Liberia’s Progress and What Might Come After the MDGs

Centre of Government and Delivery

Liberia’s Progress and What Might Come After the MDGs

Posted on: 1st February 2012
Rupert Simons
Former Country Head, Liberia

This week, Liberia is hosting the third UN High Level Panel on the development framework post 2015. 27 panel members have descended on Monrovia, including David Cameron, who is a co-chair of the panel. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, another co-chair, is the host.

For Liberia, the panel meeting is a further sign of the progress the country is making and its emergence on the world stage. The government has an ambitious development agenda. Last week, the Minister of Finance signed an agreement with the European Investment Bank to rebuild a hydro-electric dam that will increase the number of households with access to electricity from 10,000 now to 100,000 by 2016. This week, the President announced plans to review the constitution to further strengthen Liberia’s democracy and make the government more transparent and effective.

This progress is a far cry from where Liberia was just ten years ago; its economy in ruins, with no police, army, public services or government to speak of. One airline flew to Monrovia, three times a week. Today Liberia has a vibrant democracy, an open society and a fast-growing economy. Its laws promoting public financial management, freedom of information and extractive industries transparency are some of the toughest in the region. There is a long way to go in enforcement, but foreign investors are recognising this progress and have committed over $16 billion in investment. One of those investors is British Airways, which has just launched three flights a week to Monrovia, the seventh international airline to do so.

For the world, the panel meeting could be good news, but we have a long way to go. International conferences like this usually have two parallel tracks. Most of the meetings are dominated by policy wonks and civil society activists. They are thoughtful and knowledgeable, but too diverse to agree on a simple, clear set of goals. In the last two days, the diplomats, ministers and finally heads of state come in and try to make decisions, but they miss a lot of the detail. The Monrovia meeting has brought the two closer together than usual: the panellists have heard presentations from business and civil society, from Liberians and people from the rest of Africa on their challenges, hopes and dreams.

The big challenge now is to marry those aspirations with the need to make the goals simple and focused. As Bill Gates said in his annual letter, published on 30 January, measurement is key:

“I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal.”

At the Africa Governance Initiative, we work with governments who have identified clear goals, and now want to plan and implement them. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made it very clear that infrastructure is the top priority for her administration. She has recognised that Liberia needs roads, power and ports to grow. Infrastructure will also make it easier to deliver public services like health and education, bring government to the people and bring the views of the people to government. AGI helps her government, and others in Africa, build the capacity to meet those goals. For example, our project in Liberia helped the government draft, implement and monitor a 150 day action plan.

For Liberia, it is possible to measure progress: kilometres of road built, number of households connected to the grid, the number of ships turned around by the port. For the world, it is much harder. MDG1 measured access to food; but we have learned that nutrition matters just as much as the quality of that food. MDG2 measured school enrolment; but we have learned that school quality and graduation rates matter even more. A big debate in Monrovia this week is whether we should try to “get to zero” on absolute poverty and hunger, or go for targets that are appropriate for each country. My personal preference would be to keep global goals, but make them so focused that nobody can ignore them: for example, a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and clean water for all.

Liberia will miss many of the MDGs, because it started late. But there is no doubt about its ambitions. So my lesson from Liberia for the post 2015 framework would be: We can only make progress if we are very clear on what we are trying to achieve. And we will only know we’ve achieved it if it’s specific enough that we can measure it.


The work described here was carried out by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, it is now being continued by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.


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