Liberia is currently seeking fast-track accession to the WTO, as a way to revive the country’s economy in the aftermath of the Ebola crisis. Yet, as the country registers a second Ebola-related death – and sixth case – since being considered Ebola-free in May, the road to recovery is paved with difficulties and uncertainty.
Axel Addy, Liberia’s minister of commerce and industry and WTO chief accession negotiator, said in May that ‘becoming a WTO member is part of our overall development and post-Ebola recovery plans,’ and the goal is to announce Liberia’s accession at the WTO’s 10th ministerial conference in December. Liberia’s neighbours and Ebola-stricken countries of Guinea and Sierra Leone have been WTO members since 1995.
‘Trade can help boost Liberia’s growth and development as the country fights back from the scourge of Ebola […] We are working together to make sure that Liberia becomes a member of the WTO in the near future,” tweeted WTO’s director general Roberto Azevedo, upon meeting the Liberian president mid-July.
Yet, analysts remain doubtful that Liberia gaining WTO membership could have a significant impact on attracting investments, given the internal and external challenges that Liberia faces. ‘It’s certainly not going to be a magic bullet,” Martin Roberts, IHS senior analyst, Africa, told Global Trade Review (GTR). ‘From a business point of view, it is worrying that the outbreak happened around the airport, as it is around an hour away from Monrovia. [..] Even if companies were willing to resume their operations, I doubt that foreign staff would be keen on returning,’ he said.
‘Private investment all dried up during the Ebola scare last year, and it will take a long time for the country to recover from that,’ explains John Ashbourne, economist at Capital Economics. ‘Given that the entire growth story was based on iron ore exports, low prices will be another huge obstacle to attracting investment, regardless of the country’s WTO status. The country’s infrastructure is so poor that any really big project would require billions of dollars’ worth of transport investment. Funding that sort of project would be difficult at the best of times. The collapse of African Mineral’s involvement in neighbouring Sierra Leone will deter some investors. With most of the mining majors slimming down their budgets for new projects, state-backed Chinese investment is probably the only option; and that doesn’t require WTO membership,’ he adds.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, speaking also on behalf of Guinea and Sierra Leone, addressed a UN conference mid-July appealing for $3.2bn in aid to help the countries recover from the Ebola epidemic that has killed more than 11,000 people and wrecked their economies, with another $4bn needed to finance a regional recovery plan.
So far, more than $1.5bn has been pledged to finance the national plans of the three sub-Saharan economies – $495 million from the EU, $360 million from the Islamic Development Bank, $340 million from Britain, $266 million from the United States and $80 million from Japan. As Roberts points out, it remains unclear when the money will be received, and what it will be used for. ‘If this is going to be used for budgetary support, building up health systems, education, it’s still not going to grow the economy in the long term,’ he says.