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Thursday, 02 July 2009 22:58

After War, Creating Jobs For Peace

By Roy Laishley

New York, May 30 (Africa Renewal) - It was just a small loan worth the equivalent of $100, from a local microfinance bank. But it enabled Mojamah who had just come back to her home in Kenema, Sierra Leone, after the country’s civil war, to set up a dressmaking business to support her family of six.

In neighbouring Liberia, Amelia, a single mother with five children, got a loan of $83 to help expand her work crushing rocks used to build roads. The loan worked so well she applied for another, worth $200, so she could hire workers to help meet the growing demand for roading material, as Liberia rebuilt itself after the war.

Helping the poor find a way to make a decent living is at the heart of the continent’s development plans and the ultimate goal of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the blueprint adopted by African leaders in 2001. Achieving that goal, however, has proved to be difficult, especially in countries struggling to recover from years of civil strife.

With so many poor and angry young people in the armed groups that had ravaged their countries, the governments of both Liberia and Sierra Leone are clear on the danger of failing to provide employment for 15 to 35 year olds. It is a simple equation: “If they have an alternative, they do not fight,” says Andrea Tamagnini, who heads up the reintegration, rehabilitation and recovery arm of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

Today, creating jobs, particularly for young people, is central to efforts to reduce poverty in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Despite the recent steady economic growth, there are still few opportunities for employment and the numbers of unemployed or underemployed -- that is, people in jobs that keep them from rising above the poverty line — remain stubbornly high, at 70–80 per cent of the work force.

Some 70,000 ex-fighters in Sierra Leone and more than 100,000 in Liberia, as well as many displaced people, benefited from aid-financed reintegration schemes. Job training was a central part of the scheme in Sierra Leone. But according to a review by the UN Office of the Special Adviser for Africa, such reintegration efforts were “stymied by low levels of economic growth, a lack of employment opportunities and poverty.”

The programme in Liberia faced similar problems. A 2006 UN survey found that some 28 per cent of the 60,000 of people who had been helped by the programme said they were unemployed, while only 8 per cent said they had seen a rise in their standard of living.

More recent surveys show improvements, but the continuing high number of unemployed or underemployed youth “remains a particular concern that could be used by spoilers seeking to undermine stability,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned in a February report on Liberia to the Security Council. In January, Mr. Ban voiced similar concerns about Sierra Leone.

Trying for the longer run

The biggest challenge Mr. Tamagnini says is trying to create long-term employment for all. This is particularly so in Liberia, where the final phase of the reintegration programme — and the cash it provides — ends in April 2009.

Between 2006 and 2008, over 60,000 people were employed in Liberia’s programme to rebuild the country’s main roads. Carried out over two dry seasons, the programme created an estimated 2 mn working days and injected some $6 mn in cash payments and food into the local economy. Importantly, the programme was not limited to ex-combatants, who made up only 30 per cent of those employed.

Mr. Tamagnini describes work schemes as “the ‘peace dividend’ for poor people,” but they need to be widened and funded over several years if peacebuilding efforts are to be successful, he says.

He does not underestimate the long-term challenge. “Liberia’s economy simply doesn’t offer enough jobs for everybody,” he points out. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone are feeling the impact of the current global economic slowdown.

Both countries, backed by aid funds, are trying to run ambitious youth employment schemes. Like Mojamah’s dressmaking business and Amelia’s rock-crushing enterprise, a lot of the effort is focused on developing small-scale business enterprises, funded through microfinance schemes.

According to Kenyeh Barlay, an adviser with UNDP’s microfinance programme in Liberia, many loans go to women’s groups, especially those involved in trading activities. Loans to start up a business in‘taxi-bikes’ have been popular with ex-combatants in both countries.

The challenge is to ensure that projects “are not just drops in the ocean,” Claudia Coenjaerts of the International Labour Organization says, but are “scaled up” so they make a real dent in the formidable levels of unemployment in both countries. For this to happen, the plans need not only funding but also capacity at both national and local level to develop and run an integrated approach covering all sectors of the economy.

Even if such efforts bear fruit, not enough jobs can be created without the revival of the countries’ agricultural sectors, experts agree. A recent study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization found that Liberia’s agriculture has considerable potential to provide jobs and income, but it needs to be commercialized and its productivity must be raised.

But nobody is underestimating the scale of the challenge. “Nobody is selling farming as a business. A lot of people are running away from agriculture here,” observes one Liberia-based official. “People have to be brought back to cultivating the land,” another adds.(END/2009)

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