Before the 2011 presidential election in Liberia, I was relaxing on a beach in Monrovia when a man walked by wearing a t-shirt with a candidate’s face on it. We made eye contact, and I asked him, “Do you think he’s going to win?” Not skipping a beat, he smirked back at me and said, “You tell me, you are the ones who choose.”
Three years later, Liberia is in the midst of its worst crisis since fifteen years of brutal civil war came to an end a decade ago. Ebola cases are mounting, the health system is all but broken, and last week security units fired shots at people who were attempting to break a quarantine that had overnight been imposed on West Point, a neighborhood of over 75,000 people. A 15-year-old boy was killed in the tragic incident, sparking outrage and sadness in a country whose society has already been torn by the epidemic.
Hopefully, rich countries will soon pivot to a more proactive effort to save lives in West Africa, and the outbreak will be brought under control. Once the health crisis has settled down, however, it will be wise to admit that this calamity has been a crisis of Western-led “development” practices as much as it has of the fragility of African health care. In the early days of Ebola’s spread in Liberia, many refused to believe that it was real, dismissing the disease as a fabrication. This begs a crucial question: why were so many people unwilling to trust an elected government that repeatedly warned them of Ebola’s dangers?
On paper, Liberia seemed like a success story two months ago. Foreign investors had committed to spending nearly 20 billion dollars on extractive projects, Chinese companies were paving roads across the country, and the all-important GDP growth rate had been over 7 percent in six of the last ten years. As President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told Katie Couric of Yahoo News, “This is the same leadership that led a country from being a failed state to one that had some of the most promising growth recorded in Africa.”
During my time in Liberia, I witnessed a much more complicated dynamic playing itself out. Most Liberians saw their government as deeply corrupt and unaccountable to its citizenry, particularly those at the low end of the social ladder. This was not a mythology spread by disgruntled malcontents; small business owners I know spoke of paying 10 percent kickbacks to government ministers for service contracts, and last year Human Rights Watch released a report detailing pervasive corruption in the country’s police force.
Liberia has always been a two-tiered system. In its early days, the descendants of slaves who were helped, and at times forced, by the American government to relocate to Africa lorded over the country’s indigenous peoples. Higher education, civil service posts, and well-paid jobs were restricted to ‘settler’ families, creating a dynamic of exclusion and patronage that culminated in a series of horrific wars in the 1990s. The post-war years were supposed to have represented a break with that past. The government of former World Bank economist Ellen Johnson Sirleaf promised to usher in a new egalitarian age, and foreign donors rushed to pour money into reconstruction and economic initiatives.
Somewhere along the way, old problems crept back into Liberian politics. Transparency International labeled the country the most corrupt on the planet, and an audit commissioned by an extractive watchdog agency exposed that nearly all its resource contracts were signed without following proper procedure. Civil society groups documented widespread abuse of legal loopholes in logging contracts, which were signed by high-level officials. This slide into poor governance occurred in the presence of nearly every NGO, aid agency, and donor on earth. Most of them seemed to Liberians to be looking the other way – carelessness that was often taken as complicity.
Meanwhile on the street, Liberians sat in the hot sun, hawking petty goods while aid workers and government officials drove to and from high-walled compounds in air-conditioned jeeps. Now, the social fabric in Liberia has been exposed as being deeply damaged. This damage cannot all be attributed to the wounds of war. The response to the Ebola outbreak by many Liberians has laid bare a troubling and widespread sentiment of cynicism towards the government. Sadly, Liberia’s poor have good cause to have adopted a mistrustful stance towards its elected representatives and the international community that backs them.
Despite the high growth rates achieved by the government, a close look reveals troubling policies that have made the lives of the poor seem like a low priority. Houses have been demolished on behalf of wealthy elites, communal forest land was handed out to foreign investors without local consultation, and the legislature has repeatedly refused to pass a ‘Decent Work Bill’ that would have set a minimum wage. In an effort to ‘beautify’ Monrovia, a ban on petty trading stalls was enacted, enforced by riot-gear clad police who could often be seen chasing market women through the city’s streets.
Across Liberia, a cancerous idea has taken root: “We are on our own.” Foreigners are often surprised to discover that President Johnson-Sirleaf is unpopular amongst many Liberians, despite her international accolades. Even more shocking is the discovery that Charles Taylor remains widely admired. A Liberian UN employee once claimed to me that if Taylor were to return to Liberia, he would receive “80 percent” of the vote in a special election. The reason? “People say Taylor shared the spoils.”
The long-term effects of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia are impossible to predict, but they are certain to be profound. Economic activity is grinding to a halt and the price of food has begun to climb. In a country where a large majority of the population lives on less than two dollars per day, an increase in food costs is a matter of overwhelming consequence. The great tragedy is that if Liberians had been more cooperative with government efforts to control Ebola’s spread in its early days, however haphazard those efforts may have been, the crisis would have been far less extreme. For the global development community, pointed self-reflection on why so many Liberians do not trust their government is an absolute necessity.
To begin, the top-down economic strategy that emphasized economic growth above all and which failed to consider the social context in which that growth was taking place has proved to be deeply flawed. Even if the outbreak had not exposed the social fractures that lay behind the country’s progress, grievances and mistrust bubbling in places like West Point would have eventually erupted. Development partners must do a better job of insisting that issues like corruption, disparate access to justice, land tenure, and housing rights rise to the top of the agenda. In addition, bottom-up accountability mechanisms that give average citizens a greater role in policing officials and determining how and where money is spent are desperately needed.
No amount of GDP growth or foreign investment is likely to produce a functioning, stable society without the perception that all its members are equally valued. While growth is important, the Ebola outbreak has showed that if it does not translate to a sense of inclusion, hard-earned progress can be undone nearly overnight. Nobody could have planned for Ebola, but for years the country’s partners stood mostly mute while frustration rose in the streets and the government became widely resented.
Liberia’s poor believe that the international community “chooses” their leaders, and then shrugs when those leaders treat them callously. In the aftermath of the ongoing Ebola tragedy it will be necessary to combat that view, and to ensure that development interventions are geared towards building trust between Liberians and their government, even if it means picking a fight with politicians.
Ashoka Mukpo worked in Liberia for the past three years with a civil society organization.