At 175, Our Best Days Are Ahead

By James Earl Kiawoin

Many Liberians are resigned to their fate. It has become an unquestioned truism that the country is irreversibly damaged, almost incapable of changing. The only doubt in people’s minds is if there’s a limit to how much worse our country can get. The people I talk to—regardless of age, education level, or economic status—seem to read from the same script.

“The country has no future,” they often say. “The system is rotten.” “Nothing works.” “We are doomed.” “I can’t wait to leave this country.” “Where’s this country going?”

Although more pervasive, this cynicism is not new. I have heard it all my life.  But I have never believed it.  I have always believed that our best days are ahead.

This is a hard position to maintain given the current state of the nation. People can’t find jobs. Our schools are not improving. Our hospitals lack basic supplies. Stable electricity and water remain elusive. Most of the country is still inaccessible. People are unsafe. The streets are dirty. The goal of improving people’s well-being is a rank afterthought for those entrusted to lead.

We are in a deep crisis of confidence. Our institutions—civil, religious, political—are badly broken. There is a permanent doubt about our ability to change and the reliability of our leaders. There is a rising tide of fury and frustration. We continue to elect transparently incompetent people to the highest offices. We have accepted enduring the failures of our leaders, so much that mediocrity is a facet of our acceptable standards. We have waged a war against truth. The unacceptable has become normal. We have given up on doing hard things at the slightest inconvenience.

But there’s no problem in Liberia that Liberians cannot solve. Our bicentennial celebration should be a reminder that we know how to solve big problems. Some of our ancestors made a daring return here because they wanted more: freedom. Since then, we’ve built a country. We helped other countries gain independence. We were founding members of many of today’s global institutions. We expanded voting beyond property owners; we gave women the right to vote before most, we ended one-party rule and we fought against bad governments. We decriminalized free speech. We abolished the death penalty. 

We did not stop there. We expanded access to education and healthcare. The quality of our health and education institutions might not be the best, but there’s been progress.  Literacy is increasing. Enrollment is increasing. The number of unqualified teachers in the workforce is decreasing according to the latest annual school census. Malaria incidence is declining. Life expectancy at birth is increasing. Over 70% of rural residents have access to a community health worker, thanks to the National Community Health Assistant Program, a program I spent two years helping to design and scale after the Ebola outbreak.

We built a social security system to care for the elderly. We have, and continue to, decentralize our government and civil service to ensure no one is left behind.

Liberia’s history, the history we share, is a story of hope and possibilities. This is a story of making the impossible inevitable. But it is easy to dismiss these achievements given that most of us have not witnessed real progress in our lifetime and that the systems that supported our great leaps stand in ruins today. It is easy, and understandable, to be cynical and say our national greatness is a thing of the past. 

The past is the past, but the present— and the future—are nothing without it. The arc of this country has consistently bent towards progress, and the future will be similar.  We know that doing big, transformational things, doing daring things is the Liberian way. The Liberian spirit is that which is full of resilience and perseverance, not stifled ambitions.

So, we must believe in a better future because we have the most educated generation this country has seen. We have a growing mass of people— mostly young people—who are angry at the slow pace of progress and who are leading initiatives to change this country. We have a growing mass of people who have realized that the status quo is unsustainable and who are demanding that we hold our leaders—and ourselves—to much higher standards. We must fight for a better future, even if we cannot agree on what that future is or who leads us there.  We have every right to dream big and have high hopes even in the face of enormous challenges. No matter how great these challenges are, I believe we will be alright. It’s hard to believe now, but our best days are certainly ahead. I believe this with a moral certainty.

I also believe we have work to do. We need new ways of thinking and a new configuration of government and society. We must believe in our capacity to do big things, solve great challenges, and conquer new frontiers. We need to believe that we are capable of building a great future that is just and inclusive. We have always been capable of that future.

How do we go from here? A friend, when confronted with a small question that requires big answers and ideas, would say “great question.” I have a few ideas.

The bar for those whom we elect and appoint to political office needs to be higher. We should require our political leaders to present their policy agenda and defend their ideas. 

We need to end voter trucking because it has a large influence on election outcomes and we absolve politicians of the responsibility to campaign or be accountable to their constituents. Voter trucking is breaking our democracy and we need clearer laws on where people can vote and a verification process to catch cheats.

We need to increase the entry requirements and institute ongoing performance reviews for promotion, demotion, and termination in the civil service. Civil servants should be held to the same performance standards as their private sector counterparts. Our civil service is very inefficient and the current laws do not help to motivate people to perform better. If we want to implement ambitious reforms, we need a willing and qualified workforce. We need to set a cap on the size of the civil service to stop politicians from rewarding voters. The size of the civil service can be adjusted at set intervals to account for population growth.

We need to provide mid-day meals to students to help to improve attendance and engagement with content. School meals also help parents save money and support local markets. We need to increase instructional hours, so our children learn more. We need to pay teachers more and supervise them appropriately.

I know we will not solve all of Liberia’s problems by feeding kids or ending voter trucking, but we must start from somewhere. These ideas do not require a wholesale restructuring of the Liberian society to work. If we get the politics and policies right, we can get most things right. This country is still worth fighting for, despite its glaring flaws. We have an educated and energetic generation willing to change it. Let’s get to work to make this country work for all, to ensure we cultivate, and then harness, the potential of all. 

James Earl Kiawoin lives in Monrovia.