It’s More than the Economy, Madam President – A Commentary by M. Nathaniel Barnes

I listened to, and later read, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s “Call to Action” speech on Thursday, November 21, 2015.  While the President admonished all Liberians not to politicize our current crisis (and I fully agree with her), I could not help pondering the following thoughts, questions and issues.

President Sirleaf is right! No astute observer should place direct blame on the government without fully assessing and understanding the impact of two major factors on our economic performance.  First, is the devastating effect of the Ebola virus; and, second, is the downward spiral of commodities prices (specifically rubber and iron ore) on the global market.  The world’s present largest consumer of iron ore, China, has significantly reduced its appetite (demand) due to its own economic stagnation causing downward pressure on the price of iron ore thus negatively impacting our export of the commodity.  In the case of the Ebola virus, not only did it slow investor momentum in many industries in Liberia, its impact was felt at the most basic level of our informal economy.  Just ask our market women and petty traders.  

While these exogenous factors could not be controlled by the government, I cannot help but ask myself, “Why, after ten years, is there still an absence of   mechanisms or initiatives that could have dampened the shock of global economic trends or any other external factors even if such mechanisms are modest?  I deduced that the lack of such a strategy may have been the reason why, in her call to action, Madam Sirleaf mentions the implementation of an agricultural initiative.  This indeed could have served to offset the severe negative impact of global economic downturns and Ebola by improving employment and food security/self-sufficiency.  However, the delay in implementing programs that could have dampened global economic shocks and the absence of appropriate funding to sustain such programsis like closing the proverbial gate long after the goats have left the pen.  

The idea of implementing mechanismsand programs designed to address unforeseen negative economic occurrences is not rocket science especially in the presence of well-trained economists, fiscal and financial experts.  Serious agricultural initiatives are long overdue; however, attempting to implement such programs as a solution to the economic crisis is as difficult as trying to herd the goats back into the pen.

The economy aside, there are other issues, over which we have direct control, that our government has failed to adequately address.These are the issues of governance, equity and fairness.  This is manifested in the following area:

•    Disparities in our society

It is mind-boggling that our legislators earn 100 times what the average teacher earns. One wonders how this disparity can be justified based on the intrinsic value each group brings to the people of Liberia. How is it possible that the epicenter of our health care delivery system, JFK Hospital, can run out of necessities like oxygen while the CEO of the National Oil Company of Liberia earned over US$300,000 annually during his tenure?

•    Empowerment of Liberian businesses

Every day, Liberian businesses flounder in the face of economic challenges and minimal support from their government.  Throughout history the work horse of successful economies has been small and medium-sized enterprises.  Not only do Liberian businesses encounter the challenges of basic survival due to global competition and competition from foreign-owned businesses in Liberia, they are further challenged by the lack of government support coupled with bureaucratic hurdles and institutional corruption.

•    The Issue of Compensating Civil Servants who have Provided Vital Services

The Ebola crisis engendered a true “call to action” on the part of the government of Liberia, the people of Liberia and the world at large.  The heroes that led the fight against Ebola were our health workers and community dwellers. Liberians will always be grateful to our international partners for the valuable assistance rendered in terms of expertise and financial resources.  Ironically, we have not shown gratitude to our own nationals who put their lives on the line in this life-threatening fight.  They have had to resort to threats of strikes and civil disobedience to receive what is rightfully theirs.  

•    Making Grandiose Relocation Plans when Basic Services are Lacking

In her “Call to Action” remarks, the President mentioned relocating the residents of West Point.  How does the government intend to tackle such a massive undertaking which will certainly cost millions of dollars, when it has not provided basic sanitation that costs a few hundred thousand dollars?  This un-timely notion invokes memories of the proposed program to close Palm Grove Cemetery in which family members were given ninety days to claim, exhume and relocate the remains of their loved ones with no thought given to the financial and social implications of this action.  Our government has tended to announce these kinds of projects without careful consideration and planning thus making them completely unattainable and unpopular.

•    Continued Existence of Corruption with Impunity Unabated

Nearly ten years ago, corruption was pronounced “public enemy number one.”  Government officials and public servants were warned that they were being closely scrutinized and that they would pay the consequences of any unscrupulous act of corruption. Well, ten years later, corruption still reigns supreme.  Other than the creation of one bureaucratic mechanism after another, no concrete action has shown tangible results. No one has been successfully prosecuted and paid the consequences of a corrupt act. Our ineffectiveness probably justifies Liberia’s rating as one of the most corrupt nations in the world.

The Call to Action by our esteemed leader is “a day late and a dollar short.”  While the GOL may boast of various infrastructural accomplishments, these barelymeet basic expectations for this time period. After ten years, this government has only made two significant accomplishments.  First, and not insignificantly, this government has maintained the mandatory peace and stability so desperately needed in Liberia.  Second, they obtained the requisite debt-forgiveness to place Liberia on a sounder fiscal and financial footing.  Never-the-less, they have failed to maximize the outpouring of goodwill from the international community for tangible gains.   Our government has not adequately addressed glaring social problems including huge disparities in the society; empowerment of Liberian-owned businesses; adequate compensation for civil servants; the provision of electricity, pipe-borne water and sanitation services and widespread systemic corruption.

A re-statement of “accomplishments” and “calls to action” will not do much for us now.  What we need is firm, concrete, measurable, sustainable action.

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