Liberia: Development challenges top agenda as the nation recovers from years of civil strife
Setting off on an obstacle-strewn road of transitioning from a vicious war to stable peace and development, the nation grapples with an array of critical challenges that often escape the glare of world media.
As Liberia emerges from the shadows of a devastating 14-year civil war, the aftershocks of its past history of ethnic hatred, violence and corruption, and the arrest on war crimes charges of former president Charles Taylor, tend to draw the most intensive media attention. There is, however, an equally dramatic story of the formidable challenges facing the country in its efforts to bring a semblance of normalcy to what has been a non-functioning state with no civil services of any kind. The effects of economic mismanagement, corrupt government, administrative abuse and infrastructure collapse were compounded by the socio-economic and humanitarian impact of sanctions. The importance of this undertaking is hard to overestimate since any progress towards greater stability and security depends on how quickly basic services are restored and the economic engine restarted. “Experience has taught us that an incomplete effort in consolidating the peace is often a prelude to renewed conflict,” says Alan Doss, Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Special Representative in the country and head of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which played a vital role in the stabilization of the country and remains a key force in laying the foundation for durable peace and stability.
Africa’s first woman head of state, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who won the recent UN-organized elections, faces numerous pressing tasks ahead as the nation attempts to get past the trauma of its long civil war and proceed with its development agenda. These include the reintegration of ex-combatants, the resettlement of internally displaced persons and returning refugees, creating jobs and other income-earning opportunities, the repair and rehabilitation of infrastructure destroyed during the war, the restructuring and reform of the armed forces and police service, the consolidation of State authority throughout the country, and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A major key to revenue growth is installing mechanisms to meet the conditions for lifting the UN-imposed sanctions on exports of Liberian timber and diamonds, which would provide revenues for national reconstruction and economic recovery.
- Liberia is staggering under an external debt of $3.7 billion, a per capita GDP that is estimated to have declined 90 per cent from US$1,269 in 1980 to $163 in 2005, and an unemployment rate of over 80 per cent.
- There are no functioning public utilities, and the vast majority of Liberians have no access to electricity, water and basic sanitation facilities, or health care. Almost all medical services are provided by international non-governmental organizations and UN agencies.
- Roads and bridges, which are needed to open up markets, increase employment, sustain humanitarian access to rural areas and expand the overall protection environment, are in dire need of repairs. While UNMIL engineers and members of the UN country team have undertaken rehabilitation work on important road networks to facilitate the return of internally displaced persons and refugees, much more remains to be done.
- The education system is dilapidated, with a dearth of qualified teachers and available resources to rehabilitate school buildings.
- Liberia has no effectively functioning judicial system; outside of the capital, Monrovia, most courts have been destroyed and trial-by-ordeal is not unheard of. The culture of impunity that has developed in the absence of justice must be replaced by respect for human rights and the rule of law.
- During the civil war the country’s human resources suffered from a ‘brain drain’ and crisis-related deaths. Vital socio-economic infrastructure was swept away as bad governance, embezzlement, smuggling out of natural resources and economic mismanagement took their toll.
- At the end of civil war, there were 314,000 registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country and 340,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in neighbouring countries. While the UN-backed return process for IDPs came to an end in April 2006 and the majority of the refugees have returned to the country, the job of resettlement continues as returnees struggle to rebuild their lives and communities.