By Amin Modad
Mr. President, I’m sorry, but I cannot remain silent as I’ve been advised over and over by friends, family and well wishers. My intent is not to mindlessly disparage the efforts of the government or criticize you and other individuals in your administration. In fact, I believe there is so much we can accomplish as a people if we let politics end at the polls and forge ahead together. I have and will continue to reach out to the administration with arms out stretched because I believe that the success of this administration is essential to the success of all Liberians; NO ONE WILL BENEFIT FROM ITS FAILURE! I’ve over and over recommended the need to engage all stakeholders (Government, Private Sector, Civil Society, and Development Partners) to assess the socioeconomic conditions of the country, take stock of what was achieved and the shortfalls with respect to the national development strategy; and, to subsequently develop a set of recommendations with measurable actions for the short, medium, and long term development of the economy. I have even offered to host and sponsor such a forum. This could have been an important point of departure for a full-fledged development plan and could have also informed the development of national budget. All efforts have been rejected.
President Weah, I implore you to get involved and champion the process of reconciliation and inclusivity irrespective of tribe, color, creed, or political affiliation. There are many qualities that come with being a leader: 1) the ability to reach out to people in ways that transcends what are supposedly rational and conventional in the eyes of others; 2) the ability to make critical (good) decisions as quickly as possible and; 3) the ability to read through people. These go with the responsibility of appointing competent people who can further your agenda as a leader as well as serve the people right.
Looking at the first quality, many great leaders — Mandela, Clinton, Obama, Nkruma, Tubman, etc. — possessed it. President Weah, unquestionably you also possess this quality; the overwhelming votes you garnered by simply presenting yourself and relating to the people (without participating in a singe debate, without professing any particular superior understanding of the workings of governance and the economy) is testament enough. However, you need to start making some tough choices and decisions now. This brings me to the other two qualities that I believe you need to hone. Mr. President, recent trends including overpromises, grandiose statements, and the appointment of inexperienced individuals to critical positions and agencies mirror the mistakes of past administrations; sorry to be honest and brutally frank, you are heading down the same path. The mediocrity of the draft budget we are now confronted with is a real indication that you need to focus on capacity building and the realignment of your team.
Unfortunately, excuses are really not acceptable when dealing with the lives and future of a people. YOU now carry the burden of not only your mistakes, but the failures of anyone you appoint and ultimately the entire administration. We all have seen how similar mistakes made by previous administrations continue to affect the economy and erode many achievements we’ve made as a people. Your Excellency, NO ONE HAS MONOPOLY OVER KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERIENCE. It will not benefit you and the nation to run a reclusive government and not bring other people to the table. Liberia doesn’t have the time, capital, and space for mediocrity and incompetence. Your vision as expressed is phenomenal and ambitious, thus, you need equally aggressive and creative solutions. Your team needs to think outside the box and NOT do things the ways they were done for decades and did not work.
You carry the burden of having the overwhelming support of the masses and their unprecedented confidence that only you can quench their thirst for change and address the socio-economic disparity they continue to experience. Pres. Weah, your legacy is more at stake than many other presidents especially so when you carry the immediate challenges and failures of the first and only postwar administration.
The draft budget that has been submitted is a complete divergence from any serious plan or vision you might have to develop a sustainable economy and foster a ‘pro-poor’ agenda. First and foremost, it is evident we have not learnt from lessons of the past simply because the priorities and critical areas of focus are more misplaced than I’ve ever seen. Why is this? The answer is even more simple, the budget is not guided by an incisive development agenda that takes into consideration a. the current economic conditions b. Liberia’s comparative advantages and prospects c. global trends that affect our economy d. the true level of poverty in the country e. how much the people are deprived of basic social entitlements such as education and healthcare. As a matter of fact, it seems as though we still don’t understand how these affect our economy, security, and posterity. Mr. President, there is no way, contrary to what some of your officials believe, that your administration can succeed if you don’t encourage the buy-in and participation of others. Unlike the past, many Liberians like myself, have genuine vested interest in the prosperity of the country and improvement in the lives of the people. This is because we have worked hard and honestly invested in the economy and people and know that in order for us to succeed, everyone else must have the chance to succeed.
