Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: we won’t need aid in 10 years

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf assumed office in Liberia, the government’s budget was a mere $80 million — as she put it, about the budget of a high school. Today, the budget is $350 million — better, but still not great. So her pronouncement today speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations was particularly ambitious:  "Liberia ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
GLENNA GORDON/AFP/Getty Images
GLENNA GORDON/AFP/Getty Images
GLENNA GORDON/AFP/Getty Images

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf assumed office in Liberia, the government's budget was a mere $80 million -- as she put it, about the budget of a high school. Today, the budget is $350 million -- better, but still not great. So her pronouncement today speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations was particularly ambitious:  "Liberia should not need aid in 10 years," she told the audience. "we've got the resources ... We're going to go from dependency to self-sufficiency." 

The plan to get there? Private capital and investments, both of which have already begun to come in. And so far in that category, it's China -- not the United States, which has been a big foreign aid donor to Monrovia -- that is taking the lead. They dominate the construction sector, Sirleaf explained, and their other economic agenda is clear: "access to raw materials to keep the Chinese economy going."

"China's fast," she explained. "They know what they want and they do it quickly." Building schools, building roads, signing contracts, and offering loans -- all of it can be done in weeks or months, not years as some donors and Western investors might take. In short, "China's flexible."

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf assumed office in Liberia, the government’s budget was a mere $80 million — as she put it, about the budget of a high school. Today, the budget is $350 million — better, but still not great. So her pronouncement today speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations was particularly ambitious:  "Liberia should not need aid in 10 years," she told the audience. "we’ve got the resources … We’re going to go from dependency to self-sufficiency." 

The plan to get there? Private capital and investments, both of which have already begun to come in. And so far in that category, it’s China — not the United States, which has been a big foreign aid donor to Monrovia — that is taking the lead. They dominate the construction sector, Sirleaf explained, and their other economic agenda is clear: "access to raw materials to keep the Chinese economy going."

"China’s fast," she explained. "They know what they want and they do it quickly." Building schools, building roads, signing contracts, and offering loans — all of it can be done in weeks or months, not years as some donors and Western investors might take. In short, "China’s flexible."

That’s got to be something of a wake-up call for U.S. foreign aid — and even private investors. Thanks to its historical ties to the United States, Liberia is usually thought to be in "America’s" sphere in influence on the continent — after all, Monrovia has been a major recipient of foreign aid. But China’s presence, and its increasingly attractive and flexible model, is pretty hard to out do.

That’s not to say that Sirleaf doesn’t want more U.S. (and other) investment. In fact, she made an appeal to exactly that. But  rest assured it won’t come as quickly as it would from Beijing.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

Tag: Africa

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