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A Few Remarks at the Workshop on Working out of Poverty
2008-09-09 05:14



H. E. Mr. ZHOU Yuxiao, Chinese Ambassador to Liberia

September 8, 2008

Her Excellency Mary Robison, Former President of Republic of Ireland

Distinguished participants

Ladies and gentlemen

I am very pleased to be invited to speak at this workshop as the Theme of the Workshop--Working out of Poverty: A Decent Work Approach to Development and Growth in Africa echoes my own philosophy. I wish to make a few remarks as a faithful friend who cares so much about the development and progress in Africa and in Liberia in particular.

1, The concept of “working out of poverty” is urgently needed for Liberia. In my opinion, there are two ways for people to get out of poverty. The first is to get out of poverty through hard work and with some outside help; the second is waiting to be lifted out of poverty by others. Obliviously, the first is the right one. We all know that in the post-war recovery period, the Liberian government has been faced with enormous financial difficulties. Everything is crying out to be done. But the reality is that the government’s budget was as little as US$129 million, US$199 million and US$298 million for the Last three years respectively. Its financial resource for poverty reduction has been very limited. In China we have a saying: A wise housewife can not cook a nice meal without rice. While the government has unshirkable responsibility to help its people by providing decent jobs, it also needs support from its people at the same time. Under the circumstances, the Liberian people need to be educated to be self-reliant and entrepreneurial in the poverty reduction process. The late American President John F. Kennedy once said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.

This reminds me of a thought provoking phenomenon that appeared in China’s reform and development process. When the opening and the reform process started, the Chinese government formulated new policies to bring people’s initiatives into full play. With a hope to live a new life, so many people tried to create jobs for themselves as shoe menders, vegetable sellers and construction workers any where they could make money. After a few years of hard work under extremely harsh working conditions, they went back to their home towns or villages to start their own business with the little money they had accumulated. Now, lots of them have become big businessmen providing numerous decent jobs for other people to get out of poverty. Although they themselves did not enjoy much labor rights when they worked out of poverty, they are now obliged by the newly enacted Contract Law to fully protect the labor rights of their employees, such as signing formal labor contracts with employees, minimum wage, double or triple pay for extra work and etc. Ironically, their peers who had waited for “decent” jobs at state owned factories are still living an average life. Many of them even live on social welfare as large number of factories that cause pollution are now being closed. This reinforces my thought that the concept of “Working out of Poverty” should not be confined in conference rooms, but should be widely popularized in Liberia to foster a culture of hardworking, self-reliance, commitment and entrepreneurship. A mass campaign should be started to get people to understand that poverty eradication is everybody’s business. Government should try its best to provide decent work for its people. Individuals should help themselves through hard work and the international community should extend a helpful hand. The slogan should be: start from me and start from today. This is the time for everybody to tighten belt and roll up sleeves to do something together to tide over the temporary difficulties. Waiting to be delivered is not the way out. This is essential and indispensable to Africa’s development, growth and renaissance.

2, Agriculture can play a key role in poverty reduction. I can hardly imagine that a country with very little industry and very high unemployment rate can effectively eliminate poverty without reviving its agricultural production. The current food crisis has caused an increase of food price almost by 100% at the international market, as many countries have reduced or stopped their food export. The day might come when US dollars can not be turned into food. By then food shortage is not only a poverty issue, but also a security issue. In my humble opinion, agricultural development should be one of the top priorities for any poverty stricken country, particularly for Liberia for the fact that (1) it has plenty of land, sunshine, rainfall and labor force which constitute all the necessary ingredients for agriculture; (2) subsistence farming is labor intensive and can create huge job opportunities (3) agriculture can provide basic needs of life for people and ensure food security. One can kill three birds with one stone. To achieve this, the government needs to set clear-cut targets for self-sufficiency in food, carry out land reform to ensure land to tillers and device incentive policies to attract farmers back to land to engage in subsistence farming first and commercial farming later. To talk about food self-sufficiency in some African desert countries could be a far-fetched cry, but in Liberia, it can be a reality.

China has only 6% of world’s water resource and 9% of world’s arable land and more than half of its farmland is non-productive in winter, yet it is able to support 22% of the world’s population which is 1.5 times as large as the population in the whole African continent. You might also be interested to know that China supplies more than 80% of the rice imported by Liberia every year. If China neglected agriculture and failed to be self-sufficient in food, China’s whole foreign exchange reserve would not be enough to cover its food importation if food is there to be purchased, the world’s poverty population could be one billion more on top of the current 1.4 billion and the UN Millennium Development Goal might never be realized. In addition to numerous policy incentives for agriculture, the Chinese government abolished last year the agricultural tax that has been in practice for two thousand years. This is done to further stimulate agriculture and ensure food security. China is doing this for itself and the world as well. Without proper agricultural development in Liberia and in Africa as a whole, meaningful and lasting poverty reduction is no more than a mirage.

