Former President Taylor, after training in Libya, fomented one of the most brutal civil wars in the modern era. It inflamed the entire region. Over 14 years, more than 250,000 Liberians were killed; 500,000 were displaced. The economy shrank by 90 percent.
The country was a poster child for all the evils of the world, synonymous with anarchy and rife with corruption and poverty. The US embassy in Liberia gained the dubious distinction of being the most-often evacuated American embassy in the world.
Turn the page to 2011 and this emerging West African democracy of 3.5 million people is nearly unrecognizable from its not-so-distant past.
Drug-addled child soldiers and combatants with names like General Butt Naked – known for charging into battle naked – no longer roam the streets. Instead, the US vetted and trained new Liberian soldiers, the start of the country’s first professional army.
Literacy rates that bottomed out at an abysmal 20 percent are on the rise with US support to train teachers and build teaching colleges; future child scholars, not child soldiers, are busy in classrooms.
War destroyed 95 percent of Liberia’s health-care facilities. Now, US-funded health centers and support for immunizations and malaria-control have halved mortality for children under five. The rule of law – that was as full of arbitrary holes as the bullet-riddled buildings in the capital – is being rebuilt through US assistance to the judicial sector.
The recent electoral turmoil shows that real challenges remain to consolidate these gains, strengthen the democratic process, re-establish the bonds of trust between Liberians and their government, and provide opportunities for the unemployed.
But creating lasting change – in Liberia, the developing world, or even in the US – doesn’t happen overnight. It requires steadfast action to build on progress.
Like any achievement of magnitude, many factors converged to make gains in Liberia possible, none more notable than the citizens who have chosen a path of peace. But the US has been the closest partner to the Liberian people. The American people should feel proud of their contribution to Liberia’s rebirth.
Yet US development assistance is under fire from some in Congress – and the "super committee" may be tempted to cut such aid as it looks for $1.2 trillion in savings.