How To Solve Societal Problems

Professor Dr. Togba Nah Tipoteh

The Birthday, like any occasion, provides an opportunity for me to continue to share my knowledge with as many persons as possible in ways that can motivate people to take nonviolent actions to change their living conditions for the better. My 80th Birthday, which falls on Saturday, July 17, 2021, provides me with such an opportunity. This is the reason for my writing this Commentary on How to Solve Societal Problems. In trying to solve any societal problem, it is always best to start with yourself because you are a part of the society and when your part of the problem, no matter how big, gets solved, the societal problem becomes less difficult to solve. This way of solving problems also tells us about the credibility of persons who talk about societal problems. When a person uses this approach to solve problems, he or she is credible. But when a person attempts to solve problems by blaming other persons or entities, then the person is not credible and is just talking to gain attention for the sake of attention.

So, I am starting with myself to show how I have managed to solve problems over the years. My Grandparents and Parents taught me the lesson about how good it is to go to school. They also taught me that learning out of school is very important because we spend a lot of time out of school. We spend only six hours in school during the twenty-four hour-day that we have. Furthermore, they taught me that most Liberians were illiterate but were educated because they were driven by Liberian culture rather than some foreign culture, thereby enabling them to solve many Liberian problems. There is this expression in Kraowihn, wrongly called Kru, which says that Nyihnportay geepo chehdehdeh keh ee say torn kon, meaning that some persons know book but they do not have sense. The State managers have this opinion about the illiterate people, explaining why there is no democracy in Liberia because illiterate people, who comprise the majority of the people of Liberia, are not allowed to exercise their constitutional rights to participate in national decision-making that affects them. Most women in Liberia are treated likewise, as State managers and other men consider them to be useful only in the bedroom and in the kitchen.

From this learning about schooling, I went to Saint Patrick’s School on Snapper Hill, Ashmun Street, Monrovia, where I graduated in 1955 from the Elementary Section. Then I went to the College of West Africa (CWA) on the same Ashmun Street in 1956. While playing football for CWA, my leg got broken. My Mother, Mrs. Victoria Geena Wreh Kai Roberts, had told me not to play football on that day, But I ran away and went to play football. I begged her for forgiveness, which she gave me. Upon my leg getting healed, I began catching tennis balls at the Sports Commission on Broad Street, Monrovia to earn some money to help my Parents to buy some school supplies. With the help of Mr. Leo Eastman, I learned to play tennis, the game of rich persons, and became National Tennis Champion and Team Captain, retiring undefeated after thirty years (1964 to 1994). On the Team, I managed to perform a unifying function by having rubber tappers’ children and rich persons’ children to play together on one Team, raising the name of Liberia at home and abroad. In 1959, I graduated from CWA with some well- known classmates, such as Wokie Tolbert (Tubman), Daughter of former President William Tolbert, Carney Johnson, Brother of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Alumnae of CWA, and Baldwin Banks, Brother of former Supreme Court Associate Justice Phillip Banks. Many people were wondering how come I got into CWA, well known to be the school for rich persons’ children. Well, my Grandfather, Reverend Charles Geena Wreh Duncan, being a Methodist Preacher, appealed to the Authority of CWA, a Methodist School, and his appeal was granted for his grandchildren to go to CWA.

In an effort to pursue higher education, I took a competitive exam for 200 students seeking foreign scholarships to attend school in the United States of America (USA). When the results from the exam were published, only eight persons were accepted and my name was not on the list. One of the Examiners saw my Father, Mr. Samuel Korwreh Duwree Togba Roberts, and congratulated him for my good performance on the exam that got me in the scholarship group. When my Father told me about what the Examiner said, I engaged in my first public protest by sitting on the sidewalk near the Executive Mansion where former President William Tubman worked and lived. Upon seeing me there, Mrs. Tubman asked me why I was sitting there. I replied telling her about my name not being on the scholarship list. Then she told me to return to see her the next day. When I returned the next day, she told me that my name had been placed on the list, based on her intervention, pointing out that I had earned the spot through my performance on the exam. What had happened was that the Secretary (now Minister) of Education removed my name from the list and replaced me with his son. I have thanked Mrs. Tubman privately and publicly for her kind and timely intervention.

