30 July 2008

Liberia: U.S. to Debate New 'Seeds' for Development

guest column

Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., an Illinois Democrat who is a member of the United States House of Representatives' Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs, has announced legislation that would commit the U.S. to offering wide range of new support for Liberia. In a guest column for AllAfrica, he explains why and outlines some of the details.

The Bible says that there is a time and a season for everything. This is Liberia's season to "beat their swords into ploughshares," the time for peace and democracy to take root.

That is why I am introducing the Liberia Stabilization, Economic Empowerment, Development and Security Act - the "Liberia SEEDS Act" - in the House of Representatives. The bill provides vital, direct and targeted assistance to Liberia, sowing the seeds of a better and brighter future there.

With this legislation, the United States Congress will make a commitment to our ally to assist in solidifying the peace the new government has established, in sustaining the progress it has made and in rebuilding the country. This is a hand up for a part of the world too often given the cold shoulder. In fact, the "Seeds Act" is designed to be more transformative than transactional, helping to convert what was once a rogue's gallery into democracy's greenhouse.

Under the dictatorial rule of Charles Taylor, the country was shattered, sinking into chaos and cruelty. More than 200,000 Liberians died, about half of the population - 1.5 million people - were displaced and almost all the country's infrastructure was destroyed. Taylor stirred rebellion and exported evil to neighboring Sierra Leone, plundering the region's diamonds to finance mass murder.

In the civil wars that raged in both countries, tens of thousands of innocent civilians were killed. Countless others had their arms, legs and ears chopped off. Women were made into sex slaves, often gang-raped at gunpoint. Children were pressed into military service, often brainwashed and drugged into slaughtering their own parents. The killing fields became their classrooms.

Now, five years later, the long night's darkness is lifting and Liberia is rising again.

The election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005 ushered in a period of hope, change and renewal. In a country where so many parents lost their children and so many children lost their childhood, the Harvard-educated economist is known by many simply as "Ma."

Since taking office, the Sirleaf Administration has moved with the determination and diligence and dispatch of a government that knows the hour's urgency. President Sirleaf established initiatives to investigate human rights abuses during the war; to root out widespread corruption; to provide free, compulsory primary education for all children; and to have cancelled more than a billion dollars of international debt, much of which was accumulated under previous corrupt and repressive regimes.

At the invitation of President Sirleaf, I traveled last summer with my colleagues in Congress to Liberia. I talked with Liberians eager to reclaim their lives and rebuild their land. Men and women are finding work and wages in new enterprises and restarted industries. Children are once again going to school, toting books instead of guns. The rhythms of normal life are slowly returning.

But real risks remain.

Liberia is still a fragile and forming democracy, where small cracks may lead to a big collapse. The consequences of such a breakdown would be catastrophic: failing states become breeding grounds for hatred and violence, training camps for crime and terror. When conflict breaks out, it soon spins out of control, spilling over natural boundaries and man-made borders, impacting us even in the U.S.

At this critical moment, the United States is as vital as ever in helping Liberia to sustain and solidify peace and progress. Having played a pivotal role in forcing tyranny out of Liberia, our country has a strategic interest in preventing its return.

In a documentary film about her first year in office, talking about threats to Liberia's democracy, President Sirleaf said: "My biggest fear is that a small group might succeed in trying to return us to conflict. It will always remain a fear until we've done enough in responding to the needs of the population..."

The Liberia Stabilization, Economic Empowerment, Development and Security Act provides the Liberian government with critical assistance in responding to those needs.

In a country with no running water and no electricity - except from private generators - the bill authorizes assistance to rebuild Liberia's fallen infrastructure. Development Assistance (DA) funds will be used to reconstruct roads and bridges; to restore water and sanitation systems; and to rehabilitate the electricity grid to high-priority areas and institutions. These funds also will support efforts to retrain and employ former combatants and war-affected youth.

In a country accustomed to rampant, systemic corruption, the bill authorizes assistance to establish a new training institute for public-sector employees. The Economic Support Fund (ESF) will be used to enhance the Liberian government's capacity, transparency and operational effectiveness, making it more accountable, more responsive and more attractive to private and international investment.

The bill also authorizes assistance to strengthen law and order. International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) funds will be used to enhance the Liberian National Police Academy; to improve police operational capabilities; to provide vital police equipment and training; and to promote human rights and the rule of law.

We are also proposing a modest and prudent investment, authorizing U.S. $225 million in aid to Liberia over five years, from fiscal year 2009 to 2013.

Those who may blink at the bill's cost must consider its benefits. Addressing a joint session of Congress in March of 2006, President Sirleaf said this:

"What is the return on an investment that trains young combatants for life, rather than death? What is the yield when our young men can exchange their guns for jobs? What is the savings in food aid when our people can feed themselves again? What is the profit from educating our girls to be scientists and doctors? What is the dividend when our dependence ends, and we become true partners rather than supplicants?"

The Liberia Seeds Act answers her call. It provides Liberia the seeds it needs for a durable peace, a more stable democracy, a fairer, more effective government and for a more productive market-driven economy. What better way is there to honor our shared values, reinforce our deep, historic ties and help the Liberian people celebrate independence?


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