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Lions Roar : March 2015
BEFORE THE 2011 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION in Liberia, I was relaxing on a beach in Monrovia when a man walked by wearing a t-shirt with a candidate’s face on it. We made eye contact, and I asked him, “Do you think he’s going to win?” Not skipping a beat, he smirked back at me and said, “You tell me, you are the ones who choose.” Three years later, Liberia is in the midst of its worst crisis since fifteen years of brutal civil war came to an end a decade ago. Once the Ebola crisis has settled down, however, it will be wise to admit that this calamity has been a crisis of Western-led “devel- opment” practices as much as it has of the fragility of African health care. In the early days of Ebola’s spread in Liberia, many Liberians refused to believe that it was real, dismiss- ing the disease as a fabrication. This begs a crucial question: why were so many people unwilling to trust an elected government that repeatedly warned them of Ebola’s dangers? On paper, Liberia seemed like a success story even just a few months ago. Foreign investors had committed to spending nearly 20 billion dollars on extractive projects, and the all- important GDP growth rate had been over 7% in six of the last ten years. Yet during my time in Liberia, I witnessed a much more complicated dynamic playing itself out. Most Liberians saw their government as deeply corrupt and unaccountable to its citizenry, particularly those at the low end of the social ladder. The response to the Ebola outbreak by many Liberians has laid bare a troubling and widespread sentiment of cynicism toward the gov- ernment. Sadly, Liberia’s poor have good cause to have adopted a mistrustful stance toward its elected representatives and the international community that backs them. The long-term effects of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia are impossible to predict, but they are certain to be profound. The great tragedy is that if Liberians had been more cooperative with government efforts to control Ebola’s spread in its early days, however haphazard those efforts may have been, the crisis would have been far less extreme. For the global development community, pointed self-reflection on why so many Liberians do not trust their government is an absolute necessity. To begin, the top-down economic strategy that emphasized economic growth above all and which failed to consider the social context in which that growth was taking place has proved to be deeply flawed. Development partners must do a better job of insisting that issues like corruption, disparate access to justice, land tenure, and housing rights rise to the top of the agenda. In addition, bottom-up accountability mechanisms that give aver- age citizens a greater role in policing officials and determining how and where money is spent are desperately needed. No amount of GDP growth or foreign investment is likely to produce a functioning, stable society without the perception that all its members are equally valued. Liberia’s poor believe that the international community “chooses” their leaders, and then shrugs when those leaders treat them callously. In the aftermath of the ongoing Ebola tragedy it will be necessary to combat that view, and to ensure that development interventions are geared toward building trust between Liberians and their government, even if it means picking a fight with politicians. ♦ Adapted from “Ebola Outbreak Highlights Liberia’s Crisis of Development Policy,” by Ashoka Mukpo. Published on Africanarguments.org. How the West Made It Worse ASHOKA MUKPO describes how Western-led development policies contributed to the Ebola crisis. An Ebola public awareness message posted by the Liberian government, signed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. PHOTOBYTIMFRECCIA SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2015 51