U.N. seeks $300 million to help rebuild Liberia

Donors conference seen as test of U.S. commitment


UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations, despite the drain on donors by Afghanistan and Iraq, hopes to raise at least $300 million in a conference early next year to help with the reconstruction of Liberia after years of civil conflict, officials here said last week.

The donors conference, which is being planned, is expected to be held in late January or early February. It will be a test of the United States' commitment to Liberia, analysts and officials said.

"In the eyes of many Africans, particularly in West Africa, it's a test of whether the administration is really serious about Liberia," said Gayle Smith, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, who was senior director for African affairs on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration.

Liberia is trying to rebuild after a decade of fighting, which ended in August when President Charles G. Taylor stepped down and two rebel factions signed a peace agreement with the government.

Beginning with its founding as a place to settle freed American slaves in the early 19th century, Liberia has historical links to the United States. At the height of the fighting last summer, the Bush administration ordered American warships to anchor off the coast to pressure Taylor to step down and sent a small contingent ashore.

The conflict has left the country in ruins and reduced its 3 million citizens to among the most impoverished in the world. A U.N. peacekeeping force of 15,000 is scheduled to be at full strength in Liberia by March, making Liberia the organization's largest peacekeeping operation, officials said.

Officials here say they are seeking money to cover only short-term development needs through elections in October 2005. While $300 million is the current working estimate, several U.N. agencies will conduct a survey of Liberia's needs in December and issue a final figure. Auke Lootsma, an adviser on Liberia at the U.N. Development Program, said in an interview that the assessment could push the figure higher.

American officials said the United States had agreed to be a sponsor of the conference, which will probably take place in New York. They say the American commitment is not in doubt and point to the congressional spending bill for Afghanistan and Iraq signed into law earlier this month, which included $445 million for Liberia: $245 million for the peacekeeping force and $200 million for "peace and humanitarian intervention operations," a State Department spokesman said.

State Department officials say it is too early to say whether the United States will give more than that $200 million in reconstruction aid at the conference.

If not, some analysts say, the conference may fall well short of expectations because other donor countries with ties to Africa, like Britain and France, are already stretched by their own aid packages for the region.

"Apart from us and the U.N. secretariat, there's no one else on God's earth who cares about this place" except in terms of how its troubles affect other nations in the region, said Chester A. Crocker, professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University and the assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President Ronald Reagan.

Richard C. Holbrooke, who was ambassador here during the Clinton administration, said the United States would be under pressure to ensure a successful donors conference after what he regards as a timid response to the fighting and the dire conditions for civilians there. By not moving its troops onshore in August, the Bush administration, he said, "shredded its credibility."

But others have praised the American show of force, albeit limited, as a timely move in a region that rarely captures the attention of other nations. "The intimidation factor had a positive and tangible value," Crocker said.

Smith says she is waiting to see not only what the United States does at the conference but what sort of involvement it intends to make afterward.

While $200 million is "a very positive step," she said, the United States will have to continue its political engagement with Liberia "to ensure that Liberia doesn't go back over the edge."

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