Please allow me to point out few areas the government missed the mark in the draft national budget:
1) Payroll and Recurrent Expenditures made up 65% of the budget. This demonstrates a continuum in the policy of fostering a bloated and ineffective government that can only become a liability to taxpayers, businesses, and the people. Ultimately, we will continue widening the disconnect between government revenue and expenditures that really impact the people. Mr. President, it is so sad to note that the allotment to these areas have increased. Pro-poor growth is not about giving out jobs and overextending the government; it is about creating the environment where entrepreneurship will thrive and the private sector will be the engine of growth and the dominant source of employment; it is about creating the environment for the people to have access to good education and reasonably healthcare (a healthy and more educated people will become a more able people). It is about creating a leaner and more effective government that will allow more allotments to projects and programs that impact the lives of the people. It is about providing opportunities for the people to take charge of their economy, become industrious, and rise out of poverty. If this continues, the only way the government can be effective and really implement some (impactful) activities, is for 50% of civil servants to remain home and only collect their (free) checks, rather than impose the extra costs of transporting them to work, giving them work related allowances, and expending fuel for large generators. I guarantee there would be savings in reoccurring expenditure that could be used for development activities.
2) Most disappointing is the fact that Agriculture got only about 1.5%. We have miserably missed the point that Liberia’s comparative advantages lie in our resources, or actually, how we trade our resources. Investing in Agriculture and Agro-processing (value addition) is the key to self-sufficiency and sustainable growth trough export. They alluded that the expenditure outlay has increased,… that fall in global prices of fuel and food could help mitigate constrains on the economy. HOW WILL THIS HAPPEN WHEN LIBERIA IS STILL A NET IMPORTER WITH WHAT SEEMS TO BE PERPETUAL TRADE DEFICITS AND OUR INABILITY TO FEED OURSELVES? It is good to think positive about the future, but LETS LOOK AT THE NOW, HOW STABLE ARE THE PRICES OF COMMODITIES ON THE MARKET AND THE EXCHANGE RATES? What are we really producing to substitute imports, feed our people, and trade? The crafters of the budget are also optimistic that the domestic economy is expected to rebound with improvements the mining and forestry sectors. It is great to have positive thinking, but the question is HOW? We just cant be optimistic without a plan and actions. Haven’t we been exporting unprocessed timber, rubber, and minerals for decades? How effective has this model been? Has anyone been watching the news and looking at the global trend in commodity trading? Does anyone realize how just six months of drop in prices and demand would make us more susceptible to the harsh effects of external shocks? Have the crafters been monitoring the ensuing trade wars between the US and China as well as in the Middle East and between the EU and the UK that would affect the prices of steel, rubber, and other traditional exports? Has anyone submitted to you an analysis on how this would affect the prices of steel and other commodities we have traditionally depended on? Did the crafters of the budget consider how disadvantaged we are by the regional trade agreements we are part of, that have open our markets to foreign products, without our ability to effectively export anything to these countries? We crave a Pro-poor agenda, but are not working creatively towards this.
Nelson Mandela stated: “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
3) Healthcare 10% and Education 15%. WOW! I will not say more than to provide three famous quotes:
“If Liberia is to be preserved, if she is to bask in the sunshine of national prosperity and always be able to dictate her own policies, the widening stratum of ignorance in the country must be up-rooted. A premium must be placed on education, for it alone promises national salvation.” – The late Pres. William R. Tolbert
“…the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play … it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” – Robert Kennedy
“True security is based on people’s welfare – on a thriving economy, on strong public health and education programmes, and on fundamental respect for our common humanity. Development, peace, disarmament, reconciliation and justice are not separate from security; they help to underpin it.” – Ban Ki-moon
(Part II will be posted shortly)