Passport

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 ...

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 a Gulf-based member of the journalism collective Deca.
Tag: Africa

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.