Thank you to various readers for posting comments: I have been pleasantly surprised at your level of interest in what a bunch of graduate students are trying to do in one of the world's smallest, poorest countries!
On the question of improved rice varieties, Africa got left behind in the Green Revolution but is catching up. I share an office with the Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI), a highly dedicated, enthusiastic bunch of people who have worked in agriculture all over Africa. They are introducing improved varieties of rice, cassava and yams that have been developed by researchers in Nigeria and Benin. These are not the super high-yielding varieties found in Asia, as those require heavy fertiliser and pesticide use. But they have been bred for African conditions and when grown in swamps yield 2-3 times as much as the traditional 'red rice'. When Zach and I visited CARI's research station, we were excited to see how much they are doing - especially as UN soldiers from Bangladesh occupy most of their site (below)!
One reader mentioned Professor Dani Rodrik's work. Let me clarify: none of us have been able to do anything like growth diagnostics, or formulate a growth strategy - even if we knew how, Liberia doesn't have the data. But I will hazard a guess at what the binding constraint to Liberia's development is: not tariffs or taxes or prices or interest rates, but management.
The Center for Global Development's Peter Timmer lists the policies that are required for agriculture to grow. There are four main ones: One, a stable macroeconomic environment. Two, open trade policy (including a competitive exchange rate). Three, publicly funded agricultural research - like what my friends at CARI are doing. Four, rural roads, so that goods can get to market. Get these right and all else follows. We have the first three of these and the government is doing what it can to build roads. The World Bank has allocated $30m to repair the 500km of paved highways and regrade rural feeder roads, but only $3m has been spent. This isn't a problem of policy - it's a problem of management.
In West Africa, the rainy season is so long and intense that you can't build roads for 6 months of the year - they would wash away before being sealed. Last year, the Bank missed the dry season window because they couldn't procure the equipment in time. There were essentially no mechanical road graders or surfacers in Liberia, so the Ministry of Public Works arranged to buy some in Nigeria. By the time they finished their tenders, approved the funds and cleared the shipment from Lagos, the rains had started. Last week, President Sirleaf called an emergency cabinet meeting to get updates on 'dry season deliverables' - all the projects the ministries must implement before April 2008. They are already a month late, because we only just got our budget (click here for Molly's gripping account of that sad tale).
Liberia has excellent macroeconomic policies, a budget surplus, a stable currency and rapidly improving security. It has always been West Africa's most trade-friendly country (ever noticed that half of Europe's shipping fleet is registered here?). Donors are pouring money in and supplying hundreds of technical experts and policy advisers, many of them returning Liberians. The problem is: how do you build hundreds of schools, clinics, offices and roads, all at the same time? How do you monitor what teachers and community nurses are doing if the only way to reach them is by helicopter? How do you motivate people who are paid $30 a month and have not been challenged, praised or coached for 25 years?
Management is two things: people and processes. There are very few skilled people in the government or private sector; many of the best are with the UN or NGOs, and the rest are under-used and under-paid. The Minister of Agriculture is doing a good job of identifying who his best people are and deploying them where they are most useful - but all of them need coaching and development and we need many more them. Processes are what I have been doing: how do you write a budget? how do you hire people? how do you buy procure pickups quickly and cheaply? how do you run a meeting? how do you schedule diaries? how do you do an overtime calculation in 10 minutes in Excel that would take 2 days to do by hand?
Apart from the excitement of policy work, the most useful things we have done this summer are really, really basic things. Taking minutes and following up at meetings. Sharing policies between ministries. Creating a standard budget template. Inviting the right people a training workshop. Creating a vehicle register. It doesn't sound like a lot, but if you multiplied this a few thousand times, you would be getting somewhere. How to do that, and finding the people to do it, is a management problem.