Curse or cure?

On 15-16 May, International Alert co-hosted a conference in Monrovia on natural resource management in Liberia.

Since 2005 there has been a significant growth in investment in the iron ore and palm oil sectors in Liberia. The industry has led to an average increase of 6% in gross domestic product.[1] But it also came with the expectation of increased employment, investment in infrastructure, and improved peace and stability, which has not happened.

Local communities, and the wider population, have not seen meaningful improvements in their livelihoods, social services or basic infrastructure. Long-term youth unemployment is still high and there are over 60,000 ex-combatants who are unemployed. The proportion of the population living on less than $1 a day remains above 63%[2] and only 31% of the population have access to basic education.[3] This is reinforcing existing inequalities.

Rather than improving the situation, natural resource extraction has sometimes exacerbated matters. One reason for this is land acquisition. Iron ore and palm oil production both require lots of land. But complicated land ownership rights and the acquisition of land by foreign companies is increasing local tensions and ethnic rivalry.

Another reason is lack of transparency. Despite regulatory and governance reforms, agreements on extraction concessions are conducted behind closed doors and the terms agreed are not being effectively communicated to the communities affected. This is fuelling mistrust, amidst reports of corruption.

This conference therefore addressed four important questions:

  1. How can the extraction of Liberia's considerable natural resources provide an opportunity for the country to move from conflict and instability towards sustainable peace and development?
  2. What is the status of the relationships between all actors in the sector?
  3. Will concession agreements provide jobs and economic opportunities for Liberians or will the pressure over land prove to be another source of conflict?
  4. Will the design and implementation of transparent governance systems provide a barrier against corruption and personal gain?

Alert’s Uganda Oil Project Manager Andrew Bahemuka and Senior Programme Officer on the Private Sector and Peacebuilding Zahed Yousuf both spoke at the event, sharing our local research on oil extraction in Uganda as well as broader research on extractive industries worldwide.

Attendees included representatives from natural resource companies, local and national government, civil society, NGOs, UN and international donors.

The event was organised by the civil society working group on natural resource management. It was hosted by the African Union liaison office to Liberia, which feels that natural resource management is a problem affecting most African countries and yet at the same time is also an opportunity for resource-rich countries to support peace and development for their population.

International Alert, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa and Purdue Peace Project sponsored the event and will be leading on further research on the topic. This will result in the presentation of policy and programming recommendations to help improve transparency and communities’ participation in the management of natural resources in Liberia.

Find out more about our work in Liberia here.

Photo: Palm oil production, Ghana, 2008 © oneVillageInitiative, 2008

[1] International Monetary Fund (2010). Liberia: 2010 article IV consultation and fifth review under the three-year arrangement under the extended credit facility. Country Report No. 10/373.

[3] Government of Liberia and United Nations Development Programme (2010). Millennium Development Goals 2010 report: Progress, prospects and challenges towards achieving the MDGs.