3, Poverty problem can only be resolved through development. Development should always be the number one priority for any developing country. When a country gets developed gradually, decent jobs can be created, labor rights protected, poverty eliminated and peace and stability maintained. Without development, nothing much can be done. Development primarily depends on the internal initiatives of a country. The Liberian government has paid special attention to post-conflict recovery and development. It has worked out two Poverty Reduction Strategies since the new government came into office. They have been producing tangible and gratifying results. To seek accelerated development, a country needs capital, technology and management expertise. But that does not mean that a country has to acquire all these factors of development before engaging in meaningful development. In fact a country can acquire them in the process of development. In this globalizing world, there is plenty of capital, technology and management expertise out there. As long as investment environment is sound and favorable, all of them will come in almost automatically.

Again, take China for example, when we started opening and reform in 1978 when everything was in short supply and everybody was equally poor, we did not have the necessary capital, technology and management expertise to take off. It was the foreign investors who brought all of them to the Chinese market. What we did on our part was to provide a sound and favorable investment environment. Now we have obtained all of them and we are starting to export them to Africa and other countries. We can produce almost everything and material shortage becomes something of the past. The land is the same land and the people are the same people. What are changed are government’s policies and people’s attitudes and minds. China’s experience should not be copied, but can be of some reference to the development in Africa including Liberia. In fact, ArcelorMittal has come into the Liberia’s extractive industry and created sizable and decent employment already. As long as there is profit to make, investment in other industries will come too.

Aid usually comes in millions, but investment can come in billions. Before a favorable environment is created for large scale of foreign direct investment, international donors should come in to fill the gap to mitigate the Liberian people’s misery and hardship brought by poverty and help get the Liberian economy on its feet. But this “blood transfusion period” should not be too long to avoid the side effect of aid fatigue and aid dependence. While giving fish, we should be mindful of passing on the skill of fishing to the recipient. This is exactly the objective of China’s humble aid to Liberia and to Africa at large. At the same time, foreign investors and donors should be required to set a good example in protecting labor rights and in cultivating a culture of decent work attitude among its employees.

4, To create a decent work approach, emphasis should be put on the balance of rights and obligations. Promotion of one concept at the expanse of the other will not achieve the expected result. Last year’s World Food Day was observed in Liberia. The theme was “Right to Food”. In my humble opinion, the theme was good but not perfect under the Liberian context. Right to food is a basic human right which certainly needs to be promoted and protected. But in Liberian case where agricultural condition is so good, yet so little is produced, a sharp message emanating from that kind of educative function should be the obligations and responsibilities for the governments at all levels, landowners and farmers to produce food. If not enough food is produced, where the rights rest on. To me, reinforcing the idea of right to food instead of producing food could exacerbate the situation where everybody including farmers is stretching out his or her hands for cheep imported rice from the Liberian government which can not afford to provide. The whole campaign may have missed the point. Likewise, in a country where unemployment rate is so high, striking a balance between decent work and labor lights on the one hand and decent work ethics and the affordability of the government to meet labor standards on the other is important to Liberia’s recovery process.

5, The reconstruction of software is as important as the hardware. The 14-year civil war did so much visible destruction to the country’s hardware, namely infrastructure. It also badly damaged the invisible software, namely ethical standards, such as patriotism, commitment, obligation, devotion, sacrifice, hardworking, getting rich through labor, tolerance, respect for life and law and etc. What concerns me most is the unhealthy attitude towards work, particularly farm work which is not regarded as a decent work in Liberia at the moment. The tendency of waiting to be delivered is quite pervasive. The sense of urgency and work efficiency is relatively low. The hardware rebuilding can be done with foreign assistance. But the software rebuilding can mainly be done from within.

Madam President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has long realized the importance of establishing a set of new moral standards that can facilitate Liberia’s rejuvenation. She started early this year a campaign called “Change Minds, Change Attitudes”. It is producing positive results. The campaign needs to be continued and reinforced with enhanced help from international partners and advocacy groups. All stakeholders should pay special attention to the cultivation of a decent work approach. Schools, television and radio programs and news papers should be used to popularize the concept of working out of poverty. Booklets about the concept and successful application stories should be compiled and made available to people. Those who have made achievements through self-reliance and entrepreneurship or made outstanding contributions to food production should be made national or African heroes and be substantially rewarded to create an atmosphere in which people with decent work attitude are dully respected and honored. Government officials, investors and donors who do well in observing ILO core labor standards should be widely reported for others to follow. Leading by example should be one of the ways to popularize the decent work approach.

Liberia is extremely rich in natural resources and well positioned geographically and climate wise. More importantly, peace is taking root in Liberia and the democratically elected government lead by the motherly President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf pursues national reconciliation and dedicates to national renewal, reconstruction and rejuvenation. The country has embarked on the right path of recovery. Liberia, when better managed, can be one of the richest countries in Africa, in which every Liberian citizen enjoys decent work.

Thank you.

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