SEATTLE — Modeled after the Stars and Stripes, the Liberian flag is a telling image that is emblematic of the complicated history that exists between the U.S. and the African nation. During the early 1800s, anxieties among white Americans flared over the growing population of free black people in the U.S. In an effort that the contemporary populace would likely recognize as ethnic cleansing, the American Colonization Society developed a plan to resettle a sizable portion of the free black population in Africa. Former Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe supported the ACS agenda, with the latter two procuring government funds for the resettlement.
After coercing a local ruler in West Africa to provide a strip of land for the settlers, naval leaders deported a group of black people – many of whom died of malaria along the way – to this new colony of sorts in 1824. More than 10,000 American natives resettled on the West African coast, and they imposed a brutal regime modeled after Western society on the local tribes.
Relations between the existing populations and the displaced black Americans became very hostile, and Liberia – not yet a sovereign state – struggled to defend its own economic interests from the encroaching French and British traders. Liberia declared independence in 1847, though the U.S. did not recognize Liberia until 1862. Liberia’s violent history has continued into modernity as the country struggles with civil wars, widespread poverty and economic and political instability.
Given its central role in the racially-motivated founding of Liberia, the U.S. has a special obligation to support development initiatives within the nation. While it is morally imperative that the U.S. provides foreign aid to Liberia, there are also several benefits that the U.S. can enjoy from continued aid support.
Some economists argue that foreign aid has crippled the Liberian economy, but the consensus around that notion seems to suggest that countries and humanitarian groups administered aid sloppily, with no internal measures for tracking success. If targeted aid initiatives are tracked over time with research-driven, identifiable desired outcomes, like those applied in Chile and Indonesia, then foreign aid to Liberia may very well achieve visible development goals.
The U.S. benefits from foreign aid to Liberia are most apparent in the economic sector. Liberia imports a growing percentage of U.S. goods. U.S. exports to Liberia increased 16.4 percent between 2015 and 2016, and the exports have increased more than 132 percent over the last decade. This trend is likely to continue as Liberia develops.
Continued foreign aid can also help to support Liberia’s internal market opportunities. Liberia has an amenable climate for sugarcane production, though the costs of such production are currently high. Targeted aid initiatives that help to bolster Liberia’s budding sugarcane productivity will help to establish it as an emerging market in an industry that may be able to help sustain the nation and ultimately reduce dependence on foreign aid.
The fight against devastating communicable diseases further evinces how the U.S. benefits from foreign aid to Liberia. Liberia drew worldwide attention in 2014 as the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak, which claimed thousands of lives in West Africa. Had it not been for the combined efforts of former colonial nations in the region – namely the U.S., France and Britain – the Ebola crisis may very well have spread beyond West Africa, posing a global health crisis. The Ebola epidemic officially came to an end in 2016; this crisis is an important example of the role that foreign aid plays in containing and eliminating dire health threats, which in turn keeps the U.S. population safe.
Having suffered civil wars spanning decades, Liberia recently celebrated its first peaceful transition of power in 47 years. Retired soccer star George Weah unseated former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, winning his election on a campaign of tackling corruption and spurring development. Terror cells tend to crop up in the poorest, most disadvantaged nations. Hence, supporting development initiatives is essential to global security. Because of Liberia’s violent history, and the role the U.S. played in that history, ensuring continued conflict resolution is perhaps one of the most critical ways that the U.S. benefits from foreign aid to Liberia.
In a recent letter to the New York Times, President Weah asked the global community to join him in the effort “to build a stable and sustainable peace and ensure that our dire socioeconomic situation does not undermine the hard-fought gains of the past 15 years.” The new head of state is setting his agenda on education reform and economic growth. Though Liberia is still recovering from decades of war and civil unrest, the nation is starting on a new path toward progress. The U.S. should be thoroughly invested in supporting, and benefitting from, Liberia’s journey to sustainable development.
– Chantel Baul