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Liberia's President Looks for Help In Washington


Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is in the United States this week to lobby for international aid for her country for the coming year. Liberia is struggling to recover from 14 years of civil strife that ran up colossal debt and ravaged the country's infrastructure. VOA's Marissa Melton reports.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf began her week in Washington at a conference hosted by the Center for Global Development. She was joined at the podium by her finance minister, Antoinette Sayeh, and Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., a Democrat from Illinois.

Jackson, who is the son of activist and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, is a past supporter of aid for Liberia. He said he plans to push for Congress to renew its pledge of aid to the nation for the coming year. He noted that Liberia is still crippled by the ravages of the past, despite the presence of a U.N. peacekeeping mission.

"After two decades of dictatorship and civil war, one can not help but be deeply concerned about the fragile status of Liberia," said Jesse Jackson, Jr. "Moreover, 85 percent of Liberia's population is unemployed, and 75 percent live on less than a dollar a day. Liberia needs jobs, basic infrastructure like electricity and roads, security to complement and eventually replace the U.N. mission, and debt forgiveness to stimulate foreign investment and provide Liberia the ability to invest in her people."

Liberia's international debt amounts to $3.7 billion. That is about eight times the nation's gross domestic product. The debt is rising as interest and nonpayment penalties accumulate, making it all but impossible for Liberia to repay.

President Johnson Sirleaf has been pushing aggressively for debt forgiveness from Liberia's creditors, such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and individual nations such as the United States. She said she is in the United States this week to demonstrate the progress Liberia has made during the past year and encourage new funding as well as debt cancellation.

She said Liberia could be an international model for a nation rebuilding.

"There are many countries around the world that are trying to emerge from conflict and build democratic, accountable governments with peace, security, and economic opportunities for all," said Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. "Many of these countries are struggling and the International community has not always been successful in supporting them. We believe that Liberia can be an example in the West Africa region, to the continent, and to the world, that war-torn dictatorships can turn around and become responsible members of the international community."

She also repeated the call for her major goal:

"It is time to drop the debt," she said.

The Liberian government is chairing a donors' conference - or what it calls a "partners' forum" - on Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington. Representatives from the World Bank, IMF, African Development Bank, European Commission, United Nations and United States are expected to attend. Wednesday, Ms. Johnson Sirleaf meets with President Bush to brief him on Liberia's progress during her first year in office.