The economy of Liberia is extremely underdeveloped, largely due to the First Liberian Civil War from 1989–96. Liberia itself is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.
Until 1979, Liberia's economy was among the more developed and fastest-growing in Sub-Saharan Africa, but after the 1980 coup d'état, it declined, and the civil war destroyed much of Liberia's economy and infrastructure, especially the infrastructure in and around the nation's capital, Monrovia. The war also caused a brain drain and the loss of capital, as the civil war involved overthrowing the Americo-Liberian minority that ruled the country. Some have returned since 1997, but many have not.
Richly endowed with water, mineral resources, forests, and a climate favorable to agriculture, but poor in human capital, infrastructure, and stability, Liberia has a fairly typical profile for Sub-Saharan African economies – the majority of the population is reliant on subsistence agriculture, while exports are dominated by raw commodities such as rubber and iron ore. Local manufacturing, such as it exists, is mainly foreign-owned.
The democratically elected government, installed in August 1997, inherited massive international debts and currently relies on revenues from its maritime registry to provide the bulk of its foreign exchange earnings. The restoration of the infrastructure and the raising of incomes in this ravaged economy depend on the implementation of sound macro- and microeconomic policies of the new government, including the encouragement of foreign investment.
In 1926, the Liberian government gave the Firestone Tire company the right to lease up to 1 million acres of land for 99 years at a cost of 6 cents per acre. Firestone then set about establishing rubber tree plantations of the non-native South American rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis in the country. By the 1950s, the company was Liberia's largest private employer and also its largest exporter. Today, Firestone's rubber plantation in Liberia is the world's largest contiguous rubber plantation, operated by the Firestone (now Bridgestone) subsidiary, the Firestone Natural Rubber Company.
The Liberian economy had relied heavily on the mining of iron ore prior to the civil war. Liberia was a major exporter of iron ore on the world market. By the 1970s, iron mining accounted for more than half of Liberia's export earnings. Since the coup d'état of 1980, the country's economic growth rate has slowed down because of a decline in the demand for iron ore on the world market and political upheavals in Liberia.
Following a peak in growth in 1979, the Liberian economy began a steady decline due to economic mismanagement following the 1980 coup. This decline was accelerated by the outbreak of civil war in 1989; GDP was reduced by an estimated 90% from 1989 to 1995, one of the fastest declines in history. The United Nations imposed sanctions on Liberia in 2001 for its support to the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in neighboring Sierra Leone. These sanctions have been lifted following elections in 2005.
Upon the end of the war in 2003, GDP growth began to accelerate again, reaching a peak of 9.4% in 2007. The global financial crisis slowed GDP growth to 4.6% in 2009, though a strengthening agricultural sector led by rubber and timber exports increased growth to 5.1% in 2010 and an expected 7.3% in 2011, making the economy one of the 20 fastest growing in the world.
In March 2010, Bob Johnson, founder of BET, funded the first hotel constructed in Liberia in 20 years. The 13-acre (53,000 m2) luxury resort was built in the Paynesville section of Monrovia.
Liberia's external debt was estimated in 2006 at approximately $4.5 billion, 800% of GDP. As a result of bilateral, multilateral and commercial debt relief from 2007 to 2010, the country's external debt fell to $222.9 million by 2011.