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Story Publication logo February 28, 2008

Liberia: The Greatest Demobilization Need is Sustainable Jobs

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During the 14-year civil war that tore apart Liberia, children were taken from their homes and sent...

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President George Bush arrives in Liberia, February 2008. Image by RunItsTheFuz on Flickr.

President George Bush's visit to Liberia this week as part of his five nation tour of Africa shows the United States' commitment to helping Liberia recover from its 14-year civil war. In fact, since the war ended in 2003, the United States has provided more than $650 million for humanitarian, development, and security assistance, including $200 million to reform Liberia's security sector. The problem is that until Liberia has economic security there will be no physical security. Yet the creation of sustainable jobs and the distribution of humanitarian assistance seem to have taken a backseat to the training and equipping of Liberia's army, and even this effort is hampered by funding shortages and other problems in implementation. These are mistakes that could ultimately threaten the fragile peace of the country.

Although national security is one of the four pillars of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's government, she has emphasized that revitalization of the economy is equally as important. On March 15, 2006, she addressed a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress asking for American support for Liberia: "What is the return on an investment that trains young combatants for life, rather than death? What is the yield when our young men can exchange their guns for jobs? What is the savings in food aid when our people can feed themselves again? What is the profit from educating our girls to be scientists and doctors? What is the dividend when our dependence ends, and we become true partners rather than supplicants?"

With 85 percent of the population unemployed, and with no access for its citizens to healthcare, sanitation, water, electricity – and even food in short supply – Liberia is faced with a constant threat to its full reconstruction, rehabilitation, and long-term stability. How can a country be stable without providing for the emergency needs for its citizens, or at the very least providing the jobs that will allow them to access the basic necessities? Yet apart from security, the Liberian government has been pressured to focus on long-term development, not emergency humanitarian assistance and immediate job creation, in order to persuade the World Bank to cancel its $400 million in debt arrears. The Bank finally agreed to do so in December, and now Liberia is eligible for loans for large-scale infrastructure development.

While roads and other infrastructure projects are necessary requirements for economic progress, assistance from the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, and private donors to respond to the immediate needs of the Liberian people is declining. Of the over $500 million in funding that was pledged in February 2004, only a fraction has been received. In September, Refugees International reported that the 2007 Liberia Common Humanitarian Action Plan had received only 39% of its funding, while the World Food Program relief effort in Liberia received a meager 21%, which will force it to have to slash its emergency school food program if more funding isn't made available.

With all that needs to be done on the economic and humanitarian side to keep Liberia stable, the substantial sums the United States is devoting to security assistance in Liberia could well be wasted. The problem is made worse by a number of snags that have been encountered in the security program. In 2005, the United States hired the private security company DynCorp International, which trained new police forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, to train up to 4,000 new soldiers in Liberia. The United States allocated $35 million for this project, but this proved to be insufficient and plans for a 4,000-strong army were cut in half.

The United States also provided $500,000 to train 3,500 new police officers at the Liberia National Police Academy. But shortages of essential police equipment such as cars, handcuffs, and radios, have prevented the police from being effective. Paltry and erratic funding have kept the police and the army from being able to establish the peace and security Liberia so badly needs. In the meantime, the 15,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping team is forced to stay in the country to maintain law and order.

Liberia's security is threatened by the 40,000 ex-combatants who were never able to participate in the rehabilitation portion of the Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation, and Reintegration (DDRR) program after the war because of a $39 million funding shortage – leaving a large number of frustrated former fighters. Last February around 1,000 ex-combatants rioted outside of Monrovia demanding salaries and demobilization packages. Given that even at full strength the Liberian army will only be 2,000-strong, 40,000 unemployed, disillusioned, war-trained former fighters are a threat to the stability not only of Liberia but of the region as well. Many of these ex-combatants still control huge swaths of resource-rich areas of the country, such as rubber plantations and diamond mines, and the command structures of some of these groups are still in place.

In fact, two government-owned rubber plantations, Guthrie and Sinoe, have been overrun by ex-combatants from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) – rebel factions that terrorized the country during the war. Some of these groups may still be armed. Global Witness, an international NGO, estimates the number of former fighters living on the two rubber plantations at around 15,000. A group of five of these ex-combatants control Guthrie plantation and the surrounding villages earning up to $18,000 per month by charging taxes on the rubber taken off the plantation. This doesn't include the huge sums that the ex-combatants earn from extracting the rubber. When compared with the average income for a Liberian of $130 per year, it's easy to see why these former fighters would hesitate to give up their gigs tapping rubber, especially when there aren't other jobs to be had in Liberia's struggling economy.

The ex-combatants would have no reason to sell the rubber if there was no one to buy it. Yet the United Nations Mission in Liberia reported in May of 2006 that both the Liberian Agricultural Company and Firestone Natural Rubber Company, the world's largest tire producer, had bought rubber from Guthrie and Sinoe plantations, keeping the ex-combatants in business and sapping much-needed money from the government that could be using to provide jobs and rebuild the country.

At the same time, international sanctions imposed on the country's diamond and timber industries because of their role in fuelling the civil war prevent Liberia from exporting raw materials, which would allow money for reconstruction to flow into the country. But until the government can regain control of the areas that are under the command of ex-fighters, it is difficult to justify lifting the sanctions. In a 2006 progress report on Liberia, the United Nations Security Council warned that the lack of government control of natural resources breeds instability.

The Security Council highlighted the fact that the Liberian government didn't have full control over the timber producing areas of the country, and this remains true today. While lifting timber sanctions has the potential benefit the country, the likely surge in the illegal exploitation of timber resources could also contribute to conflict and instability. Unless the government has full control over the forests, neither security nor economic benefits can be certain.

Liberia has a meager national budget of $199 million, or $60 per Liberian. Given the problems in the vital natural resource sector, its own ability to create jobs will remain minimal for the foreseeable future.

Yet without an alternative for former fighters, there will be no security. If the United States wants to combat instability in Liberia and the region, it should intensify its support for the Liberian government in job creation. There are many ex-combatants who are homeless, living on the streets, and begging for change; large numbers squat in abandoned public buildings, creating informal communities and maintaining the command structures of their rebel groups. These groups of idle men and women contribute to a feeling of insecurity among the general population. These are not unfounded fears. Sexual assault, rape, and armed robbery have increased since the war ended.

Many ex-combatants say they want to go to school, as they were promised during the DDRR program. That program, as noted above, was poorly funded and the teachers that were provided were often inadequate to the job and poorly paid. The whole DDRR program was prone to corruption, undermining its effectiveness. Even those who completed the entire DDRR process were often left without jobs. For many, living on the street became an only option. The education sector, in short, is simply crying out for added U.S. support. As the old saying goes, an idle mind is a dangerous mind; and this is especially true in Liberia with its recent violent history.

The truth is that the same poverty, lack of education, disillusionment, and exploitation of natural resources that caused Liberia's civil war in the first place still exists today. This threatens not only Liberia's future but that of the entire region. It doesn't help that wars rage on in neighboring countries such as Ivory Coast and Guinea and Liberian ex-combatants are being recruited to fight just across the border. Liberia's long-term economic viability is going to depend on large-scale foreign investment in the resource sector, but that investment will not occur until there is full security.

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