Which Way, Liberian Agriculture?

Agriculture Minister Jeanine Cooper.   

... Failed under Ellen Sirleaf’s PRS, failing under George Weah’s PAPD also? 

Agriculture has been declared as a priority area in President Weah’s economic flagship program, the Pro Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD). President Weah has himself declared that agriculture is the backbone of the economy. And he has urged Liberians to return to the soil.

However, high sounding talk without action has proved to be far from reducing food insecurity and achieving self-sufficiency in food production. 

This is primarily because the government of Liberia has failed to provide the resources and has accordingly placed agriculture far down its list of priorities. The Maputo Declaration, to which Liberia is a signatory, calls for governments to allocate at least 10 percent of their budgets to agriculture. 

Despite the fact that the Maputo Declaration was signed by President Sirleaf, under her government, agriculture received not more than 5 percent allocation of the national budget. 

Rather than encouraging food production locally and striving to at least achieve prewar subsistence production level, President Sirleaf instead encouraged foreign investments of the kind that sequestered millions of acres of land for oil palm and rubber production and forcibly displaced local communities from their ancestral lands.

President Weah, upon assuming office, promised to accord great priority to agriculture, which he said was the centerpiece of his economic flagship program, the PAPD.  But with four years of George Weah’s 6-yr presidential term gone, there has since been no major policy shift suggesting a departure from the past where agriculture was of low priority in national budgetary formulation and planning processes.

As a matter of fact, the situation has gotten worse. In the draft 2022-23 budget, agriculture accounts for 0.5 percent of total allocation in the national budget. Agriculture Minister Jeanine Cooper, in recent budget hearings at the Capitol, pleaded with lawmakers to raise the allocation from 0.5 percent (US$5.5M) to at least 2 percent (US$17M) of total allocation in the national budget.

How in the world can or will Liberia ever achieve self-sufficiency when its government accords such low priority to agriculture? Given the current outlook, it will be fair to say that this government is repeating the failure of its predecessor and has in fact made things worse.  

According to official UN statistics, Liberia is listed among countries described as highly food insecure. The United States government has over the years provided generous assistance to the government of Liberia to boost food production.

Yet, Liberia has been unable to achieve self-sufficiency in food production. For example, from 2012/13-17,18 donors provided US$642 million for agriculture according to the Liberian Citizen's Guide to the National Budget. With the exception of 2018, the rest were years of the Sirleaf presidency.

But Liberian officials, when pressed for results, often claim that the money was not provided directly to Liberia but through foreign NGOs. But the catch is that all NGOs, local or foreign, operating in Liberia are duly  approved by the government of Liberia. It is the government of Liberia that appears to fail each time to insist on transparency and accountability.

In 2017/18, according to the Liberian Citizen's Guide to the National Budget, US$50 million was given to WFP for agriculture in five counties in southeast Liberia. Accordingly, an amount of US$10 million was allocated to each county for agriculture. But today, there is nothing concrete to show that such money was indeed spent on agriculture in those counties, Grand Gedeh, River Gee, Grand Kru, Maryland, and Sinoe. 

From appearances it looks like a money laundering cartel. Donor money is handed over to foreign NGOs. Those foreign NGOs have operational relationships with a number of local NGOs as implementing partners.

Accountability mechanisms under these local NGOs are either non-existent or weak. Many of them have links to movers and shakers of society and are beholden to or driven by the agenda of the foreign NGOs. The Liberian government, to the best of publicly available information, does not have any track record of holding these institutions to account. And so they are virtually left to their own devices.

A case in point is the recent US$30 million intended as relief assistance to local people to help mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. The government of Liberia informed the public that the money was turned over to the World Food Program(WFP) since that organization possessed the requisite experience and skilled personnel to handle the distribution of the relief assistance.

The relief assistance program was reported to have been marred by fraud with many communities complaining of not having been reached at all during the exercise. Charges of corruption were levied against government officials who managed or provided oversight during the exercise and there were persistent calls from the public for an audit.

But the catch was the exercise was under the overall management of the WFP and, according to GoL officials, WFP could not be audited. Case closed! From the above, it would not be amiss to conclude that the GoL is its own worst enemy in the battle against food insecurity in Liberia. But there is another side to the story as well. Liberia’s rice imports stand at over US$200 million per year.

The importation of rice is not open but restricted to a few businesses forming a virtual but vicious cartel that engages in price-fixing and a host of irregularities. For example, much of the US$30 million spent on the procurement of rice for COVID-19 relief was sourced through the local rice cartel. In the opinion of a prominent Liberian economist (name withheld), agriculture, like football, has failed under the Weah led government.

He added that Agriculture Minister Jeanine Cooper, herself being a major player in the rice business, is conflicted and cannot make the difference Liberians hope for especially under a government with a very poor track record of transparency and accountability. Raising the allocation for agriculture in the national budget from 0.5 to 2 percent will make no difference and Minister Cooper should have the courage and honesty to say so, he concluded.

We therefore ask, is Agriculture truly the backbone of the economy?