The Author

Are foreign trips to seek investments without putting our house in order a waste of resources?

Recently, Facebook has been awash with postings, especially from critics of the Boakai administration, about the lack of tangible deliverables from the President’s visits to the US Africa Business Summit in Texas, USA, and Seoul, South Korea.

While countries like Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania have successfully attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in tangible investments for their infrastructure and IT sectors, Liberia’s government can only point to seven ‘vague’ Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) in trade and investments. This stark contrast underscores the need for Liberia to reevaluate its development approach and the potential inefficiency of funds spent on foreign trips.

Now, let’s travel back in time and explore Liberia’s historical approach to national development, particularly in the realm of infrastructure. This exploration might shed some light on our current situation and our challenges.

For centuries, Liberian governments and Presidents have pursued a strategy of attracting foreign investments and seeking funding from donor countries like the USA, Germany, United Kingdom, etc. and international organizations like the World Bank, IMF, and African Development Bank. This historical context is essential for comprehending our current situation and the challenges we face.

But let’s consider the success of this approach: Liberia has sought to improve her infrastructure through the pursuit of liberal capitalist free market and pro-western economic policies. After nearly two centuries, what are the tangibles we can boast of? The reality is stark: only 12 % of Liberia’s population can access the national electricity grid.

According to the World Bank, Liberia can boast less than 2,000 kilometres of paved roads with a very low rate of human development. Only 2.2% of Liberia’s GDP is invested in infrastructure, which is much lower than the African average of 4.7%, especially after the long years of the country’s ruinous civil war and the shock of Ebola in 2014. The country spends around 90 million dollars a year on infrastructure when it needs between $500 to a billion dollars a year on basic infrastructure, especially roads, electricity, water and sanitation. These figures paint a clear picture of the challenges we face and the urgent need for a change in strategy.

So, why do our leaders and our mindset persist in the belief that a messianic leader or a generous foreign government will miraculously bring investment or grant us aid to bridge the gap in our infrastructure and human development index?

According to Historian Joseph K. Tellewoyan, in his book, The Years the Locust Have Eaten 1816-2004, in 1869, 45% of the total government budget was spent on government salaries and supplies. Fast-forward a hundred and fifty years or more, and let us look at Liberia’s government expenditures. In the 2018 budget, the recurrent component was 94.8%. In 2024, recurrent expenditures of the budget of US692.41 is 93%.

This emphasis on high expenditures on the cost of running the government, such as salaries of government employees, security personnel, foreign travel, fuel and lubricants and the like, leaves little room for capital and infrastructure investments in roads, electricity, bridges, railroads, education and long-time investments which will make the country attractive to foreign investors anxious to benefit from Liberia’s vast natural resources. Without roads, bridges, ports, electricity, strong judicial independence, and security, natural resources alone are not enough to attract direct foreign investment. Our budget must reflect our priorities.

Do not get me wrong; government workers must be adequately compensated to provide for themselves and their families and give their best to their country. However, if the bulk of our nation’s resources are spent on the machinery of government without adequate investment in our infrastructure, we will never be in the position to attract the direct foreign investment and aid we crave. Fortunately, there are some of our neighbours we could study their examples and adapt some of their approaches to suit our circumstances. For this article, let us consider one of ECOWAS’ regional neighbours.

In 1983, Captain Thomas Sankara took over the country, then called Upper Volta. The country was a poor backwater used as a source of labour for richer French-speaking countries like Senegal, Ivory Coast and others. Captain Sankara renamed the country from the colonial name Upper Volta to Burkina Faso-(A society of upright men/women) in the Mossi language.

He mobilised domestic resources, and by the time Captain Sankara was killed four years later, Burkina Faso had made tremendous strides in food production, women’s rights and education. When Captain Sankara died, he had US$150 in his bank account, 6 guitars, a battered Renault and still lived in his parent’s old house. Yet nearly 3 decades after his death, he remains an inspiration to the youths of West Africa. Every Burkinabe walked with an upright shoulder, proud of their Africanness.

Burkina Faso showed us that no matter how poor a country is, if it sets its priorities right, it can achieve tremendous success in human and infrastructure development.

Depending on foreign aid and investment without putting our house in order by mobilising resources from domestic resources and doing our best to achieve food security is, to say the least, a pipe dream. Going around the world with a begging bowl helps no nation to develop as we have been doing for nearly 200 hundred years. I like to see more initiatives like President Joseph Boakai’s program of regrading feeder roads to improve road connectivity and others. Then, we can attract the foreign investments that Rwanda, Morrocco, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania and other advanced African countries receive.

Nemen Martin Kpahn is a Liberian currently residing in Australia. He holds a master’s degree in communication from Griffith University and a Master of Science degree in research from the University of Southern Queensland. Kpahn is presently pursuing a PhD  at the University of Southern Queensland and writes regularly on Liberian politics and society.

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