The train tracks are visible again. You couldn’t even tell they were there before, so completely had the bush overrun them. But in a few weeks, workers hacked their way up and down the line, clearing the track from Sanniquellie in Liberia’s north to Ganta, twenty-five miles south. Soon, trains may again ferry iron ore to the port of Buchanan on the coast. Something remarkable is happening in Liberia, and the tracks are only one of the more visible signs. While Baghdad burns and Iraq keeps turning corners, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has become the first woman to be elected head of state in Africa, and, at this writing, she’s promised to turn the lights on in Monrovia within her first six months.
Liberia could not have reached this point without the “international community.” Those words, so often a feeble abstraction, have taken on real force here, where one of the largest contingents of UN peacekeepers in the world (15,891, second only to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 17,480 watch over an area twenty times the size) have lived up to their name. The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has presided over the disarmament of more than 100,000 ex-combatants from all sides of the country’s prolonged, brutal conflict, and it provided crucial logistical assistance in the recent election—all this on a budget of just over $2 million per day, a fraction of what the United States has handed to Halliburton in Iraq. Liberia is a needed reminder of the scope of the possible.
Now it’s becoming a laboratory for how far the scope extends. In September 2005, the transitional government signed an agreement with the international donors who have supported Liberia’s recovery: GEMAP, the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program. Sold as an anti-corruption measure, it has been decried by a few Liberians as little more than neocolonialism. For their part, the donors and other influential members of the international community see GEMAP as the culmination of the reconstruction process and a new form of humanitarian intervention. In the language so typical of UN resolutions, the Security Council’s September extension of UNMIL’s mandate specifically “welcomed” and “looked forward to” the implementation of GEMAP.
The program breaks new ground in dealing with state collapse. Under GEMAP, the Central Bank and five state-owned enterprises (SOEs)—as well as several other government institutions—will be subject to internationally recruited experts with co-signature authority over their budgets. Revenues from the SOEs will be channeled into escrow accounts to protect them from further pillage, and management contracts will be put out on the SOEs in what proponents insist will be a transparent, competitive bidding process.
The agreement could expand to cover other government institutions (including ministries). Furthermore, the management contracts offered for the SOEs will almost certainly not ...
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