Why is Africa poor? Dateline Yekepa, northern Liberia 1

This is Mark Doyle’s first post from Liberia.

I’m in the mountains of Liberia, west Africa. It’s a place of towering forests and tangled greenery. There are majestic mountains and fast-flowing rivers. I love being here; the air is clean and the views are amazing.

As I look north from Mount Tokodeh I can see Liberia’s neighbour, Guinea, shrouded in low cloud. To the east of a forested plateau is another neighbour, Ivory Coast.

Everything looks green and verdant and pure.

Two days ago I was in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. What a contrast! Monrovia is built around a swamp and is, architecturally at least, an ugly little city. But I have always liked visiting the place – even during the years of Liberia’s war in the 1990’s – because Liberians themselves are almost unfailingly friendly and frank. Journalists like that.

“Africa is not poor; it is poorly managed”. The quote is from an interview with the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who I met two days ago to help answer the question I am posing in the forthcoming BBC radio documentary series with the (admittedly rather provocative) working title “Why Is Africa Poor?”.

Mrs Johnson Sirleaf was on her usual form during the interview – she was coherent and convincing.

At this point I should declare an interest. I rather like Mrs Johnson Sirleaf. I knew her as an opposition leader and I have followed her progress to power. I like her plainspoken style in interviews. I admit to not knowing enough about internal Liberian politics to know whether she has full control over the Bad Guys – of which there are many in Liberia – but I freely admit to thinking she is one of the Good Guys. End of declaration.

As Africa’s first elected female head of state I reckon that her take on poverty – as a former international banker, exiled opposition leader and, today, as a President, matters. If you listen to the interview in my series (to be broadcast from August) you may agree or disagree with her views. Or indeed you may disagree with my questions to her.

I’ve come to the mountains of northern Liberia to look at a huge foreign investment project here in the iron ore mines in Liberia’s Nimba County.

My question here is – will big foreign companies like the one planning the iron ore extraction in this region help stop Africa being poor? Is it investment or exploitation? Who wins?

10 Responses to “Why is Africa poor? Dateline Yekepa, northern Liberia 1”

  1. 1 Deryck/Trinidad
    August 21, 2009 at 21:28

    Multinational corporations exploit the poor countries they are in because they attempt to maximise their profits in the smallest amount of time to the detriment of that country’s people and environment.

  2. 2 Tom K in Mpls
    August 21, 2009 at 23:01

    “will big foreign companies like the one planning the iron ore extraction in this region help”

    Not directly, no. That is up to the government. Will or has, Mrs Johnson Sirleaf brokered a good deal, what tariffs and expenditures will be involved. Will this government just get fat by sitting on the money, or will it be used to build a future?

  3. 3 Tainara
    August 22, 2009 at 11:57

    i am italian,working in Africa now. probably there are more than a myriad of answers to this.as an european who recently visited 19 countries in africa in the last 7 months these r my views of the local:

    1. africans in general doesnt focus in specific goals to achieve in life

    2. lack of ambition.for most of them a house and a car r enough to live

    3. even those who get the lucky to go to university,they dont take the studies seriously.”We dont need to read too much.u can get crazy”

    4. they dont look 4 information.i see many africans change tv channels,annoyed by scientific programs, looking 4 music. 5. africans dont have the tendency to take their capacities to extremes.a little sign of fatigue and they want to rest. they call me crazy when i work from 5h a.m up to 9h p.m 6. they play too much the blame-game. we r poor because the western doesnt allow us to change 7. african ladies,even those who get university tend to think more in having husband than having a good job 8. lack of creativity. even the elite tend to refuse scientific issues 9.many others

    • 4 anne mugoya
      August 28, 2009 at 12:09

      Find your views on Africans rather shallow and racesist, Afica work just as hards as other poeple or even harder given the harsh conditions we have to work under. There are many professors, doctors and other experts from Africa, in any case the brain drain is from Africa NOT to africa. Many women have also made it in life and support them selves, the age of getting married and have kids is long gone.

