Liberia: A Charade or a Pie in the Sky - the Promised Food Support and How Liberians Stand a Risk of Food Insecurity

opinion

It is becoming clear that the food support which was promised Liberians over a month ago seems like yet another pie in the sky. Liberians' hope of receiving rice, the country staple, from the government is left in despondency amidst the threat of a food shortage being posed by the disruption in supply chain and agricultural activities around the world which is alarming especially for net food importing nation like Liberia. This means that while we're faced with a public health and economic crises, we stand a great chance of experiencing food crisis well before everyone else. Now, people shouldn't just be concerned about Covid-19 as a health threat but they should also consider malnutrition and starvation that might arise from lack of food supply or inability to acquire the little that is available.

For too long ago, the agricultural sector hasn't received the much-required attention from government to ensure that Liberians grow what they eat. Today, most of what we eat including rice, unprocessed vegetables and fruits are imported from elsewhere. Undoubtedly, this is one reason for our deteriorating current account deficit that has lasted for more than a decade. If the government should do one thing, it should be providing massive agricultural support to farmers to ensure food security without worrying of retaliation from any WTO members since being a net food importing country allows for such under the Agreement on Agriculture.

We have witnessed a lot of businesses including many concessionaires with huge workforce closing down operations leaving many either temporarily or permanently unemployed. This loss in employment and income translates into either shift in diet for some or reduction in diet for others, especially the low income earners and rural poor. Hunger doesn't seem to be a strange phenomenon in Liberia since over one third of the population don't get enough to eat daily as reported by World Food Program (WFP) in 2019. This is, however, certainly not a good time for playing laissez faire and leaving vulnerable people's fate to be decided by their income level.

Aggregate demand has plummeted since the start of the pandemic but not for all products. Demand for agricultural products is generally inelastic. However, given the inability of farmers to properly carryout farming activities due to lockdown measures, agricultural products demand has surged for certain products mainly out of panic and has stayed unchanged for others due to income loss. Prices have also increased making it difficult for people experiencing job or income loss to maintain their regular diet. One big question is how will low income earners and poor people survive this crisis?

Although I confess to not being a fan of rice distribution as the best way to support citizens during this pandemic, but President Weah's pronouncement of the food support program brought smile to many faces as people began assuming that it was a small part of a bigger plan to protect vulnerable people and strengthen the economy against the macroeconomic shock caused by the pandemic. But those smiles were short-lived as we've gone over a month without any sign of the 'promised rice'. This food support seems more like a charade than a fanciful promise.

Up till now, the whereabouts of the rice seem unknown. From a partial view, one could only infer that this is due partly to budget constraint and readjustment that the government has been concerned with of late. But that doesn't seem to look anything like the reality given that health spending was reduced by about 5 million in the unapproved recast budget for FY2019/2020--ignoring the severity of this pandemic. On the other hand, recently, Liberia has received millions of dollars from various international financial institutions purposely to combat Covid-19. So far, even though there have been unsubstantiated cases of mismanagement of initial funds that were made available to the health sector, there is still a serious doubt that these funds will be used for their intended purpose. Remember, these monies were borrowed and must be paid back--whether in the short, medium or long term.

Recently, there has been a spike in the call for the opening of the economy with many arguing that the lockdown is impeding economic activities. Certainly, their argument ignores the public health threat and related cost of removing the lockdown. I, on the contrary, disagree to this 'early' reopening of the economy because even epidemiologists that we solely rely on regarding this matter are warning against swift reopening of the economy and aren't exactly sure about when things will return to normal. Until we be certain that removing the lockdown measures wouldn't risk public health, we must ensure a flattened curve.

Since April 2020 when the government started to implement its lockdown measures, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases continue to surge mainly in densely populated counties like Montserrado. It has been widely speculated (seems true to some degree) that only people who show signs and symptoms of Covid-19 or who are dead are being tested for the virus. This means that a person who has the virus and is asymptomatic would have spread it well enough before we know it. A rigorous testing plan that encourages people to get tested needs to be adopted if we intend on reopening the economy soon without risking public health.

I am still of the believe that conditional cash transfer to lower income earners, vulnerable and rural poor via mobile money payment system is relatively an effective way to keep demand up and ensure people livelihood while also ensuring public health safety. But right now, everyone is patiently looking forward to the long awaited food support. An attempt to not deliver on this promise would not just take away the people's trust in their government but also make them vulnerable to starvation. In the main time, ensuring food security, protecting vulnerable population and providing other support to people who are experiencing job and income loss should be highly prioritized in a transparent manner void of corruption. Otherwise, we will be up against a food crisis sooner than we might think.

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