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Since May 2008, the company has repaired 375 miles (600 km) of dirt road, leveled thousands of acres of rubber, identified 600,000 (250,000 hectares) more, and won a $112-million loan from the U.S. government-funded Overseas Private Investment Corporation to build the power station. In Buchanan, they're helping to revive a town. BRE pays wages of up to $600 a month for a heavy plant operator and Baines reckons the number of shops in Buchanan has doubled since BRE arrived. Buchanan suddenly has a third-division soccer team, in which Baines plays striker. "It's moving so quickly," says Nelson Hill, 39, BRE's nursery manager. "When the company arrived, people were just sitting around. Most people had never had a job. Now people are singing in the fields." McCall MacBain, who plans to replicate the model elsewhere in Africa, says the most common reaction he receives from aid workers who visit is: "This is what we need to be doing."
Sustainable development needs good government. On the back of oil exports to China, Angola's economy has grown by up to 20% a year since civil war ended in 2002. But a corrupt and inept ruling party that has neglected to spread the wealth or diversify the economy means that when the good times end, as they now have, the effects are severe. Ricardo Gazel, the World Bank's representative in Angola, says Angola's GDP is likely to fall by anything from 17% to 23% in 2009.
In Liberia, Johnson Sirleaf is doing better. She set a three-year poverty-reduction strategy whose four pillars are peace and security, governance and the rule of law, infrastructure and basic services, and economic revitalization. A U.N. peacekeeping force and an embargo on arms are keeping conflict at bay. Schools and hospitals have reopened. Tax receipts are up. Bureaucracy is down. U.N. sanctions on diamond and timber exports have been lifted. Liberia is attracting foreign investment in iron ore, timber, palm oil and construction. Though steel giant Arcelor Mittal recently mothballed a $1.5 billion project to reopen an iron-ore mine and rebuild a railway in the eastern interior, Liberia has signed a deal with Sime Darby of Malaysia for an $800 million, 20-year concession to a 494,000-acre (200,000 hectare) combined palm-oil and rubber plantation. Earlier this year, the IMF and World Bank canceled Liberia's $4.7-billion foreign debt. "I'm not saying Liberia will be a paradise tomorrow," says Richard Tolbert, chairman of Liberia's National Investment Commission. "I am saying we can regenerate this country in 15 years."
Liberia is far from out of the woods. Violent crime is rising. Johnson Sirleaf admits to "a capacity problem" in the professional classes, including government. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so effective in postapartheid South Africa, has seen little of either in Liberia. Property rights remain confused. Concessions granted under Taylor amounted to almost three times Liberia's total forest area.
The Drag of Corruption
Most damaging to the president, political scandals are piling up. A hundred cars given to Liberia by Arcelor Mittal in 2008 and intended to improve logistics for government officials found their way into the hands of legislators responsible for approving mining deals. Last year, according to witnesses, a senior Liberian official greeted a delegation of foreign funders at his office apparently drunk and demanded one delegate sit properly or "get your ass out of here." The same month Johnson Sirleaf admitted she was "hurt ... deeply wounded" by the "very embarrassing" publication of e-mails from her former assistant Willis Knuckles, detailing his apparent soliciting of hefty bribes from foreign companies. (Knuckles, now under investigation by a new anticorruption commission, claimed someone hacked into his Yahoo account and sent the requests in his name.)
Then there is the discovery by the U.N. Panel of Experts on Liberia the body that oversees the country's recovery that a company headed by former Justice Minister Philip Banks took out copyright on the new national law code. The U.S. embassy in Monrovia found it had to pay Banks' company $5,000 for its 20 copies, says one Western diplomat; in theory, Liberian courts must do the same. The U.N. panel believes the firm's "grounds for claiming copyright are questionable and ethically dubious." Little wonder that Johnson Sirleaf struggles. "The President's default position is to do the right thing," says the diplomat. "When she makes the wrong decision and it does happen it is because the local political pressure is overwhelming."
And of course Johnson Sirleaf cannot deliver the development she has promised until she has the institutions to do so. She could forego checks and balances, allow business as usual and relieve pressure from former warlords. But, says former chairman of the U.N. experts panel, Art Blundell, "we know where that kind of business as usual leads. Among countries recovering from conflict, more than half slip back into it within a decade. Why? The bad guys get the resources."
Rebuilding institutions takes time and many Liberians are frustrated as Johnson Sirleaf tries to get the state working. But they know she stands for better times. "Before, the only work was fighting," says BRE nursery manager Hill. "Now there's a new vision for our people. The idea of a gun is being replaced by the idea of a job." There in a sentence is the new hope for Liberia, and all Africa too.