Debt Relief

More than troops

Given the desperate needs of Liberians, especially in the areas of education and health services, the Bush administration should cancel Liberia’s odious debt, 30 percent of which is owed to the United States.

WITH TWO rebel movements closing in on the government of warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, humanitarian conditions throughout Liberia are dire: Half the population is malnourished, facing outbreaks of cholera. The United States has an obligation to help with Liberia’s recovery because of the deep and complicated ties that have bound the two countries over 180 years. After the U.S.-trained army seized power in the 1980s, American military aid increased from $1.4 million to $14 million annually, effectively militarizing the society and allowing the expanded army to become increasingly repressive in its bid to retain power.

Despite these long-standing relations, a devaluation of Africa’s strategic value at the end of the Cold War led the United States to abruptly withdraw from Liberia, which contributed to the implosion of the state.

If Liberia is to break its cycle of violence and decline, it will require assistance from the United States beyond the landing of troops.

The United States could help with tracking and stemming the flow into West Africa of small and light arms, almost all of which originate in Western countries. In 1997, West Africa harbored 7 million firearms, with AK-47 rifles available in some markets for as little as $20. And the situation has been exacerbated by U.S. arm sales to Guinea, a major supplier of one Liberian rebel faction. The eruption of war in neighboring Ivory Coast means the region is even more awash in rapid-fire assault rifles, shoulder-fired rockets and mortars. The United States could help curb illicit trafficking by supporting efforts in the United Nations to develop common standards for weapon exports and by more closely monitoring international arms brokers.

If the goal of engagement in Liberia is to win international good will, the Bush administration would do well to place less emphasis on the landing of Marine amphibian units in place of assistance from an engineering brigade.

Previous peace-building efforts in Liberia have failed, in part, because they paid inadequate attention to reviving the economy. Demilitarization was treated as an event, in which guns were exchanged for rice, rather than as a process.

This time around, the United States could provide financial and technical help for restoring electricity and running water. Small-scale public works jobs could help to wean fighters away from pillaging and looting, while clipping the wings of warlords, whose influence is often rooted in patronage. And ex-combatants employed in these projects would be less likely to destroy what they have helped to build.

Given the desperate needs of Liberians, especially in the areas of education and health services, the Bush administration should cancel Liberia’s odious debt, 30 percent of which is owed to the United States.

According to World Bank figures, Liberia’s debt grew from $813 million in 1981 to $1.9 billion in 2001. At this rate, over 40 percent of all export earnings would be required to service the debt, in a country where the average annual income is $83.

In reference to Iraq, U.S. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow noted that the people “shouldn’t be saddled with those debts incurred through the regime of the dictator who is now gone.” But where Saddam Hussein left palaces, electric grids and oil refineries, Liberians stand to inherit nothing but debt — and ruin.

Using the same tools employed in identifying the financial assets of terrorists and drug smugglers, the Bush administration could also aid in recovering wealth that was looted from Liberia over the last 10 years.

With help from a vast network of arms dealers, shippers, diamond syndicates and timber buyers outside Africa, local warlords have pillaged forests and mines, often moving natural resources to Western and Asian markets via the same sealed shipping containers that brought arms. As a result, Liberian funds in Swiss banks total $3.8 billion, higher than accounts of South Africa and Nigeria, both of which are more industrialized and populous.

A thorough and wide-ranging asset-recovery program would help deter corruption in the long term and ensure that the cost of rebuilding Liberia does not fall disproportionately on American taxpayers.

For humanitarian and historical reasons, the Bush administration should respond to the Liberian crisis, but there will be no recovery if Liberians are left without electricity and water, with their assets salted away in Swiss banks, while an onerous national debt mushrooms daily.

Emira Woods is co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus in Washington, D.C. Carl Patrick Burrowes is chairman of communication studies at Morgan State University and co-author of The Historical Dictionary of Liberia (Scarecrow Press, 2001).

Emira Woods and Carl Patrick Burrowes, Baltimore Sun, MD, August 1, 2003

Categories: Debt Relief, Odious Debts

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