January 5, 2018 / 2:54 PM / 9 months ago

Will Liberia's change of leader put aid flows at risk?

DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Liberia’s development is at risk of slowing as Nobel prize-winning president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a darling of foreign aid donors, is replaced this month by an ex-soccer star with little government experience, experts said.

George Weah, who grew up in a slum in the West African country and later played for top European football clubs, was elected last week to succeed Johnson Sirleaf as her 12-year tenure draws to an end.

Johnson Sirleaf, who previously worked for the World Bank and the United Nations, has been credited with putting the country back on its feet after it was ravaged by civil wars from 1989 to 2003.

But the progress she made - such as building schools, roads, and hospitals - was bankrolled by huge foreign aid flows that analysts say Weah may be unable to maintain.

“I think a lot of it had to do with her competence and strategy. Once she came into office, donors lined up,” said Steven Radelet, an economist at Georgetown University and former advisor to Johnson Sirleaf.

Liberia still faces severe poverty and underdevelopment and was further crippled by the Ebola epidemic in 2014-2016. Less than one in ten households have electricity and two thirds of people live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

Some aid programs that ended last year were not renewed because donors were anxious about the presidential transition, and this trend will likely continue, Radelet said.

“It is a risky time,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that times would be hard even if Johnson Sirleaf were staying.

Aid accounts for more than half of Liberia’s gross national income, making it one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world, according to the World Bank. Its chief exports - iron ore and rubber - are in a slump, leaving little means of earning.

“If the new government is stable and reasonably competent, the World Bank and the African Development Bank will continue to support them,” said Judith Tyson, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute.

“But if not, they may be hesitant to extend further assistance and that would be damaging,” she said, adding that there is some doubt in development circles about Weah’s credibility in economic management.

Beyond securing aid, Johnson Sirleaf knew how it should be used and was more involved in development projects than most heads of state, said people who worked with her.

“She has a very deep knowledge of the strengths and comparative advantage of every donor,” said Larisa Leshchenko, Liberia country manager for the World Bank.

The World Bank, one of Liberia’s top donors, supports work in agriculture, infrastructure, women’s empowerment, and more. While its major policies will be maintained, it is too soon to say whether all programs will continue, Leshchenko said.

Reporting By Nellie Peyton; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org

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