy environment created by developing country governments.’
In the case of Liberia, it is worth emphasising the reference to ‘a supportive policy environment’. The country must do all it can to attract southern partners and prioritise ease of doing business. At the same time, a new culture of zero tolerance to corruption must be implemented. In a country where the mention of graft elicits little more than a shrug, efforts to stamp out corruption can’t start soon enough.
Liberia doesn’t need to look very far to find solid examples of economic success and sustained development gains to help kick-start its development.
South-South Cooperation facilitates mutual learning and the exchange of knowledge, and examples from neighbouring Sierra Leone’s economic diversification can help Liberia’s own development plan. Similarly, Côte d’Ivoire – one of the fastest growing and most robust economies in Africa sustained economic growth of 7% – can help Liberia overcome its persistent development challenges.
When it comes to seizing opportunities for regional cooperation, Liberia has barely scratched the surface. South-South Cooperation could be applied to Weah’s five thematic areas and beyond, offering opportunities in agriculture and fisheries, education, health and scholarships. The private sector and civil society also have a role. Re-energising Liberia’s private sector will go a long way to curb its almost compulsive dependence on aid and stimulate the economy.
But for Liberia to tap into these benefits, it will have to show that it has something to offer. That would require a mind shift, and Weah’s administration ought to drive home the message that things simply can’t be done in the same way while expecting different results.
Mutual benefit is one of the core principles of South-South Cooperation. This means that Liberia can’t approach African states as it would donors but rather as equal partners. Effective regional partnerships require shared development goals and trajectories – which in turn can enable much-needed capacity building in Liberia.
For northern donors like the United States and the European Union, Liberia’s post-conflict period has been 14 long and tense years of heavy dependency. Global donor fatigue is one more reason for Liberia to be forced to move beyond its ‘business as usual’ comfort zone.
However, this doesn’t mean that northern actors are cued to exit stage left. South-South Cooperation should complement traditional donors, and linkages between northern and southern actors are still required to sustain the peace gains in Liberia.
More specifically, this means exploring trilateral cooperation, and how northern partners can better support partnerships between southern states, especially in infrastructure development. At a national level, this calls for improved strategic engagement between donors, the UN, the AU, and regional and bilateral African actors.
There are several elephants in the room of Liberia’s future, and it is time for frank discussion about where the country is going; and how it intends getting there. Liberia’s greatest potential lies in the resilience of its people.
Any external actor, whether a northern donor or an African partner, can only ever support Liberia – partners cannot develop nor implement policies unless they are Liberia-owned. Driving the pro-poor development agenda and effecting real change starts at home.
Written by Liezelle Kumalo, Researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS and Jacqueline Cochrane, Communication and Evaluation Specialist, ENACT project, ISS