After a little more than 10 years marking the end of a devastating war, the security situation in Liberia has stabilized but remains fragile. Last September, the UN Security Council (SC) extended the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) mandate until September of 2014 UNMIL continues its gradual withdrawal of armed forces but is maintaining current levels of support for police. The SC also continues to encourage the Liberian government to strengthen its efforts to accelerate national reconciliation as well as on governance, transparency and accountability in the management of natural resources, noting with concern the potential for conflict over those resources, especially related to land ownership. The SC noted that issues of corruption threaten to undermine the stability and effectiveness of government institutions.
Liberia continues to make notable progress on structural reforms to improve governance and the environment for private sector development. The government has established an Anti-Corruption Commission, passed an Access to Information law. It has also established a Code of Conduct for public officials and a new Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism Law. On the economic governance side, the government has also made progress in implementing systems to better manage and account for public resource including the Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS). The government is also in the process of modernizing customs through the deployment of an Automated System (ASYCUDA) in the Port of Monrovia, the international airport, and a number of other border points. The authorities are also implementing an integrated tax administration system to modernize and strengthen tax administration. While commendable progress has been made in articulating important structural policies and building new systems and institutions, pursuant to enhancing good governance and the environment for private sector development, key challenges remain. Not the least of these challenges is the lack of adequate capacity within the civil service to effectively use these systems and institutions to ensure effective service delivery.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf acknowledged that much has been achieved in the last 10 years but that much more remains to be done. Her government is committed to increasing and ensuring transparency and accountability in government and has asked all Liberians to join her in the continued fight against corruption. This action came in the face of mounting criticisms against the President and her government on the mounting wave of corruption affecting the public service.
In a related development, the government has created a new Revenue Authority resulting from the merger of the ministries of Finance and Planning and Economic Affairs into the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP). The President has just appointed officials to run the Revenue Authority. The establishment of the LRA and the MFDP is part of government’s efforts to bring cohesion to the operations of government by eliminating current duplications and gaps in the functions of the Ministry of Finance (MOF) and the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs (MPEA).
The government is also striving to ensure more efficient and effective employment of human and financial resources for better service delivery in order to achieved the objectives of the country’s ambitious Poverty Reduction Strategy, the Agenda for Transformation (AfT). The AfT, which was launched in December of 2012, is underpinned by the National Vision, Liberia Rising, which was developed following extensive consultations with the Liberian people and articulates the government’s aspiration for Liberia to achieve middle income status by 2030. The AfT is structured around the following five strategic pillars:
- Pillar I - Peace, Justice, Security and Rule of Law
- Pillar II - Economic Transformation
- Pillar III - Human Development
- Pillar IV - Governance and Public Institutions
- Pillar V covers cross cutting issues, including gender equality, child protection, disability, youth empowerment, environment, HIV/AIDS, human rights and labor and employment.
A full progress report on the first year of implementation of the AfT will be available mid-2014.
Liberia has made remarkable economic and social progress since its return to democratic governance in 2006. Sustained growth and stability have allowed the country to make notable progress on key Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) targets. The proportion of the population living below the poverty line is estimated to have fallen from 645 in 2007 to 56% in 2010. The country has also achieved the target for reducing under-nutrition and surpassed the target for reducing child mortality (MDG-4) and notable progress has been made in reducing maternal mortality. Over the next year, Liberia will likely meet the MDG targets for eradicating hunger (MDG-1); promoting gender equality and empowering women (MDG-3) and establishing a global partnership for development (MDG-8). However, despite best efforts, the remaining five MDG targets related to human development are unlikely to be met with the MDG timeframe.
Liberia’s early economic recovery has been largely driven by foreign direct investment in commercial agriculture and the extractive sectors. Such investments whilst spurring rapid growth have not generated sufficient employment opportunities to absorb the vast cadre of largely uneducated and unskilled youth. The high levels of youth unemployment therefore remain a major challenge for the Government. Furthermore, the dependence on primary commodity exports and imports of food (imported rice is a staple) and fuel makes the country extremely vulnerable to external shocks. Moreover, the limited fiscal space and low levels of foreign exchange reserves limit the Government’s ability to respond to such shocks.
An established track record of prudent macroeconomic management coupled with increasing social stability has created the opportunity for the Government to launch an Agenda for Transformation (AfT). The AfT is an ambitious strategy to initiate the economic and social make-over to get Liberia to middle income country status by 2030. The AfT focuses on: Governance, including tackling the vexing issues of corruption; Economic transformation, removing constraints to create broad-based growth for jobs; and human capital development to ensure that all Liberians can take advantage of the economic opportunities. In addition the AfT covers a number of cross-cutting issues which addresses gender, the vulnerable groups as well as capacity building.
