By Semantics King, Jr.
MINNEAPOLIS, Many Liberians joined the rest of the world in observing Christmas last month and New Year this month. Arguably, many ate their staple food, rice and a very decent meal for the very first time in a long time while some never got a chance to do so during those festivities. One of the major reasons for the disparity is that many Liberians can’t afford a decent meal as they are extremely poor. It’s critical to discuss this disparity for two reasons: One) the Liberian government in acquiescence with other multinational corporations in 2008 launched a very ambitious poverty reduction agenda called Lift Liberia Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) and, Two), on September 8, 2000, when world leaders convened at the United Nations (UN) Millennium Submit in New York City to discuss the role of the UN at the turn of the 21st century, they ratified the UN Millennium Declaration that subsequently established the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
All of the 189 UN member states at the meeting and some international organizations committed themselves to help citizens in the globe’s poorest countries to realize better life by the end of 2015.The eight lofty goals include, eradicating poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combatting HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability, and developing a global partnership for development. In this analysis, a look at the implementation of one of these goals- eradicating extreme poverty and hunger for Liberia- is crucial as there are two more years left to reach 2015 just before Liberians go to the polls in 2017.
Defining poverty domestically requires that we talk about poverty in relative terms as a percent of average or median income, and as absolute levels of income when defining it internationally since we do not use global median income. Economists and multinational institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) use two measures for defining poverty: extreme poverty, which is being unable to meet basic needs such as food, water, sanitation, and shelter for survival, represented by those who live on less than $1.25 a day; and moderate poverty, which is the ability of meeting basic needs but just barely, represented by those who live on less than $2 a day.
Extreme poverty is concentrated increasingly in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South and East Asia. Of course, Liberia is comfortably situated in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Under goal one of the MDGs, the target is to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day, and to also reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.
According to current data from the World Bank, Liberia’s current population is 4.190 million with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $1.734 billion. The Gross National Income (GNI) per capital for Liberia is $580, and a percentage of poverty headcount ratio at $2 a day is 95 percent; poverty headcount ratio at $1.25 is 83.8 percent; poverty headcount ratio at the national poverty line is 63.8 percent; poverty headcount ratio at the rural poverty line is 67.7 percent, and the poverty headcount ratio at urban poverty line is 55.1 percent.
In global perspective, many Liberians are living in absolute poverty, and they have so less odds for survival. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the odds of living to age 65 are less than one in three, and two in ten children do not survive to the age of five. There is undernourishment due to lack of or because of too little food or not enough of the right kind of food, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Death also comes early because many Liberian families lack adequate food, safe drinking water, secure housing, and access to medical care. Many Liberian children live in poor families and they share with their poor parents in the struggle to get by every day. In fact, some organizations working with children in the country say poor children daily beg, steal, and sell sex or work as child slaves to provide income for their poor families. Poverty and hunger are directly related. Many people who are hungry are trapped into extreme poverty because they lack the financial ability to buy good food to eat. Then, hunger and health are disproportionately parallel. When individuals don’t have enough to eat, they use whatever resources they have available to them and fend for food rather than seek preventative medical attention. Although eating good food may not definitely guarantee longevity, it saves a day or two from running to the doctor.
The United States (U.S) Department of Labor in its 2012 findings reports that children in Liberia are engaged in the worst form of child labor in both the informal sector and the domestic service sector. The report says that although the Sirleaf administration has adopted the International Convention on the rights of a child, raised awareness on its Child Rights Act, conducted police raids on institutions suspected of engaging in commercial sexual exploitation of children, and expanded commitments to social programs; it has yet to pass into law the Decent Work Bill, including a hazardous labor list, and adds that government enforcement efforts are lacking.
The Liberian legislature passed the National Children’s Act in September 2011 and president Sirleaf signed it into law in 2012.The Act outlines, among others, parental responsibilities to provide food, shelter, clothing, education, healthcare, and other basic needs for their children. The irony is that the very parents who should be responsible for their children’s welfare are dependent on others for their daily needs. Some fend for themselves today without having any idea what tomorrow has in store, while others remain unemployed indefinitely.
The U.S State Department 2012 Human Rights Reports on Liberia say that in 2011 alone, there were many reported cases of child abuse, child prostitution, child marriage, sexual exploitation of children, and child trafficking. This year, Liberia is in fact placed on tier 2 watch list for a third consecutive year because the Sirleaf administration, according to the U.S State Department Reports on Human Trafficking, failed to increase overall efforts in addressing human trafficking. Additionally, according to Liberia’s Ministry of Gender and Development, two thirds of rape victims in the country in 2013 alone were children. The Ministry says that 10 children between the ages of three and 14 from eight of Liberia’s 15 counties died last year as a result of rape. These figures are conservative given that they emanate from an examination of only 1002 cases by government authorities, according to the French news agency, Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The UN Children’s Fund, (UNICEF) says Liberia’s infant and under-5 mortality rates remain among the five highest in the world as more than 15 percent of children die before reaching their first birthday. Preventable diseases like malaria and measles are among the leading killers of children. Nearly 40 percent of children under five suffer from stunting as a result of malnutrition. Half a million of children do not attend school, and two thirds of those fortunate to attend school are taught by unqualified teachers.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) 2012 report suggests that Liberia’s health system is beset with serious capacity problems such as lack of human resources, equipment and drugs. The report adds that because “Liberia is moving further out of conflict,” donor assistance is dwindling despite huge assistance from the U.S. government with efforts focused on dealing with the most urgent public health priorities in the country’s shattered health system.
In terms of rice, even rice-producing County like Lofa in Northern Liberia has been experiencing a rise in the price of rice at Liberian Dollar (LD) $2,795 (roughly U.S.Dollars$32.69) for a 50 kilogram bag of the imported “parboiled” rice, according to the Liberia Market Price Monitor. How many Liberians can afford that when majority lives on less than a $1 a day? The World Bank aptly concludes that when “rice represents a large share of food consumption, any change in its price is likely to have a large impact on poverty.”
It’s pretty obvious in politics that conflict is always imminent when there is an unequal distribution of power and authority. The ability to earn a decent living and take full responsibility for one’s family is in itself power. It gives one the ability to exert influence and authority whenever possible in any human capacity. Liberian history is riddled with practical lessens. When a former Liberian Agriculture Minister, Florence Chenoweth, then only 32-years-old proposed that the price of imported rice be increased in order to encourage domestic production, dissent for such proposal ultimately resulted into the infamous 1979 rice riot in the country that left dozens of people killed and several wounded.
Although the fight against global poverty is a well-intentioned one, progress in Liberia is seemingly discouraging. With Liberia’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare warning of a financial shortfall, it is becoming a concern for both Liberian and international public policy makers. With the huge number of people affected by extreme poverty in Liberia, those who can do something about addressing the issue head-on and those who have an interest in defeating global poverty need urgent action as time is not in their favor.
Semantics King is editor and publisher of the New Liberian