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Liberia: Energy, Regional Integration Will Fuel Growth – Min. Konneh

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Amara Konneh has been the chief coordinator of Liberia’s development strategy since his appointment as Planning and Economic Affairs Minister in 2008, a role he continued after President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf tapped him as Finance Minister last year. While in Washington to take part in the U.S.-Liberia Partnership Dialogue earlier this month, he outlined key elements of the strategy in an AllAfrica interview. Excerpts: How achievable is the government’s goal of Liberia becoming a middle-income country by 2030.

We believe this is achievable. When you look at Liberia’s economic history, we have been on the path to a middle-income country before. In the late 60’s to early 70’s, before the war, Liberia was growing. Had we sustained that growth by making the right investments in the right institutions, focusing on diversification, investing in energy and making that growth inclusive, we would have been where Botswana is today.

But that didn’t happen. This is why the president has rallied the country to put together a new national vision which we hope will be shared by everyone to get Liberia back on the path to middle income by the year 2030. It means that we need to grow by an average of 8.5% every year.

Given our growth history over the past six years and the growth projections into the future, given all of the private investment we have attracted into the country, the direction we are headed now in terms of our economic policy, investing in infrastructure particularly in energy, roads, ports, information, telecommunications technology and agriculture – together with the traditional investment in health and education for human development – we believe we can get there.

What has to be done to make this happen?

It’s not going to happen naturally. Achieving middle income will require inclusiveness in Liberia, and that is why we are not just focusing on the hard policies that will bring about growth, but also on the soft policies that will make that growth to be shared by everyone and to be sustainable over the years. Political stability is key. I call it the software of development.

First, we need to make sure that we sustain our tradition of democratic elections and transition now. We have had two in a row. The next big election is 2017, when President Sirleaf leaves office. We must make the right investments now to make sure that the election is trouble free. That’s number one.

Number two: we need to fix our land property rights regime– so that people can have access to land – and that land ownership for private investment is easier than it has been. With the current concessions in the country, we are still having some difficulties because of our dual land-tenure system, the statutory and the customary one where the chief s make the decision.

Also, in order to make growth inclusive and to meet this middle-income status goal, we must invest in programs that will ultimately reconcile the country in many ways. For example, Liberia has a history of excluding women and young people from decision-making. The society is highly traditional and highly hierarchical, so we need to begin the process of making sure that these people have voices in the way the country is run.

Finally, we need to make investments in institutions that resolve conflict – our court systems, our justice system and also in the police. I think it can be achieved.

What are you doing to encourage the outside investment that you need to achieve that growth?

We want investors to know that they have a friendly government that is ready to work with you on Liberia and to enter into honest negotiations with you. It’s better to come in now while we are rebuilding, because it is easier to enter than to wait until after we rebuild, when we will have a lot of conditions to make sure that we can get returns on our investment.

We have several projects that offer profitable investment prospects – management contracts for our seaports, for example. Our major airport has major potential for investment. We have highways that we need to build. There is a booming construction industry. There is potential for fisheries. There is potential for tourism. We just need to develop it.

We’ve attracted some big agriculture companies in the oil palm sector, and there is potential for other agricultural activities, which is why we are investing most of our resources, both in budget and also from donors, into building roads so that there is access to farms and to markets.

The environment is conducive now. Already, we have managed to attract about U.S. $16 to 18 billion in foreign investment because of some of these indicators that I have talked about. We have improved the time it takes to register a business, we’ve improved our negotiation process and the time it takes to close negotiations, and we have cut down the red tape.  So we are ready to work with investors in Liberia. Liberia is open for business.

Do you expect this investment to lead to job creation?

We believe so. We believe it will lead to job creation in the short term. But we also are looking at the indirect jobs that will come as a result of these private investments. At the end of the day, we are targeting value addition in order to make this middle-income goal achievable.

That is why at the center of our economic policy we are emphasizing energy – cheap electricity – so that when companies come to do business in Liberia, the cost of doing business will be lower and will put them in a position to put more Liberians to work. We also are targeting [growth] in the Mano River Union economy. With the four countries in the Mano River Union – Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire – you’re talking about 40 million people, with Liberia sitting there strategically.

This can position firms [who invest] to expand their operations in these other countries. That’s how we are going to sell Liberia. Liberia is really at the center of this Mano River Union integration through trade.

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