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This story is featured in the 2019 Hunger Report: Back to Basics
Gyude Moore was Liberia’s Minister of Public Works from 2015 to 2018, during the presidency of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. A decade earlier, he was an organizer with Bread for the World. A decade before that, he was an adolescent living in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone, one of the millions of Liberians forced to flee the country during a period of nearly 15 years that included two civil wars. Liberia reached a peace agreement in 2003.
Currently Moore is a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development, where Hunger Report Senior Editor Todd Post met with him to talk about advocacy and foreign aid. As Minister of Public Works, his focus was entirely on infrastructure, he said, and since leaving the government, he finds it hard to let the subject go.
He told a story about being on a rural road in Liberia and coming to one of the many bridges that had been destroyed during the war years. “When we got to a bridge, we had to arrange planks to get the car across. Everyone got out except the driver, and we walked across after he safely piloted the vehicle over the planks.” It was a hair-raising experience. The Liberian countryside is littered with abandoned vehicles, half submerged under bridges, whose drivers had attempted similar crossings.
As they were negotiating the crossing, a motorcycle driver drove across as well. His passenger was a pregnant woman on her way to the health clinic. Liberia has one of the world’s highest rates of maternal mortality. Moore pointed out that many women don’t seek medical care because so many roads and bridges are badly damaged or simply impassable. Particularly where bridges have been destroyed, a clinic that might have been a two-hour journey in the prewar period could now take an entire day.
The woman on the motorcycle, a smallholder farmer, told Moore that the condition of the bridge was the reason she didn’t sell her products at a larger market where she could earn more. In another part of the country, where Moore oversaw a road improvement project, farmers did gain access to new markets, and as a result, their sales increased.
Infrastructure creates opportunities that people in poverty are eager to seize. Liberia is one of many African countries with a large youth population in search of work. Moore said that how successful the country is in repairing and developing its infrastructure will, to a large extent, determine how successful it is in unlocking the economic potential of its youth.
A crucial part of a country’s infrastructure is electricity. When President Johnson Sirleaf was sworn in, the country’s only source of electric power was diesel generators. Moore said that on game days, the average football stadium in the United States consumed more energy than was being produced in all of Liberia. Liberia signed a contract with the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) aimed at rebuilding its power infrastructure. MCC offers multi-year grants to countries that meet governance criteria such as combating corruption and investing in health and education. More than half of MCC’s financial support is used for infrastructure development. In Liberia’s equivalent of the State of the Union, Johnson Sirleaf explained to the public how her administration was tackling corruption and working to meet other MCC criteria. Moore noted that Bread was advocating for the creation and full funding of the MCC when he served as an organizer in 2003-2004.
Lately, Moore has been thinking about another infrastructure challenge that Liberia faces along with other low-income countries: weather forecasting. The World Bank is funding a project in sub-Saharan Africa to create a large, comprehensive network that could provide timely local weather forecasts. This is particularly important for countries and regions that are enduring the increasingly severe impact of climate change. Weather alerts would warn shepherds to move to higher ground. A storm that washes away fertilizer could be the difference between a farmer’s profitability and hunger, so it would be extremely helpful to know when to delay putting down fertilize for a day or two. People about to take their boats out to fish early on a sunny morning would know about a strong afternoon thunderstorm and return to shore in time.
When Moore reflects on the critical role of U.S. foreign aid in his country, he notes that the United States is the largest donor to the World Bank, and he praises Bread for the World and other civil society groups for making U.S. citizens aware of the progress against hunger and poverty that U.S. development assistance helps make possible in Liberia and in other developing countries.
How successful Liberia is in repairing and developing its infrastructure will determine how successful it is in unlocking the economic potential of its youth
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