By Harry Ar-toe Gkornean
[In this piece, I present my professional perspective on Liberia’s future under its new president, George Weah. I acknowledge the president-elect’s historic victory but also alarm the daunting period of his presidency. My analysis below further highlights a positive scenario that can propel Liberia into sustained national prosperity and finally unlock critical historic constraints that have hindered its economic transformation. This piece is not a development strategy but can serve as a reference for policymakers and hope for Liberians concerned about the future of our country.]
Liberia’s presidential election is over. Senator George Weah was elected president. He will succeed Africa’s first democratically elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, today, January 22, 2018 when he’s inaugurated as Liberia’s 25th President.
Senator Weah’s election is historic—first soccer icon to become president—but also challenging—inheriting difficult economic conditions. President-elect George Weah takes over the leadership of Liberia at a time when the country is experiencing demanding economic realities. The Liberian economy is still being harassed by the impacts of many recent shocks (Ebola epidemic, commodity price decline, UNMIL drawdown) that undermined the growth of the economy since 2014. National income has reduced substantially affecting the country’s ability to actualize projections within its national budget. Payment of civil servants has been regularly delayed due to limited revenue generation capacity.
International support to facilitate capital investments and direct support to Liberia’s national budget is expected to drop drastically. Many western countries have shifted focus to their national priorities and interests. As part of President Trump’s commitment to put “America first” he has advanced a plan to severely cut assistance to developing countries, including Liberia, and merge the State Department with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). This will see development aid slashed by over one-third and excess funds re-channeled into programs that are aligned with U.S. national interest. (White House’s 2018 Budget Proposal.)
Additionally, in its draft budget for 2018, European Union countries, through the EU, have proposed slashing development aid funds by 6.5 % against its 2017 levels. The basis for such cut, according to the EU, will enable it direct resources to areas with the highest added value (devex.com European Union).
These measures show that our major international partners are increasingly aligning resources to their respective national priorities, instead of investing in developing countries. The new Liberian administration will commence work with these impacting realities that have got multiplier effects on meeting targeted deliverables and populist expectations.
Amid these changing global phenomena, the Weah’s Administration must inaugurate work with a clear agenda of ‘doing more with less.’ Beginning January 23rd, the administration must begin the conceptualization and drafting of a national development framework that will be primarily pillared on the restructuring of the Liberia Economy. The new economic structure must focus on domestic resource mobilization emphasizing the de-risking of the economy. With a mindset to expand the economy into varieties of businesses and economic activities, the new structure must unlock private investment within the Liberian market. A focused market driven economy will de-risk economic growth and significantly attract low cost private capital for development.
The new administration must immediately begin the development of a medium-term strategic agenda aimed at targeting the achievement of Liberia’s long term development goal: Liberia Rising-Vision 2030. The national development agenda must highlight economic governance and fiscal responsibility that should eventually address cogent bottlenecks to economic prosperity.
Emphasis must be placed on ensuring a business friendly economy beyond aid with a micro-economic framework that reduces fiscal deficit, and commits fiscal governance to the realignment of government spending on outstanding national priorities. Restructuring our economy would also include shifting focus from high taxation to productivity. This will include a comprehensive attempt to formalize the Liberian economy with an emphasis on economies of scale.
The dividend of formalizing the manufacturing and service sectors is high, but to do so our government must identify and unblock the constraints to opening up these high potential growth sectors.
Energy supply and limited physical infrastructure are two crucial constraints that have hindered the sustained growth and development of the Liberian economy. To deal with these constraints, our new economic management team, under president Weah, must focus on attracting private sector investment.
We can increase power purchasing agreements to ensure excess and affordable energy supply that will stimulate the manufacturing and service sectors. Private sector financing will accelerate infrastructural development which is crucial to productivity in many sectors that unlock economic prosperity.
A national workforce development initiative that emphasizes the provision of employable skills and the creation of jobs especially for young people must be prioritized. The new administration can develop a comprehensive national employment strategy with multi-sector functionalities. Such strategy should be underpinned on the provision of requisite employable skills and expertise for Liberian youths. The supply of skills must be aligned with the demand for skills. To ensure this, business leaders across different industries, labor officials and educators must collaborate in the design and delivery of technical training programs that amplify the quality of skills that businesses require to increase productivity and profitability.
Government must encourage private sector participation by demonstrating the impact such collaboration will have on their investments. Businesses will participate in order to take advantage of cost saving opportunities in employee recruitment, training, retention and increased employee performance.