Liberia’s near term prospects are good but there are important downside risks. Growth is expected to remain robust with the mining, construction and commercial agriculture sectors as the primary drivers although post 2015, the manufacturing and financial sectors could post higher levels of growth. Macroeconomic risks primarily relate to the management of the fiscal budget in the context of lower revenue inflows in the face of increasing demands for increasing expenditures for infrastructure and security. There are also additional risks to Liberia external position that may be posed by lower international commodities prices for Liberia key exports including rubber, iron ore, oil palm and logs.
Economic growth and employment
Liberia’s economic expansion remains robust but unemployment is a key challenge. The economic expansion continued into 2013, despite on-going weaknesses in the global economy, fuelling lower commodity prices. GDP grew by 8.1% in 2013, only marginally lower than the 8.3% recorded for 2012. The primary drivers of growth have been the mining, construction and services sectors, which together contributed more than 60% of the growth in 2013. The strong growth in the construction sector is also having some positive effects on the manufacturing sector through the increased demand for cement. Consequently, in 2013, growth in the manufacturing sector was estimated at nearly 9% up from 3% in 2012. However, in spite of the robust growth, unemployment, particularly among the youth, remains a major challenge as the domestic private sector remains weak, constrained by inadequate infrastructure (particularly electricity) and credit.
Inflation has remained moderate despite the up-tick in 2013. Year-on-Year inflation in Liberia was 8.5% in 2013, up from 7.7% in 2012, reflecting higher domestic prices driven in large part by the depreciation of the exchange. Food price inflation which was particularly high in the first half of 2013, averaging about 12.1% moderated to about 6% in the second half of the year. With greater stability in the exchange rate and moderation of the prices of key imports (fuel and rice), inflation is expected to be lower in 2014. Lower inflation has been an important factor in the reduction of poverty between 2007 and 2010.
The Government has established a track record of prudent fiscal stance but may face considerable fiscal challenges in the near term. The growth in total tax revenues slowed considerably from 32.6% in 2012 to just 3.5% in 2013 reflecting a contraction in real terms. The ability of the government to absorb such shocks is limited, due to the low revenue base and high proportion of recurrent expenditure. Moreover, the slow-down in revenue flows in the face of increased expenditure demands for investments in infrastructure including roads and electricity as well as to expand the security apparatus in the wake of UNMIL’s draw-down increase the risks of sharply widening the fiscal deficit which was 1.6% of GDP in 2013.
The monetary policy has focused on maintaining broad exchange rate and price stability. The Central Bank of Liberia introduced Liberian dollar-denominated treasury bills in early 2013. This has been effective in mopping up some of the excess liquidity of local Liberian dollars in the banking sector. However, the effectiveness of Liberia dollar instruments as a monetary policy tool remains limited, given the high level of dollarization of the economy. The continued high levels of non-performing loans adversely affect the expansion of credit, particularly to the agricultural and small and medium enterprise sector which could be key sources of growth and employment. It is expected that the establishment of the Collateral Registry in 2014 will help to address this issue.
The trade deficit widened further in 2013 as a result of terms of trade deterioration. The substantial fall-off in the supply of rubber in response to lower international prices resulted in a sharp reduction in rubber exports, from $177 million in 2012 to $121 million in 2013. Despite the almost doubling of earnings from iron ore exports, from $117 million in 2012 to $220 million in 2013, the overall trade deficit widened from $588 million to nearly $900 million in 2013. The adverse developments on the trade account combined with lower official transfers resulted in a deterioration of the external balance. The larger trade deficit and the fall-off in net transfers (in part reflecting UNMIL’s draw-down) resulted in a substantial widening of the current account deficit of the balance of payments from 33.6% of GDP in 2012 to 48% of GDP in 2013. Inflows on the capital account (including foreign direct investments) were not enough to off-set the current account deficit. Consequently, there a loss in gross reserves of about $7 million in 2013, which resulted in some pressure on the exchange rate.
Liberia’s near term prospects are good but there are important downside risks. Growth is expected to remain robust with the mining, construction and commercial agriculture sectors as the primary drivers. After 2015, with the gradual relaxing of the energy and telecommunications constraints the manufacturing and financial sectors are expected to post higher levels of growth. Access to credit and land tenure issues are also being addressed and this should help spur agricultural growth which could make substantial contributions to increasing employment. Macroeconomic risks primarily relate to the management of the fiscal budget in the context of lower revenue inflows in the face of increasing demands for increasing expenditures, particularly for energy and road infrastructure as well as for resources to improve the capacity of the security forces in light of the UNMIL planned and ongoing drawdown of its security personnel in Liberia. There are also additional risks to Liberia external position that may be posed by lower international commodities prices for Liberia key exports including rubber, iron ore, oil palm and logs.