Liberia, a country in West Africa, has worked hard to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, learning lessons from the Ebola crisis in 2014-2016. It was one of the first countries to enter lockdown and impose strict social distancing. It has also made good use of its mHero mobile app which directly links government to frontline health workers to strengthen real-time information sharing between key actors and government decision-making and responsiveness.
As in the rest of the world, the pandemic has had a severe impact on Liberia’s economy. The outlook remains uncertain as only a modest growth rate of 3.7% is expected by 2022. To enable a sustainable recovery and a better post-pandemic future, structural reforms are needed to ease economic constraints and support diversification . We spoke to Liberia’s Finance Minister Samuel Tweah to find out how the country is doing and what he sees as priorities to revive the economy and improve the lives of the Liberian people.
It has been about a year since the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Liberia. With the recent Ebola outbreak in Guinea and the third wave of coronavirus cases, what lessons have you learned in terms of preparedness and response?
We have used many of the lessons we learned in the fight against Ebola in our response to COVID-19. First, we have taken immediate and decisive action to prevent the spread of the disease. We were among the first countries in Africa to close our borders and enter general lockdown. Second, we have launched a massive communication campaign to educate our people about the seriousness of COVID-19 and the need to take preventative measures, such as hand washing, social distancing and wearing a mask. We have worked closely with community leaders to ensure these messages resonate on the ground. Finally, we moved quickly to develop a preparedness plan and mobilize resources to implement it. We have been able to quickly trace, test, isolate and treat cases of COVID-19, and we continue to do so.
What are the priorities for reform and building a resilient recovery in Liberia?
As the situation stabilizes, our goal is to increase sustainable and inclusive growth. This means increasing the productivity of the agricultural sector and connecting farmers to urban and regional markets through better roads and transport infrastructure. It also means increasing access to clean and affordable electricity, especially in rural areas, and digitizing our economy, including through digital finance.
All of this requires significant public spending, which is why we are strengthening domestic revenue mobilization and public expenditure management to increase transparency and efficiency. We also plan to make better use of our significant natural resources to support this process of change. All Liberians must prosper in this transition. To ensure that no one is left behind, we are reforming our social protection system to create a new Liberian Household Social Register, which will help us identify vulnerable populations and reach them when needed.
Currently, the electricity tariff in Liberia is among the highest in the world. What efforts are being made to improve energy access for Liberians, local businesses and essential services across the country?
We are working to break this vicious cycle of high tariffs. People are stealing electricity because the tariff is so high, but it robs the utility, Liberia Electricity Corporation, of revenue. It is then forced to increase the tariff even higher just to continue operating. The utility has not been able to connect all potential customers to the network in a timely manner, creating a new impetus for illegal connections.
Our goal is to provide affordable, reliable and sustainable electricity to all Liberians by 2030. We are investing in grid densification and rehabilitation to connect all remaining households in communities already covered by the grid, and we are expanding the grid. network to reach the largest Zone of Monrovia and main corridor of the regional electricity interconnection project with CÃ´te d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. We are also exploring renewable energy mini-grids and stand-alone solar systems in very remote areas and taking steps to create an enabling environment for private sector participation. The support of donors from the World Bank, Japan and other partners also helps us prioritize access to energy for health facilities in order to improve the quality of service and the resilience of our health system.
A recent analysis showed that more than half a million Liberians are at risk of sliding into poverty as a result of the pandemic. What are we doing to protect the most vulnerable and help create jobs?
At the onset of the pandemic, we worked with development partners to provide emergency food aid and other immediate economic relief to the most vulnerable populations. We are now working to address the challenge of employment in the urban informal sector of the densely populated county of Montserrado. This is where most cases of COVID-19 have been reported and where lockdown measures have devastated the livelihoods of men and women typically engaged in informal jobs like street vending, petty trading, and shopping. daily work. We aim to provide a package of financial and non-financial support to revive small businesses, encourage entrepreneurship and help informal workers acquire skills and find employment. Labor-intensive public works developed with communities can help achieve this goal while improving infrastructure and promoting social cohesion. The ongoing Liberia Youth Opportunities Project will also provide Business Stimulus Grants to help beneficiary start-ups stay afloat during the COVID-19 crisis.
How does the World Bank International Development Association (IDA) supporting Liberia in its recovery efforts?
Since the start of the pandemic, a total envelope of more than $ 200 million in IDA resources has been mobilized through several projects in the fields of energy, agriculture, roads, trade, finance. , health and social protection, to help stimulate economic activities and strengthen infrastructure and institutional platforms for more sustainable economic recovery and growth. This timely policy support will help us get informal workers back to work and small businesses back on their feet. It will help rural agribusinesses to produce and sell more. It will accelerate our efforts to improve roads, increase access to reliable and affordable electricity, and improve health services to more effectively respond to future pandemics. The past year has been difficult, but partners like the World Bank are supporting us and moving forward on the road to resilience.