Going forward, we must attempt to confront the unemployment predicament that has historically suppressed the living standard of Liberians. With a structural transformation perspective, we can create sustainable income generation capacity for Liberian youths and the unemployed.
Limiting aspects of our demand to domestic manufacturing industries such as furniture, we can increase local demands thereby creating markets for locally produced products. The furniture sector can be piloted. Through this initiative, government can attempt to formalize the sector, encouraging public-private partnership. A one county-one factory initiative, beginning with the furniture industry, will provide thousands of jobs for Liberians and promote small and medium sized Liberian businesses.
There can be groundbreaking interventions in the national governance of Liberia. The new administration must seek to identify sectoral corridors of growth and economic prosperity.
Tourism and the transportation sectors, for example, are two of such areas with very high potentials for growth when exposed to innovation. A specialized framework must be developed to study the viability of our tourism sector. Like other African countries, we can mobilize substantial tax and non-tax revenue from tourism. Our inimitable historical heritage as a ‘land of the freed,’ our geographic uniqueness, and cultural features could be significant tourist attractions for Liberia. Let’s endeavor to pursue this course.
Liberia’s present transport infrastructural framework is growth unfriendly. It increases business cost and impedes economic prosperity. Innovation is needed to disrupt the current trajectory. A new transport plan must consider the possibility of water transportation especially in Montserrado. Water transport can utilize the many creeks and streams across the city and its suburbs, facilitating commerce and expediting movements of people. This will increase national productivity and of course create jobs.
The Weah Administration can also begin a conversation around train transportation in Monrovia. A long-term private investment agreement can pave the way for a train commute on the Bushrod Island (Duala—Vai Town) and the Somalia Drive (Red Light—Freeport). This may be a very ambitious plan, but from a strategy and management perspective, it’s possible. (Details will follow in subsequent papers.)
Faculty development, curriculum redesign and educational facilities upgrade are three critical reforms needed in the education sector. The relevance and quality of education our system provides is determined by these issues. A long-term faculty development strategy must be developed that will provide consistent training of primarily elementary and secondary school teaching staff for a period of at least three years. Such initiative, in the short-run can utilize low cost expertise from across Africa.
Our tertiary education curriculum needs immediate redesigning. An inter-university taskforce in collaboration with the Commission on Higher Education and the Ministry of Education can ‘smack the ball’ with attempts to restructure our curriculum. As part of its responsibility, the taskforce must conduct market research and needs assessments to determine relevant programs that should be included in the curriculum. The development and inclusion of educational programs must be informed by the assessments and surveys from the market and also aligned to Liberia’s national development interest. This will increase the employability of Liberians graduates. Courses to consider include Sports Management, Project Management, Tourism, Hospitality, Consulting, Leadership, Sustainability, Procurement, ICT, etc.
Lastly, specific standards must be set by education regulatory bodies on the facilities of schools and universities across the country. Access to appropriate academic literature must be a minimum regulation.
Current efforts to support the strengthening of small and medium-sized Liberian businesses have had gloomy impact. These efforts are scattered across different ministries and agencies. For maximum impact, a centralized unit or department under the ministry of Finance & Development Planning must be dedicated to supporting Liberian businesses. The proposed Liberia Business Development Unit (LBDU), or whatever it will be called, should provide technical business education and capacity building as needed, and serve as guarantor for small businesses and startups that cannot qualify for traditional loans. Liberian businesses can leverage this relationship in securing contracts and concessions from government and other partners. The business development unit will be the central hub and recognized advocate for the development, strengthening and expansion of Liberian businesses. It shall serve as the face of Liberianization.
Finally, I hold a rock-solid belief that with the right strategists and policymakers who are encouraged to innovate and rethink Liberia’s leadership and political governance, we can lift Liberians out of poverty and create sustainable jobs for the unemployed. This new administration can build on the gains of the Sirleaf Administration and ensure a prosperous Liberia.
About the Author
Harry Ar-toe Gkornean is a young Liberian professional with expertise in business development, management, strategy and leadership. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from the University of Liberia, a Master of Global Management (International MBA) from the Thunderbird School of Global Management at the Arizona State University (USA), and a Master of Science degree in Organizational Leadership from the Grand Canyon University (USA). Harry is a Managing Partner at Thunder Global Consult—a management and strategy consultancy firm. He can be reached on 0777652078 or 0886579362; email: [email protected]