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Liberia: What it takes to push peace-building to the next level

Liberia shows that recovery is complicated and hard – but possible.

By Greg Mills / March 19, 2010

Monrovia, Liberia

Liberia is, by any standard, a dramatic peace-building success story. The country is stable, and investors are slowly returning. Yet there is much to do. The key to ongoing success lies in leadership, job growth, and developing a culture of self-responsibility.

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Liberia illustrates just how hard, and yet how important, the slog is to move to the next level in building peace after conflict. It’s one thing to put troops in place from outside, but another altogether to get the economy working and generating employment. Without jobs, lasting peace will remain elusive.

Liberia’s second civil war ended in 2003, by which time Charles Taylor’s kleptocratic regime controlled less than one-third of the country. Various rebel groups led by Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy had laid much of the infrastructure to waste. Then a turn for the better: A peace agreement was followed by the arrival of 15,000 UN peacekeeping troops, an interim government, and, in 2005, the election of the Harvard-trained economist and never-say-die politician Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Africa’s first female head of state.

The president kicked off her six-year term with a 150-day action plan, which included the return of refugees and restoration of electricity to some parts of the capital, Monrovia. She has assiduously cultivated international contacts and used her unique African status to gather much sympathy, even though the support has been less forthcoming. The current government budget is just $360 million, not much for 4 million poor people, a population growing at 4.5 percent annually – the fastest rate worldwide.

But it’s not just the volume of money that’s the problem. Making an immediate impact after the conflict ends is relatively easy. Taking things to the next level involves more than providing potable water, roads, ports, and electricity, however challenging this may be. It requires aquiring the soft infrastructure of training, skills, work ethic, and mind-set right in getting Liberians working again.

And as the experts observe, that is no easy task. More than 200,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the 14 years of fighting. Cities were picked clean of infrastructure and skills. Those that could upped and left for refuge 150 years ago to places like the United States, where half a million live today.