Liberia – a model for US development aid

Some in Congress want to cut US development aid. They should consider Liberia and its remarkable progress since a brutal civil war. This week's election shows the country is a work in progress, but American aid has helped improve Liberian health, literacy, law, and the army.

As Liberians trickled to the polls in a presidential run-off election yesterday, this war-ravaged nation’s remarkable transformation is best summed up by the contrast between its two most recent presidents:

Former President Charles Taylor faces 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity while his successor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, will accept a Nobel Peace Prize this year.

President Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state, emerged from yesterday’s election having secured a second term. Hopefully, she will be able to count on continued American assistance – unless Congress cuts development aid, as some members threaten.

True, Liberia’s latest marker of democratic progress also highlights the country’s continued fragility. Politicking, baseless allegations of electoral fraud, and one tragic death in pre-election turmoil sparked a needless voter boycott and carried headlines.

But without US support, Liberia – founded by freed American slaves – would never have gotten as far as it has.

Even more relevant is that Liberia offers an example of how well-designed US development aid can build strong partnerships and enhance America’s long-term security. This, at minimal cost and without putting US troops in danger.

Contrary to the mantra that development dollars are misspent, Liberia’s promising example demonstrates the impact of aid done well.

Less than a decade ago, Liberia was in the throes of a quarter century of societal collapse. It was seen as a hopeless failed state that presented policy challenges similar to those the US now faces in Somalia, Yemen, and parts of Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Former President Taylor, after training in Libya, fomented one of the most brutal civil wars in the modern era. It inflamed the entire region. Over 14 years, more than 250,000 Liberians were killed; 500,000 were displaced. The economy shrank by 90 percent.

The country was a poster child for all the evils of the world, synonymous with anarchy and rife with corruption and poverty. The US embassy in Liberia gained the dubious distinction of being the most-often evacuated American embassy in the world.

Turn the page to 2011 and this emerging West African democracy of 3.5 million people is nearly unrecognizable from its not-so-distant past.

Drug-addled child soldiers and combatants with names like General Butt Naked – known for charging into battle naked – no longer roam the streets. Instead, the US vetted and trained new Liberian soldiers, the start of the country’s first professional army.

Literacy rates that bottomed out at an abysmal 20 percent are on the rise with US support to train teachers and build teaching colleges; future child scholars, not child soldiers, are busy in classrooms.

War destroyed 95 percent of Liberia’s health-care facilities. Now, US-funded health centers and support for immunizations and malaria-control have halved mortality for children under five. The rule of law – that was as full of arbitrary holes as the bullet-riddled buildings in the capital – is being rebuilt through US assistance to the judicial sector.

The recent electoral turmoil shows that real challenges remain to consolidate these gains, strengthen the democratic process, re-establish the bonds of trust between Liberians and their government, and provide opportunities for the unemployed.

But creating lasting change – in Liberia, the developing world, or even in the US – doesn’t happen overnight. It requires steadfast action to build on progress.

Like any achievement of magnitude, many factors converged to make gains in Liberia possible, none more notable than the citizens who have chosen a path of peace. But the US has been the closest partner to the Liberian people. The American people should feel proud of their contribution to Liberia’s rebirth.

Yet US development assistance is under fire from some in Congress – and the "super committee" may be tempted to cut such aid as it looks for $1.2 trillion in savings.

No one disputes that the US faces serious fiscal challenges that must be addressed head on. But foreign aid makes up less than 1 percent of the US budget. It’s a vital component of the American foreign policy toolkit along with defense, diplomacy, and trade. That we need to do more with less should make Congress eager to leverage the long-term successes of development engagement.

Around the world US development assistance combats anarchy, poverty, disease, criminal networks, money laundering, drug-trafficking, weapon-smuggling, and other threats while building a more secure world, governed by the rule of law. This creates an atmosphere of optimism where citizens feel a stake in a stable future; the draw of extremist ideology withers in the face of opportunity. These are long-term foreign policy gains.

Moreover stability and the rule of law combine to create a more welcome environment for US companies to invest, which creates jobs at home. Liberia, like many developing nations, is rich in natural resources – minerals, timber, rubber, fisheries, and likely oil – that provide opportunities for US businesses. Foreigners have invested $16 billion in the country since the end of the war.

Strength in American foreign policy comes from acting smartly and leading with our values. International development assistance, especially in the context of fragile states, allows the US to do both.

Gutting this small basket of funding is not responsible fiscal stewardship, but penny-wise and dollar-foolish politics. Congress should consider the remarkable turnaround in Liberia as it looks for savings – and leave development aid alone.
Benjamin J. Spatz is a Truman National Security Fellow, and participates in the campaign to preserve US development aid. He served as special adviser to the government of Liberia from 2007-09 and worked with the United Nations Mission in Liberia in 2005.

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