An Agenda for Transformation : We Talk to Liberia’s Minister of Commerce and Industry, Axel M. Addy

Minister of Commerce and Industry, Axel M. Addy discusses inclusive growth, good governance and representation in Liberia.

Minister Axel AddyOne of the most critical elements of good governance by a state government is the ability to protect the rights of its people, and to advance the living conditions of its citizens. Within the structure of good governance, recommendations, international or otherwise, are implemented into policy as a means of solving the needs of the majority, while building and/or strengthening the political and economic bodies that support the country and those that move it forward. Across various political cultures, the need and demand for reform will vary depending on the priorities of a given country’s society. Because the needs of the people matter the most, good governance is the ability to recognise what those needs are, and convert them into policy.

Good governance also lies in acknowledging the cultural demands and expectations of citizens in policy creation, whilst simultaneously realising the country’s vision. Liberia, just like most countries in the developing world today, is a growing democratic institution, that with every step, through the acknowledgement of its unique political history, is striving and working towards a system of good governance.
The history of Liberia is particularly interesting, as it is a country that was initially made up of freed slaves from the United States. In 1847, Liberia became the first country in Africa to declare its independence. Liberia was on the path to democratisation and industrialisation until 1989, when an ugly 20-year-old civil war put an end to the peaceful development of the land of freedom. At the end of the war in 2003, a transitional government body was established under the auspice of the international community and in 2005, Liberians elected Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who brought her international experience and a renewed direction to the country.

In 2011, Sirleaf was re-elected for a second term, and during that same year, she had the honour of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, President Sirleaf’s administration is taking Liberia through a period of transformation through a structured plan that is quite inspiring and ambitious for this small state in West Africa. The Agenda for Transformation (AFT) is a roadmap that aims to take Liberia to developed country status.

For the Cultural Relativism issue, OURS Magazine had the grand opportunity to sit down with Liberia’s Minister of Commerce and Industry, Minister Axel M. Addy, who passionately and enthusiastically shared with us his country’s cultural identity, how Liberian culture can be promoted, and his vision for the future of Liberia. Minister Addy also discussed some of the challenges that his country must overcome in order to reach the goal of inclusive growth and good governance, and underlines in his interview the necessity of women in development.


Minister, thank you for sitting down with us. Let’s go ahead and begin.Looking at Liberia’s recent history, how does a country overcome post-conflict issues to stand up by itself?

Liberia is going through a period of transformation. The country gained its independence in the 19th century, in 1847, as a country founded by free-slaves from the United States. They had a common vision to move to a place to live freely and equally, so they went to Africa with this idea that they could live more freely than they could in the context they came from. So, that culture evolved, mixing with the local indigenous [culture that was there]. Liberia today is a blend of several cultures: African, African-American. This provides unique elements to our accent, cuisine, and behaviour. Also, Liberia was Africa’s first independent democratic country at a time when most of the continent was under colonisation. [Thus] Liberian law and culture is very much modelled on the US. We maintained a very peaceful country for over a century until 1980, when Liberia had its first dictator take over. Subsequently when Liberia went to elections, he won, and then ran the country with such intensity, that it created a divide between Liberians. This led to a war, which then led to the destruction of the country. After two decades of war, Liberia elected the first female president in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who came with a new dynamism; one of which was to maintain the peace that had been negotiated in the country.
Sirleaf brought in a new team to help propel the country forward in its new direction. I must say, and proudly so, that we have had 10 years of peace which have led to economic growth and more investments. Liberia has now seen over $60 billion in investments, mostly in the extractive industry, but also in agriculture for palm oil, and traditionally we have been exporters of iron ore and rubber. President Sirleaf’s first administration focused on establishing a foundation for governance, maintaining peace and dealing with some other structural issues that we found ourselves faced with. The second administration is looking now more at transformation and development. This means looking at long–term investment through what we called the Agenda for Transformation (AFT). It is a roadmap that will take Liberia to developed country status. It requires huge investment and commitment. We are focusing on infrastructure, energy, roads and ports. We see it as way to transform the economy and as a gesture to trade facilitation. In this, my ministry is responsible for broadening our private sector base to diversify the export.


When you are setting development goals for a country, it is important to consider the ways in which people are socially influenced and how they really want to see change happen. How is your ministry working to develop its own ‘in house’ ideas which consider the needs of the people and needs of the economy?

The challenge of being a post-conflict country lies in its population’s exposure to violence and destruction and the impact that that has on the psyche of the population. It’s important that we get the people to respect the rule of law, to have tolerance for the systems put in place for seeking the adequate habits for redress, and to understand the broader picture, and all of that comes with time.

Within the Ministry of Commerce, one key principle that we’re trying to put forward is to ensure Liberians equitable access to all goods; that way, we ensure inclusive growth. It means that the investment and the policy environment is directed at empowering small and medium enterprises (SMEs), targeting female entrepreneurs and fostering an entrepreneurial culture that will lead to transformation. A huge percentage of the population are young people: over 60 percent are under 25 years old, and what this means is that we have a population that for the most part, during their formative years, grew up in chaos during the war. What this means is that we have to develop non-traditional programmes: programmes that meet the needs of this population.

