During President William Tubman’s Open Door Policy, Liberia was averaging double-digit growth rates. Being open for business, however, did not mean growth was open to all.
In the 1960s, it was claimed that we had ‘growth without development’–economic activities from large-scale foreign concessions in iron ore, rubber, palm oil, and timber did not improve the lives of most Liberians. I don’t buy the argument that Liberia suffered from a ‘resource curse’ because that line of reasoning is too simplistic. Our resources have served as a blessing for an elite few, and that is where our problems lie.
Someone could easily have written a book entitled How Foreign Concessions and Liberian Elites Underdeveloped Liberia, modeled after the writings of Guyanese theorist, Walter Rodney, and African-American scholar, Manning Marable. While Rodney asserted in 1972 that Africa was deliberately exploited by European colonialism, Marable would later argue in 1999 that racism and American capitalism gave Black Americans a raw deal.
I’m reminded by Rodney and Marable that the economic marginalization of the vast majority of Liberians in the late 20th century remains very much a reality today. For example, a 2008 government survey showed that over 60 percent of Liberians believe they are poor. And with only 20% of the labor force actually employed in the formal sector, it is clear that poverty is more than a mental outlook. It remains a physical state of being for most Liberians.
If we want to move from Open Door to ‘growth with development’–where all Liberians benefit from the country’s natural resources–some structural changes need to happen fast. A 2010 IMF report argues that Liberia needs to explore opportunities in its non-traditional economic sectors in order to attract private investment and create employment opportunities for all. They cite a number of factors that make ‘growth with development’ especially challenging, such as lack of good roads, lack of sound financial systems, lack of land security, and lack of local skills, especially among youth.
Liberia has attempted to resolve its structural challenges, but the pace of change is slow. Although a number of concession agreements–namely Firestone and ArcelorMittal–were renegotiated in 2006 to level the playing field, our traditional economic growth sectors still need reforms. For example, a Feb. 29 article in AllAfrica.com reported that Sime Darby, one of the biggest companies in Malaysia, is exploiting the people of Grand Cape Mount County, with Liberian activists like Alfred Brownell of Green Advocates and Silas Siakor of Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) sounding the alarm bells.
In 2009, Sime Darby began operations in Liberia after the government awarded it 220,000 hectares as part of a 63-year concession agreement to produce oil palm. The company planted its first tree in May 2011, pledging that it would invest US$3.1 billion over 15 years with actual production starting in June 2015. As rosy as this picture sounds, all is not well. The Malaysian company has been accused of land grabbing and buying crops from local communities at shamefully low prices. But Sime Darby has thrown a curve ball back at its accusers, saying that it has consulted communities and even invested in sustainable agriculture, schools, and basic infrastructure. The Ministry of Agriculture, according to the AllAfrica story, is undergoing an investigation of the Liberian farmers’ claims, hinting that land sales and compensation schemes will be reviewed. This is an encouraging trend, as land could be Liberia’s 21st century conflict generator.
But what concerns me is our dubious record with due diligence. We should be investigating companies before we invite them to our carefully polished negotiation tables. We should send assessment missions to the countries where they operate before we award contracts and interview workers and managerial staff. What is Sime Darby’s track record in other countries? BHP Billiton’s? Golden Veroleum’s? China Union’s? I urge the Liberian Government and the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI) to be more rigorous in this regard. With the recent discovery of oil offshore, we need to ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past as we expand into unknown economic territory.
The Liberia Rising 2030 agenda has been heralded as a response to the 1960s Open Door Policy and our ‘growth without development.’ It seeks to achieve middle-income status for Liberia by 2030 through broad-based participation, responsive governance, national cohesion, and ‘growth with development.’ But some question how different it is from the Vision 2024 promises made by the Taylor regime. The Liberia Rising 2030 visioning exercise seems to be the most appropriate venue for addressing issues of inequality, and I believe the consultations held thus far are a step in the right direction.
But we must move beyond the rhetoric, and get down to basics. Reaching middle-income status by 2030 is a very lofty goal. The Asian Tigers–Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan–took 30 years to achieve middle-income status between the early 1960s and 1990s, and most of them were not saddled with the legacy of protracted wars that completely broke down political, economic, and social systems.
I remain an eternal optimist where Liberia is concerned, but perhaps we too need to manage our expectations. We must create a 21st century Open Door Policy while closing our doors to underdevelopment. Only time will tell whether or not Liberia Rising 2030 can be our saving grace.
Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey is an opinion fellow with New Narratives, a project supporting leading independent media in Africa. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org