International

From Liberia: Bad Roads Block Progress; Good Roads Will Speed It

The view from inside a vehicle of the muddy road in the Red Light market of Paynesville, Liberia.

The view from inside a vehicle of the muddy road in the Red Light market of Paynesville, Liberia. Jordana Hochman hide caption

itoggle caption Jordana Hochman

NPR’s Jordana Hochman recently returned from Liberia on a Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP). This is her last dispatch about the trip. Click here to go back through her earlier reports.

When I got back to Washington, D.C., from my trip, of course I noticed some differences. A few in particular struck me — the abundance of paved roads, traffic lights, and stop signs in D.C., and the lack of them in Liberia.

When I first arrived in Monrovia, Liberia's capital city, it took me about a day to realize the streets had no traffic lights or stop signs. That wasn't the case before 14 years of war wrecked the country. Liberia is now rebuilding, but it is hard work when the country lacks such basic infrastructure.

Take the roads outside Monrovia, for example. There's a main road that takes you from the city, through Red Light market, a shopping area crammed with market stalls, roadside vendors, pedestrians and motorcycles. It is now Liberia's dry season, but there it still looks like a mud slide. Mud is everywhere, and there are pond-sized puddles on the sides of the street.

Beyond Red Light, you’re heading "upcountry," which basically means anywhere beyond Monrovia. We headed to Bong and Nimba counties, several hours away. The main road is paved with asphalt, but it's also littered with potholes — and I mean, basketball-sized craters. It's "the good road."

Pretty much all the other county roads are unpaved, with unexpected obstacles. While driving through Nimba County, our vehicle maneuvered around one pothole so large, a duck was taking a bath in it. I have no idea how Liberians get around during the summer months of the rainy season.

The roads are a major challenge for Liberia's recovery. They block Liberians' access to hospitals and schools, make it difficult for farmers to transport produce before it spoils, and impede the distribution of aid. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf hopes that rebuilding the roads will reduce poverty. It's an expensive task, and Sirleaf says it costs $1 million a mile. Liberia's annual national budget is below $370 million, so the nation relies on help from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and countries like Germany and Norway.

Liberia is relying on China to build its roads. The Chinese are winning construction contracts funded by the Liberian government. Sirleaf says her country has a good partnership with China. "Right now, they do what others cannot do," she says. "They will live anywhere, and they will work all night."

Sirleaf sees China's big footprint throughout Africa, and she says that in her country, China also likes to go for big footprints — the big school, the best hospital. She's careful to add that Liberia determines its own priorities.

In addition to road-building, China has been actively bidding on other contracts. One multi-billion dollar agreement allows a Chinese firm to mine iron ore. Liberia is rich in natural resources — iron ore, timber, gold, diamonds, and possibly oil. It will have to use concession agreements on its resources to fund basic infrastructure projects, one mile of road at a time.

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