We need to look at innovation that will inspire and empower this generation and we see SMEs as the best way to achieve this goal of inclusive growth. It’s about getting people to be entrepreneurs, to develop solutions that are creative and innovative. It’s getting the young people to see the value in engaging with the government constructively. I think this approach will help achieve inclusive growth. We launch an export strategy and a trade policy with the aim that these instruments will provide a roadmap with the underlying goal of achieving inclusive growth.

For example, this year, we are promoting the Liberian country clothes or lofa clothes. It is a special material that is made from Liberian cotton and it is commonly worn in Liberia. We see it as a valuable sector to promote, one that creates a lot of employment opportunities for women. A lot of women working in the cotton fields would be impacted. Then, those who make the threads would be impacted too. Then, we have the designers who make the garments, who would also be impacted. And, at the end of the day, it promotes the Liberian identity. This is something unique to Liberia. It also promotes unity; it promotes a clear respect for a cultural product.

We also will be launching a Liberian trade store. This again will provide a place where people who comes to visit Liberia and can purchase authentically “Made in Liberia” products. The goal is that over time, people will talk about the products from Liberia.

Recently, I went to WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) and we talked about branding our products. For example, we have a coffee called “Liberica” which was developed in Liberia. We exported that for many years and countries that came to Liberia for the coffee turned it into a multibillion dollar industry. That is why I am looking into branding [several products including the lofa clothes. That would promote Liberian identity and also get people inspired by the richness of the Liberian culture.

I often tell people to come to Liberia and try our food as it shows our roots: African, American and Caribbean. That all speaks to the Liberian culture and identity.


In these global spaces, there are certain ideas and standards concerning how to do development, to do commerce. What would you say has been Liberia’s biggest challenge in wanting to be understood, seen and heard?

I used to work in development in Liberia. I started a programme in Liberia and at the end of it, I took a tour of the country and we had a very big youth programme. I talked to a lot of young people and can recall many young people who wanted to be financially independent and be able to sustain themselves, who wanted to have access to services, health services, education services, access to resources that would empower and inspire them. And so, what drives our strategy is that we develop programmes that help meet those needs and we look at young people and solicit their ideas to develop innovations that will address these needs. I think that’s the key.

Our biggest challenge is human capacity. Investors coming to Liberia find that there is a huge challenge. Having people, having the work force with the know-how to fill the job opportunities that come with investment is a big challenge. When you have a country coming out of a conflict, with all its institutions broken, the institutions that would train the work-force that would be able to fill those job opportunities are then lost. That is a big challenge. As we strive to be a part of the multilateral trade system, the World Trade Organization (WTO), if we strive to a part of regional systems, the fundamental challenge is human capacity to provide different types of services.


Do you have to fight misconceived ideas when it comes to investment?

Absolutely, information management is key. It is one area where there is room. You have a population of people who have not sat down a classroom for years, you have an education system that is broken and that will take a lot to rebuild. These systems were around for centuries and then you have a war that interrupts them, this interrupts the cycle of people going to school or to college and coming back to rebuild the country. We have a population that gets a lot of information and does not always have the capacity to process information and discern what is valid or not valid and question information and question authority in a constructive manner. That is a huge challenge.

via Minister Axel's Twitter

via Minister Axel’s Twitter

What are you advocating as Minister of Commerce? What does it mean to be part of WTO?

As Minister of Commerce, my biggest goal is to put in place policies that ensure that the Liberian market is one that is transparent, predictable and the business is structured in such a way that it supports its domestic private sector while accommodating the foreign investor. We hope to see that responsible investors looking for opportunities to build partnerships with Liberians build a private sector and bring new innovations to help us achieve inclusive growth. I do believe that Liberia’s accession to the WTO is critical for many reasons. Currently, our entire economy is driven by two major areas: mining with iron ore and agriculture with rubber. An economy that is dependent on two commodities is very susceptible to global trends in terms of pricing and in terms of rules, and because of that, we are at the mercy of the global market. If the price of iron ore were to drop, potentially our source of foreign exchange will automatically see a decline; we’ve seen that happen in the rubber sector.

In joining a multilateral trade system, the country has to look at what is in Liberia’s best interests. Although we are committed to accede to the WTO, the manner as how to accede is very important because at the end of the day we would like to achieve inclusive growth.
At the end of the story, we can say we have responsible investors, responsible partners, Liberians working together for a transformed Liberia. That takes time, takes cooperation, and takes the willingness of all parties to come to the table from a position of respect to understand the history of the country and its potential.


What are the challenges for Liberia in translating international norms into national norms and vice versa?

