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A modest proposal for Liberia

Liberian schoolchildren do their homework by streetlight in downtown Monrovia in March 2008.
Liberian schoolchildren do their homework by streetlight in downtown Monrovia in March 2008. (By Craig Timberg/the Washington Post)
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By Fred Hiatt
Monday, June 7, 2010

A recent Post editorial told how U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing wealthy cotton farmers not only in America's Deep South but in the even Deeper South, too -- meaning Brazil. That made me think about Liberian children who still have to do their homework while squatting under street lamps, because they have no electricity at home.

That may seem an odd connection, but after you've had a visit from the formidable Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, almost anything can make you think of Liberia.

Johnson-Sirleaf is the unsentimental, relentless president of that impoverished West African nation. She was elected in 2005, as Liberia was emerging from years of vicious civil war, and she recently came to Washington to deliver a progress report and ask for continued support.

To get a sense of the challenge she faced when she took over, consider this: Eighty-five percent. That was Johnson-Sirleaf's reply when I asked about unemployment in her capital of Monrovia. No, I said, assuming she had misheard; I said unemployment rate, not employment rate. "Eighty-five percent," she insisted grimly. But, she said, thanks to foreign investment, improvements in infrastructure and efforts to combat crime and corruption, it has decreased to 50 percent today. Imagine celebrating an employment rate of 50 percent.

What had really stuck with me from the president's last visit, in 2006, was the image of children gathering on street corners to do their homework. "We have a city that's dark," she had said, setting electrification as one of her first goals.

And today? The president reported, with little satisfaction, that 18 percent of the capital now is wired -- this despite a partnership of the World Bank, the International Finance Corp., the United States and Norway aimed at bringing electricity to the city.

What's taking so long? During the war, every single wire had been taken down and sold or destroyed, she said. The World Bank contracting process grinds slowly. But the main factor: The solution to the problem is a planned hydroelectric plant that will cost $300 million, and $300 million is a lot of money.

Unless you're in the American cotton business.

As that Post editorial said, the U.S. government has been paying cotton growers more than $3 billion per year since 1991, with most of the largess going (as the Environmental Working Group has demonstrated) to big agribusiness in the South. The subsidies are so out of whack that the World Trade Organization ruled them an unfair trading practice -- and rather than reform, the United States is now forking over another $147 million per year to Brazilian cotton farmers, who lodged the complaint.

Obvious solution: Turn off the spigot to Balmoral Farming Partnership of Louisiana ($18 million in cotton subsidies from 1995 to 2009, according to EWG), Gila River Farms of Arizona ($16 million) and the other welfare queens of cotton for just one month -- one month! -- and let Liberia have its hydroelectric plant. Monrovia schoolchildren could do their homework. As adults, they might earn more than the average $500 per year that their parents earn. West Africa would be stabler. America would be more secure. And so on.

Except, of course, that any interruption in cotton subsidies would be unacceptable to the fiscal hypocrites of Louisiana, Arizona and other agribusiness states who would howl at a reduction in subsidies and, no doubt, at any increase in foreign aid. I'm thinking here of statesmen like Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, running for reelection with "Fighting Wasteful Government Spending" listed as his top issue -- but who merrily joined eight other Republican fiscal hypocrites in a letter to President Obama in March opposing any cuts to the "farm safety net." ("While we agree that fiscal restraint is necessary and spending in the Federal budget should be reduced, doing so in this manner places a disproportionate burden on the backs of farmers, ranchers and rural communities and fails to recognize the recent sacrifices these constituencies made . . . . ")

Johnson-Sirleaf, now 71, recently announced that she will run for reelection next year. Liberia has more foreign investment for the size of its economy than any other country. Its six years of peace are a major achievement. Young men who knew nothing but guns are being gradually reintegrated into society. But, she says, with a sigh, "It's all taking a little bit longer than we had anticipated."

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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