  4. 5 Tainara
    August 22, 2009 at 12:05

    i have the sense that in general,africans think less in their childreen. rare r the africans who says “let me get enough first to give a decent life to my son-daugther”. its common in africa the majority of babies doesnt stay with their parents.usually the parents give them to their sisters to take care their own babies.TERRYIFING.the impact is brutal.they grow up very shy and with a host of consequences.

  5. August 23, 2009 at 12:07

    If these investment ventures are properly taxed on their exports (and heavily, I should add), then obviously it will help the poverty of countries like Liberia. The problem is in a countries such as this it’s too easy to slip the thousand here or the two thousand (or even the ten thousand) there and evade the tax, or for the tax itself to never end up where it rightfully should. My question is this (or maybe my prayer)–why can’t someone with a big heart and an even bigger bank account come start a business such as this (iron ore, diamond or gold mining, etc.), still take home a fat paycheck, then give the remaining portion of the profit straight to the country for their own rehab? Sadly, I already know the answer to my own question. That remaining profit would not go to the people where it needs to go, but in the pockets of the wrong people. Still, with enough commitment and the right heart and a hell of a lot of perseverance, the right person could make something like this happen working directly with someone in power who also has the right heart(like President Johnson-Sirleaf, and finally reducing the reliance on foreign aid.

  6. 7 scmehta
    August 24, 2009 at 06:35

    Dear Doyle,
    Every single act in the right direction, that contributes towards the economy and uplift of the general public, in any country/region matters. Besides Liberia, there are many other states in Africa which have abundant natural resources but the problem is that the governing governments and their established institutions and bodies/agencies are more interested to exploit their own people for their vested interests than in exploiting and managing/regulating the available resources in the public or national interests.
    It is in no case any selfish exploitation, if you involve the local people in the endeavor; The same can and should be done in most of the African states to bring them prosperity and happiness.
    However, the most urgent need of the hour, for most of the leaderships in the African states, is to unitedly establish and maintain a peaceful as well as a just living & working-environment for the international/intercontinental/global efforts, cooperation and help to be effective.
    Praying for the realization to prevail and wishing you all the best,
    Subhash C Mehta

  7. 8 scmehta
    August 24, 2009 at 13:51

    An afterthought (further to my previous/above comment)

    Extensively traveled and deeply involved as you already are in your activities in Africa, It’s the people like you and the like minded conscientious people, involved in similar kind of gainful exploitation of the natural resources in any of the African countries, who will make all the needed difference to give that awakening/clarion call for making united, cooperative and concerted efforts towards a mutually rewarding working-environment
    The time has come for the people of Africa to realize, inspire and achieve determinedly that they themselves have to decide what is best for them and how to get it. And, towards that goal, if their politicians/leaders do not help or show any interest, then they must seek help of the international bodies/agencies and/or they can also seek help of people like you Doyle to represent their cases at the appropriate levels.

  8. August 24, 2009 at 16:14

    I am a Liberian and believe that those big foreign companies like the one planning the iron ore extraction in the region do more harm than good to the environment of Africa, in that they help destroy the natural resources and do nothing to sustain this future generation. This whole operation is an exploitation in that the contracts are usually done with illegitimate governments. The west has also go part to play in the issue of bad governance in Africa, because it s only through this they can obtain cheaper resources for their industries.

    We African have got to take after the developed world by investing in education with which we can upgrade our human capacity. It is only then we can resolve the issue of “African versus Africa”, “African versus Non-African” and “African versus Africans”.

  9. 10 belmiro sitoe
    August 26, 2009 at 10:35

    I’m from Mozambique, Africa. I just don’t agree with the statement. Why do you keep comparing Africa with other continents? It is inconceivable Africa is just different. This continent has its own rhythm. Let’s not blame the Africans they are as good as other inhabitants of other continents

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