Nice bit of journalism on Newshour, on the blessing and curse of resource extraction in Liberia. http://video.pbs.org/video/2163162718
The story refers to the idea of the “resource curse” that has been all too common in developing countries. Historically, the discovery of valuable resources in a country too undeveloped to defend itself has always led to tragic consequences for the people of that country. Look at the mineral and oil wealth of Indonesia, or the wealth of exportable fruit in places like Guatemala, Panama or Honduras, or basically the whole history of Africa.
Liberia does indeed sit on a huge pile of mineral and oil wealth. And now that two civil wars and fourteen years of conflict in Liberia are over, international megacorporations like Chevron and ArcelorMittal (the world’s largest steel company, based in Luxembourg) are moving in. Twenty or thirty years ago, those circumstances would have seemed like the funeral dirge of any hope of reform or social development of the country. In the past, big companies have too often bought off the government and elite of resource-rich countries (or used mercenaries to dislodge them) and taken what they wanted, with almost nothing left for the countries’ usually destitute citizens.
But Kira Kay’s story about Liberia is more interesting and complicated than the old trope.
Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office in 2006, the first and only female head of state in the history of Africa. She just shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with two other prominent women, for “the non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
President Johnson Sirleaf has renegotiated the contracts with Chevron and other international resource-extracting companies, to get better terms for the government and at least in theory hold them to environmental compliance standards. Liberia is the first country to join EITI, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which requires companies to report what they pay governments, and requires governments to report what they were paid. This theoretically reduces the opportunities for bribery and corruption. The Sirleaf administration is working with civil society and traditional leaders (what some Westerners would call ‘tribal leaders’) across Liberia to negotiate a fair distribution of revenue from taxes on the foreign companies.
There are still questions about the capability of the Liberian government to police the corporate sector, but this feels like progress. The situation I wrote about in Winter Republic is the polar opposite. If I was writing this story as a piece of fiction, there would already be a coup in progress, with rebels supported by dirty foreign money, and lots of spooks and bad guys lurking around, doing what spooks and bad guys do.
I wish President Johnson Sirleaf only success and good fortune. Prove my instincts wrong.