President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says help needed to boost economy
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says her government will provide financial help to companies that were affected by the Ebola crisis as part of efforts to restart the country’s stalled economy.
Before the epidemic erupted last year, Liberia’s economy was projected to grow 5.9% annually. But the outbreak ground it to a halt, as construction projects stalled and companies fled the country.
On an official visit to the U.S. to lobby for new aid, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf, who gained international acclaim as Africa’s first female head of state following her election in 2005, said her priorities were to rebuild Liberia’s health-care system, restart infrastructure improvement projects and attract foreign investors.
“I will implement my agenda,” she said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday in New York. She acknowledged the damage done by the outbreak, including mistakes by her government in responding to the crisis, but argued that the cooperation generated by the campaign to combat Ebola could be harnessed to help get her country back on track.
Liberians accounted for more than 40% of the 10,000 people in West Africa killed by the epidemic, according to the World Health Organization. Earlier this month, the last confirmed Ebola patient in Liberia was discharged from a clinic in the capital Monrovia.
The country won’t be declared virus-free, however, until 42 days pass without a new case of infection. Given the generally poor sanitation and crowded urban living conditions that persist in the nation of 4.1 million people, health experts haven’t ruled out a resurgence of the disease.
Although Chinese contractors have resumed road projects and three airlines out of 13 have resumed regular flights to Liberia, investors seem to be waiting for the World Health Organization to issue the country a clean bill of health, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf said.
“We hope that will bring back the airlines, bring back all the investors…and bring back all the business people and bring back the Liberians who themselves left the country in large numbers, “ she said.
ArcelorMittal and some firms remained in Liberia throughout the crisis and undertook measures to protect the health of their workers. Still, the mining giant has announced layoffs of 280 workers—a major blow in the impoverished country.
To prevent further job losses, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf said her government would work with ArcelorMittal and other companies to offer financial relief such as reduced fuel prices and waivers on taxes and royalties.
She declined to identify other companies that would be offered financial aid.
Before her visit to New York, the Liberian leader met President Barack Obama at the White House to request additional aid and won agreement from the International Monetary Fund for additional debt relief and a $45.6 million emergency loan.
Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf stressed the importance of cooperation with the U.S. and other nations to build a stronger health care system in Liberia. The 3,000 U.S. troops sent to help build Ebola treatment centers had already played an important role to help stabilize the country.
”The U.S. became the turning point to mobilize even the additional support that we got,” she said.
Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s government was heavily criticized as the Ebola outbreak swept the country, in particular the densely-populated Monrovia.
It was accused of failing to properly equip medical personnel and deploying the military to enforce quarantines in some neighborhoods of the capital, a move that triggered riots by some residents of the districts.
Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, conceded there were missteps during the crisis.
“One of the main lessons is the need to ensure that we have more community participation in addressing any development,” she said. “And so when we started off trying to restrict movement and use a more military-security approach, that wasn't the best thing to do.”
Last year’s Ebola outbreak compounded the challenges facing a country that has struggled to recover from an almost nonstop civil war between 1989 and 2003 that left up to a half-million people dead.
Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf said her government has often labored under the burden of expectations that are unrealistic for a country in which more than 80% of the population live on less than $1.25 a day.
“It is a difficult country,” she said. “Everything is broken and there is a need in every sector.”
Courtesy: Wall Street Journal (By Neanda Salvaterra)