Why is Africa poor? Dateline Yekepa, northern Liberia 2

This is Mark Doyle’s second post from northern Liberia
I’ve just had huge fun riding on a pickup truck which miraculously turned into a tiny railway train. The pickup drove towards the railway. Then, by some miracle of engineering, the road tyres were lifted and a set of railway wheels hidden under the chassis were lowered onto the tracks. Then we drove along the rails!

It was a weird feeling, but fun.
I’m in iron ore country – in a mountain range that stretches from Liberia, through the north-western tip of Ivory Coast, and then into Guinea. Hundreds of billions of tonnes of iron ore – that could be used for making steel – are buried here.

In fact, here in Liberia, some of the ore is just on the surface.
The railway I rode on in the strange pickup was built by the multinational steel company Arcelor Mittal – my hosts for a day or two.
While I had a bit of fun, the workers and managers here are in sombre mood.

They have just completed rebuilding some 250 km of railway line from the Liberian Atlantic Ocean port of Buchanan to this town of Yekepa in the far north of the country. The ambitious $1.5bn investment was started with a view to exporting the iron ore from Liberia’s side of the Nimba Mountain Range.

But the global economic downturn has led to a steep downturn in the demand for steel. The sums for the project no longer add up, according to Arcelor Mittal managers, and they have had to lay off more than a thousand construction workers whilst waiting for the worldwide economy to pick up.

The railway is almost complete – an amazing achievement – and prospecting for the ore is continuing. But the final phase of the investment is not yet going ahead.

The sense of dashed expectations is palpable in a post-war Liberia which is crying out for employment-creating projects. As I sped along the railway on the open-topped back of the Pickup, young men stood by the tracks shouting out to me, in Liberian English; “We want work, we want a job”.

The Liberian and expatriat managers here are dissapointed too;
“At the height of the investment”, one senior manager said, “we couldn’t spend money fast enough. We were throwing up buildings and ordering trains – we ordered ten trains for the transportation of the ore. Now, sadly, we have to rescind those contracts.”

The project has not been moth-balled, but has entered what is called a “maintenance phase” – in other words, keeping things ticking over.
By chance I came across a meeting in one community – in an area dubbed ‘Rockcrusher’ – where villagers were in the process of electing a Chair to represent them in bidding for a contract to clear the rampant vegetation from the edges of the rail tracks.

It’s hard work in the harsh Liberian sun, but it is work. Formal employment in post-war Liberia is estimated at only some 15% – the majority are effectively out of work and scrabbling to make a living from subsistence agriculture or petty trading.

What Liberians really want is for the ore-exporting to go full-steam ahead. That could re-create the more than a thousand construction jobs now on hold and may have spinoffs that could put thousands more into paid work. Not to mention royalty revenues for the government here.

But the tough realities of exporting raw materials – which are subject to sometimes wild price fluctuations – have come to haunt Africa once again.

7 Responses to “Why is Africa poor? Dateline Yekepa, northern Liberia 2”

  1. 1 Deryck/Trinidad
    August 21, 2009 at 21:15

    Exporting iron ore will not empower Liberians as many of the jobs are of an unskilled nature and labour intensive. Even though they have jobs they aren’t being educated therefore when there is a recession or when the iron ore is finished they will be unemployed with no skills that will enable them to get another job.

  2. 2 Tom K in Mpls
    August 21, 2009 at 23:06

    Can Liberia add to the track (switches, sidings, controls) to make it work to move other local materials?

  3. 3 scmehta
    August 23, 2009 at 13:45

    The global downturn doesn’t mean that we slow down with our efforts where they
    are most urgently needed. If we can still afford to spend billions of dollars for the ongoing space programs, despite the economic crunch and the fact that there isn’t any great urgency, then what good reasons can we possibly have to suspend or leave in the lurch our humane efforts for the uplift of the disorganized and exploited poor/vulnerable, like many of such in Africa.
    As a matter of fact, this is where the humane world matters the most; that is, it is these times of crises and needs, when some peoples are forsaken or neglected or misruled by their own governments or leaders, that the global communities and organizations (governmental and private) should matter the most to take care of the issues of paramount importance; the issues concerning the local/regional/national/global peace, human-value & dignity.

    (By the way, you’ve written so well; I’m really impressed & prompted to comment upon)

    • 4 Tom K in Mpls
      August 24, 2009 at 16:19

      Money spent at home improves the local economy. It is a justifiable aspect of protectionism. The stronger you are, the more you can help others.

  4. 5 m. Mohsin Alam
    August 23, 2009 at 14:43

    i was thinking what could be the solution for such a problem in that part of Africa.

    One solution might be to increase population level to a thresh hold value that would sustain a significant internal demand and somewhat insulate from recession elsewhere.

  5. 6 Eileen in Virginia
    August 24, 2009 at 12:53

    Eager to discover the answers to this interesting question, I read all the blogs on this topic. It’s amazing that there are so few. It’s good that we are spared the ignorant speculations of some habitual bloggers, presumably because they have no idea of the answers, but perhaps the lack of response points to some of the problems:
    Does this mean
    that few Africans have access to the internet?
    that few Africans have the education to debate this topic?
    that the inertia resulting from heat and poverty is overwhelming?
    that people are nervous to make political comments in some countries where there is oppressive government?
    that people are afraid to lose their jobs?
    that they are cynical about foreign exploitation of their resources?
    that the simple answer is corruption, which is defeating?
    that people there are equally puzzled about this topic?
    that they are not listening to the BBC?
    that nobody cares?
    I am really interested to know the outcome of this investigation. Thank you for posing the question.

  6. 7 Roseann In Houston
    August 24, 2009 at 15:16

    I don’t know why Africa is poor, but I believe that mining will just create a different type of poverty – whether the mines are owned by Liberians or by multinational corporations. When I think of “mining towns” at any time in history or any place in the world (the US, the UK, China, Russia) I get a mental picture of exhausted, filthy men with grim faces and emotionless eyes bringing their meager wages home to their families that live right at the povertly level. Can anyone think of one time in history that a mining town became an affluent center of business with a successful middle class? The Appalachian coal mining region of the United States has been the poorest region of the US for hundreds of years and the mines are owned by American companies – it has nothing to do with who owns the mines, it is the nature of mining work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: