(Recasts, adds quotes from news conference)
By Lesley Wroughton
MONROVIA, Jan 30 World Bank President Robert Zoellick promised on Wednesday to help Liberia rebuild after its civil war during a visit to conflict-damaged West Africa.
Liberia is struggling to shake off the effects of a 14-year war that ended in 2003. U.N. peacekeepers, multilateral agencies and donors have been working on projects that seek to deliver a peace dividend by repairing roads and restoring electricity.
Zoellick's World Bank supervised a loan deal to clear Liberia's $400 million arrears to the Washington-based institution last month in a major step for the country founded in the 19th century by freed slaves from America.
"I can see Liberia is at a key transition point," he said at a joint news conference in Monrovia with Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was elected two years ago.
"There has been a lot of emergency measures taken quickly and now we are moving into deeper stages of the reform and the development process," Zoellick said.
"This is a country that is poor ... and is trying to make a fragile democracy work," he added.
Liberia is one of several West African states recovering from conflict in recent years.
Zoellick met finance ministers from Liberia, Togo, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast on Tuesday and pledged to seek ways of giving quicker financial support to speed their recovery.
He said the Bank could be more supportive earlier in a country's recovery, when governments were still trying to organize themselves but lacked the capacity to deliver basic services to an expectant population.
BRING IN PRIVATE BUSINESS
"We have to figure out some way to get some additional private capital in this," Zoellick told reporters in Monrovia.
"My sense is that the earlier we can create jobs, the more it will help develop support for governments and their longer term plans," he said.
Earlier, Zoellick met donors and U.N. officials to discuss how to fund Liberia's infrastructure needs, which the government puts at $700-800 million, mostly for roads. The Bank oversees a Liberia infrastructure trust fund which already has $90 million.
Liberia has struggled to attract private companies to build roads, mostly due to high costs importing equipment. Chinese firms have expressed interest but want to be sure they can get contracts if they spend the money bringing in the equipment.
Zoellick said post-conflict governments faced a shortage of skill-led workers, with many professionals having left the country and living abroad. The challenge was to either quickly train new professionals or compensate and attract back those who had left.
The World Bank chief was due to fly to Ethiopia to attend the African Union summit, and would then visit Mozambique.
Since his appointment to head the World Bank more than six months ago, Zoellick has said the Bank needs to be more flexible when dealing with fragile or post-conflict states, including making financing available to them for longer periods.
The World Bank chief said he was aware of shortcomings by donors to deliver aid promptly, and of the need to speed up the process of clearing the arrears of countries that have fallen behind in payments to multilateral lenders, as Liberia had.
Liberia's Finance Minister Antoinette Sayeh said the meeting with Zoellick was a unique opportunity for West African states with similar problems to share their thoughts with the Bank.
"It is not every day you have the whole region emerging in a way that we are all getting over our crises. For the first time in so many years we have a peaceful West Africa," she added. (Writing by Alistair Thomson; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)