Liberia and the United States: Fifty-Nine Years of Development Partnership
By Sara Walter, Mission Director, USAID Liberia
On November 3, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act, creating the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)—the world’s premier development agency that has been delivering development results in more than one hundred countries on virtually every continent for 59 years. Fittingly, Liberia was among the first countries in which USAID established a mission and today many iconic Liberian institutions stand as powerful testaments to the development results we have jointly achieved over the years. Some of those institutions, almost as old as USAID itself, are embodiments of the special ties that bind our two countries and peoples.
The John F. Kennedy (JFK) Medical Center is one of those institutions–the result of an October 1961 Oval Office meeting between President John F. Kennedy and President William V.S. Tubman. That meeting made President Tubman one of the first world leaders to meet President Kennedy, and secured the new American President’s commitment to help Liberia establish a first rate medical institution, capable of providing Liberians quality care and training succeeding generations of health care professionals.
In 1965, just four years after its founding, USAID made good on that commitment, extending Liberia a $16 million assistance package to establish a national medical center. Many Liberians still remember the deep sense of national pride felt across Liberia when the modern, fully equipped, professionally staffed, and appropriately named John F. Kennedy Medical Center opened its door in 1971 as one of the best tertiary health care providers in all of Sub-Saharan Africa at the time.
Today, almost fifty years later, and with continued USAID assistance, the JFK Medical Center continues to sit at the apex of Liberia’s health care system, annually providing care for thousands of Liberians and producing a regular stream of medical doctors and nurses through its component institutions, the A.M. Dogliotti College of Medicine and the Tubman National Institute of Medical Arts.
USAID’s commitment to providing all Liberians access to quality health care is undiminished. We have worked with our Liberian partners over the last five years to establish a vibrant community health program with hundreds of fully trained, equipped, and compensated community health workers bringing preventive and curative care to hundreds of thousands of rural households. That partnership also helps provide Liberians access to safe, effective, and affordable drugs and health commodities, including all of the malaria rapid diagnostic tests for the public sector, a significant percentage of all malaria treatments for adults and children, as well as half of all family planning commodities used in government owned or operated health facilities.
And there is more we have achieved with our Liberian partners in the health sector. Our joint investments in infectious disease prevention and surveillance are paying huge dividends. They ultimately helped Liberia achieve success in the fight against Ebola and have proved useful in containing COVID-19.
Just like the health sector, Liberia’s education sector also boasts enduring reminders of our special development partnership. Perhaps no Liberian educational institution better exemplifies this partnership than the Monrovia Consolidated School System (MCSS), which dates back to 1961, the very year of USAID’s founding, when USAID agreed to a request from the Liberian Minister of Education to help build an integrated school system for Monrovia’s fast-growing student population. Starting in 1962, a $5.3 million USAID-funded package of development grants and loans facilitated the construction of new MCSS school buildings that opened to students in 1968 and are today major Monrovia landmarks: G.W. Gibson Elementary, Matilda Newport Junior High, and William V.S. Tubman Senior High.
But USAID did more than erect school buildings. It made early investments in the long-term sustainability of the MCSS, sending scores of Liberians to the United States for advanced training as teachers, school administrators, and curriculum consultants. Representing a combined 140 instructional years, these education professionals and other Liberians to whom they passed on their skills and knowledge have over time made the MCSS—now 52 years old—a national leader in the education of Liberian youth. And Tubman High, the MCSS flagship school, enjoys a well-deserved reputation for producing Liberian leaders with its graduates going on to hold key positions at the most senior levels of government.
The Liberian Civil war erased some of the early gains in the education sector, challenging us to respond with an array of initiatives that continue to generate strong results across a broad swath of the Liberian educational sector, including an early post-war emphasis on training for hundreds of teachers and rebuilding three war-damaged Rural Teacher Training Institutes in Kakata, Zorzor and Webbo, to current efforts aimed at improving early grade reading for tens of thousand of first and second graders, providing numeracy, literacy, livelihood skills training for thousands of youth, as well as scholarships for Liberians to pursue advanced degrees in critical fields like engineering and agriculture, and constructing new classrooms and modern science laboratories for community college students in Bassa, Lofa, Margibi, and Nimba Counties.
But the Liberian civil war also taught us all that to maintain and build on these gains, Liberia needs to address the underlying causes of its conflict by strengthening democratic and rule of law institutions critical for transparent and accountable governance. And the results Liberia has achieved in strengthening its young democracy with the support of development partners like USAID speak for themselves: Three peaceful presidential and legislative elections since 2005; a historic transfer of power in 2017; and judicial resolutions of the most heated elections disputes—all signaling the maturation of Liberia’s democratic order. Meanwhile, Liberia’s open and engaged civil society and active community-based media continue to foster strong popular participation in the democratic process.
Another important lesson we’ve learned together is the importance of inclusive private sector-led growth to Liberia’s long-term stability. Improved agricultural productivity and value chain development has been the cornerstone of our effort to help Liberia spur growth. As a result, thousands of rice farmers now have access to high yielding seeds, fertilizers, and modern rice milling facilities. Farmers of other crops with export potential like cocoa, coffee, and cashew stand to benefit from targeted assistance. Some of these farmers and other rural communities are beneficiaries of USAID’s investments in farm-to-market roads, safe drinking water, and reliable and affordable electricity.
USAID is committed to creating jobs and improving economic opportunities for all Liberians. We have thus worked with the Government of Liberia and other development stakeholders to identify the potential for a special economic zone in Buchanan to attract investors who can help diversify Liberia’s export base, add value to major export products, create jobs, and increase tax revenues to fund the national development agenda. At the same time, our assistance is helping key institutions like the Central Bank of Liberia and the Liberia Revenue Authority improve their institutional capacities and processes to help fuel broad-based, sustained market-driven growth.
As we look back at 59 years of development partnership with Liberia, and as much as we take pride in our joint achievements, we are reminded that the ultimate measure of success here is the extent to which our work helps move Liberia closer to the day when it no longer needs foreign assistance. This means bringing even more urgency to our work, quickening our pace to achieve locally sustained results, enhance domestic resource mobilization, and accelerate enterprise-driven development so that Liberia succeeds on its journey to self-reliance. And it is only by helping Liberia succeed on that journey that we can truly give meaning to the vision that underpinned President Kennedy’s creation of USAID 59 years ago: The generous but prudent use of America’s resources to create stable, economically vibrant, and resilient democratic societies that help advance our collective prosperity and security.