Monday, January 08, 2007

Signs of donor fatigue scare fragile Liberia

from The Independent On Line

For a democratically elected leader, Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's daily commute to work borders on the unusual.

First come the armed outriders who order cars to pull over into the gutters. Then comes a blare of sirens as the president's convoy, complete with decoy limousine, barrels down the once-grand Tubman Boulevard. Nigerian United Nations soldiers armed with heavy machine-guns take up the rear: the international community is taking no chances with Liberia's best hope of democratic leadership in decades.

When a fire gutted the executive mansion on Liberia's independence day in July, almost claiming the lives of four west African presidents (including Liberia's), everyone suspected a plot. Rebels loyal to the former leader, Charles Taylor, by then in detention, were suspected. A South African forensic team found that dodgy wiring rather than foul play was responsible.

Air conditioners and chandeliers switched on specially for the visiting presidents of Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Ghana had overloaded a dilapidated system.

For the president, struggling to put her Humpty Dumpty-like country back together again, the fire was one more burden to bear.

Graham Greene, in his seminal travel book, Journey Without Maps, describes crossing Liberia with a chain of porters in 1935. In the republic founded for freed American slaves, he found one of the few areas of Africa untouched by colonisation. But about 70 years of misrule and war has left much of the country in as desperate a situation as he found it. So poor is the country that finding a simple bed net to keep off the hordes of malarial mosquitoes is almost impossible. Equipped with his vials of quinine, Greene had better access to health care than many Liberians do today.

Beneath the veneer of civil society in the capital, Monrovia, almost everything seems on the verge of collapse. There is no mains electricity for most of the capital, and a few kilometres beyond it entire sections of the main road have been washed away. The UN has restored some sewage disposal and water supply, but most areas are still without it.

There is no national television. TV masts donated by Japan about 20 years ago were stripped clean by looters, who also took the electrical cables. The defence ministry building is a squalid tenement occupied by squatters - unpaid former soldiers. The interior ministry is home to war refugees.

One bright spot is the national football stadium, which Chinese workers are busy restoring. Doubtless. Beijing miscalculated that the football star George Weah rather than Johnson-Sirleaf would now be in charge. And Africa's first woman president would doubtless have preferred refurbished hospitals to a football stadium. But with her country flat broke, its economy in ruins and 15 000 UN soldiers providing a veneer of security, she is grateful for all the help she can get.

Sitting down to talk in her temporary quarters in the foreign ministry, on her mind was the worry that the international aid was about to dry up. She has good reason to worry. Several aid agencies have already left and the Global Fund has recently rejected funding for malaria and tuberculosis drugs for the coming year.

Now there are fears that post-civil war Liberia is dropping off the radar of western countries more interested in fighting the "war on terror" than in propping up a predominantly Christian country of 3 million.

Johnson-Sirleaf, the Harvard-educated economist who defeated Weah last year in the presidential campaign, fears that aid to her country is taking second place to the assistance being given to countries that the West fears could become havens of Islamic extremism. "It will be catastrophic if aid is to be reduced," Johnson-Sirleaf said. "If the promised aid does not arrive, especially for our health services, it will have serious consequences."

Liberia remains a tinderbox after the civil war, where rebels used cannibalism and rape as weapons of war. Its towns are filled with young, unemployed ex-fighters, whom the UN describes as "a very serious source of tension". Poverty is everywhere. Half of the population gets by on less than half a dollar (R3,50) a day. It is one of the poorest places on the face of the earth.

She fears a fresh crisis as the increase in aid promised at last year's Gleneagles G8 summit goes to Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan, as well as Darfur in Sudan. London and Washington dispute this. Britain points out that its bilateral aid to Africa has gone up from £826 million (R11,25 billion) in 2004/5 to £1,1 billion in 2005/6 and will be £1,25 billion in 2006/7. In the United States, aid to Africa under President George Bush has gone up from $1 billion to $4 billion and is projected, the US congress permitting, to rise to $8 billion by 2010.

There has, indeed, been a substantial increase in aid as was promised by the other G8 leaders in their undertaking to double financial assistance to Africa by 2010. But in the first year much of the extra money has been spent in the form of debt relief for Iraq and Nigeria.

