Sunday, May 30, 2010

U.S.-Liberia Ties Remain Strong, Multifaceted

By Charles W. Corey [Staff Writer]

Washington - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the State Department May 27 to discuss the U.S.-Liberia relationship.

"Part of our goal for this meeting was for us to reaffirm for the Liberian president the U.S. government's commitment to seeing Liberia continue to progress as a democracy and a country that is at peace and not war," the U.S. ambassador to Liberia, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told America.gov at the conclusion of the meeting.

FOREIGN INVESTMENT

During her meeting with Clinton, the ambassador said, Johnson Sirleaf outlined some of the challenges she continues to face in terms of building capacity, creating jobs and creating "a good climate for investors."

In the past three years, Liberia has been the recipient of about $11 billion in foreign investment. During her meeting with Clinton, Johnson Sirleaf expressed her hope that the amount of foreign investment in Liberia will continue to rise.

The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation has invested about $130 million in loan guarantees for U.S. companies in Liberia, according to the ambassador. Thomas-Greenfield noted that there are American investments in mining, Lockheed Martin is modernizing the airport in Monrovia, and there is some interest in oil exploration by U.S. firms. Delta Air Lines will be starting a flight to Liberia in September.

"We see that as a positive sign for investors who continue to look at Liberia," the ambassador said.

AGRICULTURE

Thomas-Greenfield went on to review a broad range of U.S.-Liberian bilateral issues.

The recent announcement that Liberia is a potential target country of the Obama administration's Feed the Future initiative is very important, she said, because Liberia's agriculture was largely destroyed during the country's long-running civil war.

"Trying to rebuild that agricultural base and getting people to go back to the farms" is essential, she said. "Getting people to feed themselves is an important part of the president's development agenda. So Liberia being able to benefit from this initiative really complements what the Liberian government wants to do itself."

While the Liberian president and her delegation were in Washington, the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) hosted a breakfast for them and announced a $15 million Threshold Program for Liberia that will focus on fostering girls' education, enhancing the country's investment climate and eliminating corruption.

The ambassador called the Threshold Program a critical step in the country's pursuit of a possible MCC Compact. "Working with this president and the Liberian minister of planning, who has been really an outstanding partner for us, I can see Liberia in the future qualifying for an MCC Compact," she said.

CORRUPTION

Thomas-Greenfield said Johnson Sirleaf is clearly aware of the problem of corruption. At the same time, the fact that corruption is being fully exposed for the first time in Liberia's history is a positive sign, she said.

"People talk about it. People know about it. The press reports on it. There is a really outstanding, well-functioning accounting and auditing office that has been reporting on corruption, so I think this president is making progress in this area," she said.

"Does corruption exist in Liberia? Yes it does. It exists at all levels. But it is not something that is being overlooked and swept under the carpet. It really is being addressed," she said.

According to Thomas-Greenfield, the biggest challenge in terms of corruption is in the judicial sector, in "getting people convicted in a court of law."

"That has been a challenge for this government, and it is a challenge for us," the ambassador said.

Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. government takes allegations of corruption "very seriously, particularly as it relates to American companies being disadvantaged in their ability to invest in Liberia." She stressed the importance of a level playing field.

"American companies know that they cannot function in a corrupt environment, and that it will have a negative impact on investments in Liberia if this is not addressed," she said. "But I am very confident that this president is sincere in her commitment to find a way to address this very, very intractable, difficult issue."

INFRASTRUCTURE AND DEBT REDUCTION

In the almost two years since she arrived in Monrovia as ambassador, Thomas-Greenfield said, "what has been accomplished has been amazing."

"You see the changes. You see the infrastructure improving. The roads are improving. Electricity is not available everywhere, but certainly available in the center city. You see buildings being rebuilt. All of those things show that there is confidence in the country," she said.

Thomas-Greenfield said she is "very, very impressed" by the work the Liberian government has done since she has been in the country, and is "very hopeful that if they continue to go in the direction in which they are going, Liberia will be back in full swing in a matter of two to three years."

Thomas-Greenfield noted that when Johnson Sirleaf came into office in 2006, Liberia was close to $3.5 billion in debt. But the Liberian president focused her attention on the microeconomics of the country - trying to deal with the debt issues, trying to track down where all the debt was and then working with Liberia's partners to get that debt off the books.

As a result of that effort, Liberia will reach Highly Indebted Poor Country completion status, and thus be able to borrow money in the international financial markets, in June when the International Monetary Fund board meets, the ambassador said.

Thomas-Greenfield called this a "major, major accomplishment that will put Liberia back on track economically" and "allow the government to borrow and to start moving some of its major infrastructure projects forward."

The ambassador said Liberia's 2011 election will be very important. Johnson Sirleaf has announced she is running again, along with a host of other candidates. "In our view," Thomas-Greenfield said, "a free and fair election would consolidate Liberia's path to democracy."

(by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State)