The Washington Post’s September 30 story of Liberia’s “descent into economic hell” was overly alarmist and disconnected from that country’s recent history.

Liberia’s descent into hell occurred during the nearly 15 years of civil war that ended in 2003. This was one of the sharpest economic declines ever recorded: between 1988 and 1996, per capita income fell by almost 90 percent.

The legacy of that descent remains. Despite a decade of robust post-conflict progress, Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with an income per capita less than half of what it was in the early 1970s. Educational attainment is growing from a low base, the formal manufacturing sector is tiny, the rural road network is inoperable much of the year because of seasonal rains, and unemployment is widespread. Trust in government is limited.

The U.N. World Food Program distributes USAID-donated rice in West Point, a Monrovian township that has been one of the hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic. / Morgana Wingard

With funding and support from USAID, construction crews work quickly to build a new Ebola Treatment Unit in Monrovia, Liberia on Oct. 1, 2014 in front of the former Ministry of Defense building. / Morgana Wingard

But the Ebola crisis has hit a society that is on the rise economically and in the midst of constructing legitimate and effective government institutions.

This is ascent, not descent.

It is the responsibility of the Government of Liberia and its global partners – the World Bank, the CDC, USAID, and others – to consider worst-case scenarios in order to ensure preparedness and underscore the urgency of containing the Ebola crisis. But these are alternative views of the future; it serves nobody to caricature the present.

The World Bank’s latest economic projection suggests that Liberia’s real GDP growth will be less half of what was previously expected (prior to the Ebola outbreak, it was anticipated to be nearly 6 percent), and remain at depressed levels in 2015 even if the international response is adequate and the epidemic is contained within the first half of the year.

This is a severe shock, coupled with deep and lasting tragedy for affected families. But it is not a descent into hell.

President Obama has made the humanitarian and national security case for major U.S engagement to contain this unprecedented outbreak and maintain stability in the region. This whole-of-government response is underway, and it is in fact a whole-of-country response, in partnership with global institutions and the Government and people of Liberia and with vital and acutely-needed contributions from American families, health volunteers, and the private sector. Together we will recapture the ascent.

Stephen O’Connell


Stephen O’Connell is USAID’s Chief Economist. He guides the Agency on economics-based decision making and provides expert advice to Agency leadership and staff in the field of economic growth.