I would say that the number one challenge is capacity. For one, in order to accede to the WTO, we have to look at our legal regime, all of our laws, whether they comply with international law and best practices. For those which do not, we have to look at making amendments in the interest of Liberians. We also have to be mindful of the size of our market; we are 4 million people – it is a very small market. These investors that come are quite an adventurous bunch, because of the size of the market, because of the capacity challenges. Thus, you really have to be an innovator to come to our market. So we have to look at the international standards and traditions that are best suited to the Liberian context; those that would be best for us to adopt.

We have a lot of women’s empowerment programs for example. The president is an example of women in politics. Her leadership has inspired and empowered a lot of women. Women are a part of the African dialogue, and seeing them pushes Africa’s development and transformation. By being at the table, they can transform the direction that Africa takes and you see more and more women in politics because of the president.

In Liberia, we have ministers and several cabinet colleagues of mine who are prominent, highly educated highly competent women and are inspiration to other young girls who some day will be in their position. We have dynamic women in parliament. I think this is a new innovation; its impact is changing the African political dialogue and African landscape.
There is an African saying that says if you empower women, you empower culture, because of all the impact they have.


As the first African country to have elected a female president, did you encounter some new expectations and demands from Liberian people? How do you think having a female president rather than a male president has changed political perspective?

The first thing I often tell people is regardless of being a male or female president, Liberia is fortunate to have someone who has built a career over several decades and so we have a strong president, someone who has built a career in the international arena, who has proven her worth by her achievements not only domestically but internationally. And so, she comes to a certain level of credence regardless of being male or female. Being female, it is an added plus because she brings another set of perspective to the body politic of Liberia. Females are better leaders than male leaders.

With this presidency, we see a completely free press to a point where sometimes there is criticism that government has allowed the press to run wild to the point that they destroy the image of the country abroad because the president values a free press. Media houses are left to their own devices. Absolute freedom also infringes on the rights of others, as we see in Liberia, but the president values this dialogue, however destructive this can sometimes be. It is an honest dialogue that also reveals the limited capacity of the media. We had a press briefing back in Liberia and there you could see very clearly that media needed more support to train journalists and sustain journalism programmes at university.


Could you elaborate on the Agenda for Transformation?

The AFT was put together all around the country to talk to citizens, and it provides a roadmap for where we would like to see Liberia in the short, intermediate, and long term, and it focuses on key areas, mostly infrastructure and agriculture. Investment in our roads would open up the country. Investment in energy would help improve the industry and production. Investment in our ports, air and sea, would help improve traffic of commodities coming in and out the country and people travelling out of our country. In agriculture, we feel that Liberia has a comparative advantage. We are blessed with rain, and huge expanses of arable land for agriculture. We are looking to explore this and get investors to help us explore further. We want to secure some investment from Malaysia and Indonesia in palm oil. There are operators that are already in the country; they started planting and working with the communities to make sure that they are part of the investment experience and when they become operational, this will help us diversify our export basket. We are looking for investment opportunities in cassava production. It grows everywhere and it is another way to achieve inclusive growth – it can bring a lot of people into that sector. We also see tourism as a huge opportunity for inclusion. Tourism creates a lot of jobs for a lot of people who do not require a high level of education, or training in a particular skill. We launched our export strategy, which looks at fishing, cocoa, rubber, furniture, tourism and other areas. All of these will help achieve inclusive growth. It will create huge employment opportunities for Liberia. I think that the right investors are those that see the opportunity of the investment but value the partnership and the inclusion of Liberians.


In your opinion, what is the role of culture in commerce?

We talked about rebranding commerce and getting Liberians to be entrepreneurs and promoting a Liberian identity, respecting Liberian diversity and nurturing that diversity into a common identity that leads to transformation. It means that if we were to sum up the transformation, we will see that Liberians are entrepreneurs, innovative, responsive to new ideas, and have a common vision for a transformed Liberia. It is a Liberia that is sensitive to the needs of all Liberians, that strives to achieve inclusiveness and provide opportunity where all Liberians can feel part of that story no matter where they are, who they are, what tribe they come from, what their background is, what their income level is, what their beliefs are. At the end of the day, you are Liberian first.
Being Liberian first means that we are all committed to seeing a transformed Liberia that provides for the needs of everyone, that provides the right policies and institutions where Liberians can seek redress when there are challenges. A Liberia that provides an environment where there is mutual respect across religious beliefs, cultural beliefs, cultural affiliation, all of these, the right of individuals, first and foremost, is one that is respected and we all have a common vision that the Liberia that we are living in today will be a better Liberia for our children.

When we pass the baton to the next generation, that generation will be living in a better Liberia than the one we are living in. This comes with hard work, this comes with a clear focus on that vision, this comes with commitment not only from government, but from all of us who come to work in Liberia, for those who grew up and live Liberia; all Liberians working together.


To ask questions get in touch

Minister Axel M. Addy on Twitter @axeladdy

ITC on Twitter @ITCnews 


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