Members of the legislature have begun looking into President Weah’s ambitious stimulus package to jumpstart the economy and mitigate the adverse economic impact on ordinary Liberians currently under partial lockdown imposed by the GoL in an attempt to control the spread of the virus which has so far taken the lives of 50 Liberians according to official sources.
Although the lawmakers are yet to finalize discussions, the stimulus package, if approved, could support small business, which have been severely hit by the lockdown, and help improve food security for the country’s 4.4 million citizens, most of who are poor, unemployed and destitute.
In a 5-page State of Emergency letter to lawmakers, President George Weah asked the members of the Legislature for their approval to make re-allocations in the country’s budget in order to tackle the economic hardship brought forth by the measures.
The intent of the re-allocated budget, according to the President is to pay off petit traders and marketers’ banks loan as well as for the provision of free electricity, water and the distribution of food for 60 days during the period of the State of Emergency.
However, the President, contrary to widespread public speculations, did not mention the payments of civil servants for at least two months in advance to enable them to take care of their families, neither did he mention anything about settling huge outstanding bills GoL owes to media, settlement of which could enable media houses pay their respective staffers
The President in his letter to the lawmakers, appealed for re-appropriation of US$25m from the remaining 2019/2020 national budget of US$526m, to enable the government to undertake such a task, which might run up to US40 million.
According to President Weah, the stimulus package became necessary after preliminary economic impact assessment showed that the government has seen a 50 percent drop in projected revenue as business slowdown leading to revenue decline induced by the COVID-19 to be more than $32 million, or more than one percent of GDP, for the remainder of FY 2019/20.
“The State of Emergency has imposed necessary economic costs on Liberians and the broader economy to achieve public health and a public safety objectives. Depending on the course of events in the coming weeks and months, even our constitutional electoral processes may be impacted, an outcome that would require due consideration from your Honorable selves,” President Weah said.
The Liberian leader added the COVID-19 costs may undermine the public health and public safety aims of the State of Emergency “if the costs are not addressed, making it necessary to bring to the attention of the Honorable National Legislature some measures and programs that are necessary to complement measures announced in the State of Emergency.”
Food Support for Affected Households
“I propose that for the remainder of FY 2019/20 the National Legislature re-appropriates the amount of US$25 million to support food distribution to households in designated affected counties for 60 days,” President Weah said. “The full costing to cover this period in affected and other areas may add up to around $40 million.
The President in his letter disclosed that the World Bank has agreed to finance the “gap of the budget in the tune of US$10m, using resources reallocated from reallocated from existing projects.”
But, the President in his letter told the lawmakers that the government has secured enough food that is ready for distribution once his proposal is approved.
“With this, Mr. Speaker, we have a full package of food support to our people pending your consideration and approval of this proposal. Prior to my declaration of the State of Emergency, the government had engaged with relevant partners to address this situation, knowing it would be difficult to achieve the aims of any pronounced stay-at-home order without concomitant support for the livelihoods of Liberians remaining at home in affected areas,” President Weah communication said.
President Weah has also informed the lawmakers that he intends to have the World Food Program implement this program in collaboration with the government.
“To ensure this, I am setting up a COVID-19 food support national steering committee comprising of relevant government entities and the international development community to provide oversight over this process,” the Liberian leader said. “This set-up is in keeping with the all-of-government and all-of-society approach we are adopting in this stage of our management of COVID-19. The steering committee will have an oversight role, will prescribe rules and address challenges, while the WFP will implement the program.” The President, however, did not spell out which role the Ministry of Agriculture is expected to play in this exercise since it was not listed as one of the essential institutions mandated to remain operational during this period.
Electricity, Water, and Support to Market Women
President Weah’s letter added that his administration has been working with lenders to show some understanding to the vulnerable borrowers, most of whom are market women and small informal petty traders, who are suffering significantly from the loss of the number of selling and trading days occasioned by the stay-at-home order.
“In this direction, I propose to the Honorable Legislature that the government fully pays the loans owed by market women, and petty and small traders in affected counties as part of the requested budgetary reallocation. This will be a strong stimulus to these individuals,” President Weah said. “They have built their businesses from scratch with little or no help from the Government and deserve protection during these trying times. This program will further help the banks to increase lending to new borrowers.”
On the issues of free electricity and water, President told the lawmakers that it is was important that the government shoulders the electricity and bill of households in the affected counties for the duration of the stay-at-home order.
“A few days ago, the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) received a check of US$4 million dollars, representing a significant settlement of Government arrears to the entity. This is one of the largest single payments on Government electric bill in years. The LEC has submitted a COVID-19 electricity program that will be funded by this money.”
Government Domestic Debt, Tax Policy
In addition to the other stimulus package, President Weah told it has reached a consensus with the IMF under the IMF-supported Program that the payment of domestic arrears owed to vendors and suppliers of Government should be of a high priority amid COVID-19’s impact on the economy, and is a form of economic stimulus.
“Considering the tight fiscal space for the remainder of the current fiscal year, I propose that the National Legislature appropriates at least US$ 15 million in the FY 2020/21 National Budget to begin servicing these arrears incurred in the last several years,” the President said. “Rules around servicing the recognized and validated stock of domestic debt under this program will be developed by the Government in collaboration with the IMF, as part of the request under the Rapid Credit Facility currently under consideration.”
Furthermore, the President has announced the suspension of the surcharge regulation that imposes an additional charge on imported goods that are also manufactured in Liberia.
“When instituted, this will encourage more importation without the additional cost that the surcharge imposes. The Government is also immediately suspending the Pre-Shipment Inspections (PSI) penalty until otherwise notified. PSI requires importers to assess their consignment overseas (pre-shipment inspection) before importation,” President Weah said.
In a related development, it has been observed that the stimulus package proposed by the President come shortly in the wake of public lashes he received for having announced a state of emergency without any outlined economic plan.
The three-week state of emergency declared by President Weah, which came into effect on April 10, barred residents from leaving their homes except for essential reasons of health and food, which should be restricted to local communities only, and be limited to a single person per household for a maximum of one hour.
Meanwhile, President Weah’s proposed food and relief assistance package for ordinary Liberians and small business appears to have awakened huge public expectations of this proposal being actualized very soon according to small business owner Varney Passawe who runs a small provision shop on the Old Road. But, according to him they, meaning small business people are worried that such promised assistance may not reach the intended beneficiaries citing the US$25m infusion exercise which according to official reports was characterized by corruption. “We can only wait and see” he concluded.