Is President Sirleaf Serious About Poverty Reduction?
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
By Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh
I don’t know about you but I have had my share of phone calls coming out of Liberia lately – from relatives and friends who are seeking financial help. They want money to buy food, to pay school fees, to buy books, to pay rent, to buy/replace worn-out clothes and shoes, and to have at least some money in their pockets to buy whatever is needed to get them to the next day.
I don’t know how the people of Liberia on the ground are doing it, but they are a resilient bunch. Abject poverty, civil war, crumbling infrastructure, homelessness, unemployment, neglect from government, you name it are all reasons for one to call a loved one or a friend for financial assistance in a country with zero opportunities for its citizenry.
Pres. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
I don’t think those Liberians are asking too much when they make those distressing phone calls for help, because being broke everyday and all the time is not something they prayed for, and it is not the way I want to live my life, being broke, halfway dead and smelling myself in my own country.
The problem is, many of the things Liberians need in their own country in order to live from day to day are unavailable, even as the architects of the Poverty Reduction Strategy hints, “Liberia’s national nightmare is over.”
“Liberia’s national nightmare is over” according to the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) report because the country is at peace, two rounds of free and fair elections were held in 2005, the economy is expanding rapidly, with growth accelerating to over 9 percent, roads, buildings, clinics and schools are being rebuilt or are reopening, as agricultural production increases.
From what I read from the report, it seems easy and politically convenient on the part of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration to pinpoint sprinkles of visible structures as evidence of the nation’s ‘nightmare’ being over, when other profoundly visible nightmares such as rampant corruption, broken infrastructure, hunger, the lack of affordable education and healthcare, record unemployment and inflation, the high cost of living, nepotism and abject poverty continues to be a problem in the country, a sad reflection of the president’s failed policies, or no policy at all.
As it is in today’s Liberia, the unemployment rate is 85 percent; there are no available jobs around that pays a decent wage to support a family of two or three, or let say, to support an extended family of many on any given day, while 80 percent of the population falls below the poverty line.
With the U.S. dollar the “legal tender note” circulating in a country that prides itself of printing and circulating its own currency while mandating Liberians to do business in U.S. dollars, which they don’t have certainly contradicts the wholesome message of reducing poverty, even as the president dispatched her key aides to discuss her poverty reduction message to Liberians in the United States.
Why not the administration discuss poverty in Liberia where the action really is taken place, and where the bulk of the population resides? Is it a wise decision for the administration to lavish money in the United States to discuss poverty reduction in Liberia when majority of Liberians lacked food and daily living supplies?
How much did it cost the Liberian government in per diems, food costs, hotel costs and airfares to dispatch the three men to ‘preach’ poverty reduction to Liberians in the United States? The fact is: these are the same Diaspora Liberians who have been disrespected and shunned over the years by the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration because of their obvious lack of voting power in Liberia, and because of what she thinks and feels negatively about them. Why now?
However, how can this government call Liberians to action to help reduce poverty when President Sirleaf, who as “champion” of the Poverty Reduction Strategy and the politically powerful members of her administration continues to seek medical care overseas on government’s dole rather than seek medical care in Liberia? Why not this administration staff and adequately fund existing hospitals and clinics, or build new ones in the country? How can this president talk so hypocritically about poverty reduction when she constantly travels out of the country, using the country’s meager financial resources to travel overseas with an entourage of government officials when that money could have been used to train pilots, and fund and improve aviation services in the country?
How can this president discuss poverty reduction when her administration continues to import rice – the nation’s staple from foreign countries when Liberia is a breeding ground of swampland and rainforests? How can this president be so “serious” about poverty reduction when Liberian students and their poor parents are forced to coughed up tons of money to send their children to school annually?
To help reduce poverty, one would think President Sirleaf would focus on education – quality education – free education for Liberian students since most Liberian parents are unemployed and cannot afford to send their kids to school, let alone pay such exorbitant school fees to pay there kids’ school fees. How about free or affordable healthcare since 85% of Liberians are unemployed, or since 80% of Liberians are below the poverty line? Where does President Sirleaf expect these Liberians to get the money from to pay for healthcare, and also to pay their children’s school fees?
To help reduce poverty, the Sirleaf administration should strive to fund shovel-ready jobs such as road construction throughout the country (not just in Monrovia), garbage collection, building affordable housing, funding small businesses on a larger scale – not the petty “who know you” way of funding we all are accustomed to that breeds corruption and stifles growth and development.
To seriously reduce poverty, President Sirleaf ought to put in place the logistics, and should request a national referendum to empower the county or political subdivisions to be independent and self-governed. Collecting and using their own tax dollars in their own regions for payrolls and development purposes, and electing their own leaders i.e., county commissioners, mayors, paramount, clan and town chiefs, etc, and curtailing the powers of the imperial presidency.
Most Liberians are not listening to or taking the Liberian government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), seriously because the attempt is not genuine, and again, it sounds like and resembles the gimmicky and glossy annual reports of previous Liberian presidents and administrations, often used as a public relations tools to fool the population as doing something noble in the nation’s interest worthy of commendation.