To keep the Gleneagles promise of doubling aid to Africa by 2010, another big increase must be confirmed by the G8 at their annual meeting in Germany, and the Democrats in the US congress must also vote for the large aid increase.

Inexplicably, the Global Fund is also refusing to fund Liberia's malaria and TB programmes for the year, although these are two of the country's biggest killers.

To make matters worse, now that the civil war is over, some aid agencies that specialise in providing emergency relief are leaving. The fear is that there are no long-term development agencies to take over from them. Demand for the services of those staying on, such as the British medical charity Merlin, are ever increasing.

"Liberia is a fragile state," Sonja van Osch, Merlin's country director, said. "Without continued support for at least another five years, people will continue to die unnecessarily from easily preventable diseases like malaria, diarrhoea and measles."

But the government is crippled by $3,7-billion (about R25-million) of debt, most of it in arrears, and none has yet been forgiven under the Gleneagles deal.

The 66-year-old president remains widely admired at home and abroad. She has kept corruption at bay by sacking officials and demanding transparency in contracts, and has appointed experienced women to run the top ministries - finance, justice and commerce.

Johnson-Sirleaf appears determined to do things differently from other African governments. Her close relatives fly economy class, an attempt is being made to break down the tribal nature of Liberia's politics and the country has a lively, inquisitive press.

But, as the president's actions threaten vested interests in the country, her life remains closely guarded by the Nigerian troops.

She has learnt from her World Bank days not to upset donor countries, but she expressed undisguised irritation at the Global Fund for its refusal to fund the fight against malaria and TB.

"It was a decision by functionaries and bureaucrats," she said. "They do not know the consequences of their actions. We will do everything to get it reversed."

The Global Fund has agreed to aid Liberia in principle, but its technical review panel says that Liberia's detailed proposals are inadequate. Privately, some people hint that the fund, normally one of the more agile international development agencies, fears that corruption in the health-care system has not been sufficiently curbed.

Shortly afterwards, at a meeting of international donors for Liberia, the president appealed to the world not to turn its back on the country in the misguided belief that its crisis is over.

Jeffrey Sachs, who advised the G8 as head of the UN's Millennium Project, said the Global Fund's decision to deny funding for malaria and TB "defied belief".

"What this country needs is to be flooded with bed nets impregnated with insecticide to fight malaria as well as all the drugs it needs to combat TB and Aids," he said.

The civil war left Liberia's population traumatised and its infrastructure looted and burnt to the ground. There is no economy to speak of and most people do not live beyond 40. But, as Liberia's democracy sends out its fragile roots, that recovery is jeopardised by increasing violence, insecurity and poverty.

Attacks on civilians by armed robbers - often former child soldiers - are frequent in Monrovia. Gang rape, another legacy of war, is also common. Schooling is almost non-existent; at least 87 percent of the population is illiterate.

Liberia is so poor that as little as $5 per person - $15 million a year - is all that is needed to provide adequate health care. All the government can afford is $3 million (and that is donated), with the result that health in Liberia is "among the worst in the world, and may soon get worse", says a report from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

"Most of the African countries are concerned that the level of aid promised [by the G8] has not been reached," Johnson-Sirleaf said. "Much of it has been made conditional on each government's political and economic performance."

In July, Hilary Benn, the British secretary of state for international development, visited Liberia and announced that British aid to the country would rise from £6 million in 2006 to £10 million in 2007, a significant increase given that Liberia's total budget is only $100 million.

Although the Gleneagle's agreement cancelled the debts of 20 countries, allowing them to increase spending on health and education, from a combined $6 billion to more than $13 billion, Liberia is not one of them - it had not yet put in place the good-governance requirements that are a condition of debt relief.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) left Liberia this week. It leaves a network of clinics that doctors fear will soon be looted. It had hoped to hand the clinics over to the government or to agencies funded by the international community.

"We work on the front line where people are being killed and wounded," said Jean Michel Piedagnel, a senior MSF doctor.

"We need others to take over our work." - Foreign Service

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