20 January 2011

Two little numbers, not little enough


You’d think that with the copious amount of free time I seem to be amassing these days, I’d have plenty of time to write long, interesting posts about fascinating things happening here. It turns out that this isn’t really the case. I suppose I do have the time, but I’ve been struggling for things to write about that would be interesting to read if you don’t care about the internecine struggles of Monrovia’s expat community or the antics of the zany cast of characters where I work. Honestly, the latter might be interesting, but in my half-hearted attempt to maintain some level of professionalism, I’ve tried to avoid specific details about what goes in my place of employ. You’ll have to wait for my memoirs for those particular juicy bits.

In the meantime, here’s a slightly wonkier post with some depressing numbers I’ve been pondering for a while:

Liberia has grand plans for its growth over the next twenty years. I would like little more than to see the realization of those plans. That strong desire notwithstanding, there are some pretty daunting challenges to be faced along the way. Among the most substantial will be changing these two numbers:

-          $0.40/ton-km
-          $0.50/kWh

These are the prices, respectively, of moving a ton of goods one kilometer in most of Liberia (it can be twice as high in the rainy season) and of generating one kilowatt hour of energy here. In isolation, they mean relatively little, but these are the numbers that may impede progress here for decades. To give you a sense of perspective, transportation in Southern Africa costs about $0.05/ton-km and energy in most manufacturing economies is $0.05-$0.10/kWh.

Without dramatically reducing these costs, Liberia simply won’t be able to compete with its neighbors on West Africa or with other developing countries with similar natural resources. These obviously aren’t the only challenges facing the economy, but they may just be the linchpin that holds up progress on nearly every other front. I won’t bore you with the whole network of connections between energy/infrastructure and other development priorities,* but let’s just say that all the stuff I care about depends on lowering those numbers. Now we just have to figure out how to do it.

Here’s hoping it’s just a Herculean, rather than a Sisyphean, task.


*If you’re really interested, I’ll email you the report I wrote last year on cross-sectoral advantages of prioritizing specific development interventions. Doesn’t that just sound thrilling?

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