Now that I had the foreign scholarship, I went to study Economics at Ohio University (OU), Athens, Ohio, United States of America (USA) in 1960. With my academic scholarship, I earned an athletic scholarship from playing on the OU Tennis Team. As I did not have to go off campus for any vacation job and stayed in school, I was able to earn my Bachelor’s Degree in less than four years by 1963. Interestingly enough, as the USA was a white racist country, I had a white roommate named David Lyons. I introduced David to his Wife Mrs. Haruko Nomoto Lyons from Japan at a Foreign Students Program. David has now become Dr. David Lyons, an outstanding Geologist. Also, I had a white dormitory mate, Les Lefevre, who later became Dr. Les Lefevre, an outstanding Medical Doctor, who has also become an outstanding Painter on account of his paintings of the Wild West of the USA.

Then I went to Ohio State University in the Summer of 1964 to pursue the Master’s Degree in Economics, which I completed in 1964. Thereafter, I returned to Liberia, where I taught at the University of Liberia while I worked at the National Planning Agency. Through the intervention of the Harvard University Advisory Team, to the Agency, headed by Professor of Economics Dr. Elliot Berg, I qualified for the Harvard University-United Nations Special Fund Fellowship in Development Economics under the Center of International Affairs (CIA) at Harvard University. In a joking mood, I told some persons that I was a CIA Fellow and they began to avoid me, thinking that I worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the USA.

Under the Fellowship, I studied at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), guided by Professor of Economics Dr. Robert Clark of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Through the intervention of Dr. Clark, I went to the University of Nebraska, where I worked as a Teaching Assistant, while pursuing the Doctorate in Economics, under the guidance of Professor of Economics Dr. Wallace Peterson. At Nebraska, I was able to earn enough money to get my Sister Nmuna to come to the USA to study at Western College in Ohio. She finished college and married her American Boyfriend, Tony Harris. Thay have three children. Tony is a successful Real Estate Developer with his company, Krao Construction Company. Thirsty for advanced education, my Sister earned her Doctorate Degree in Health Science at the age of 65, writing on the subject of Diabetes Management.

In 1969, at the age of 27, I earned my Doctorate Degree in Economics, writing the Dissertation Negative Income Taxation and Work Effort, A Quantitative Analysis with Implications for Poverty Alleviation. The Senior Advisor on Poverty Alleviation to the President of the USA, Dr. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, showed considerable interest in my doctoral research in the wake of the longstanding and widespread debate on Lifting Up Oneself by the Bootstrap, with inadequate quantitative data. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I stayed in the USA after my studies for one year to serve as an Advisor to the Poverty Alleviation Program under the Office of Economic Opportunity of the USA Presidency. This work took me to San Francisco, California, where I lived and worked among the poor people in Hunters Point and Western Addition, through the Economic Opportunities Council of San Francisco. Given the fact that the poor people of the USA, especially African-Americans, were still experiencing mental torture at the hands of white racism in the USA, it became a matter of highest priority to develop a Program for elimination such torture. Therefore, my work involved making contacts with Movie Producers in Hollywood, California to arrange the production of some morally uplifting films where African-Americans were not going to be depicted as slaves, cotton pickers, waiters and house servants. Some highly conscious African-Americans were also working for a long time on getting such films produced. They were successful and we have witnessed the production of films starring African-Americans like Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, Ossie Davis, Cicely Tyson, Laurence Fishburne, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. We were able to get some young white Harvard University MBA Degree holders and the Bank of America to collaborate in arranging the financing of some of the morally uplifting films. While in California, I interacted with the outstanding African-American Arthur Ashe, who was not only the world’s number one Tennis Player at the time, but he was engaged in activities that remain morally uplifting for African-Americans. Part of his activities involved tennis exhibitions for underprivileged children. He and I did two tennis exhibitions, one in San Francisco and the other in Los Angeles. Most recently, we witnessed the election of the African-American Barack Hussein Obama as President of the USA.

The USA experience was very useful. Knowing about the heroism of Ms. Harriet Tubman in the Struggle to free slaves through the underground railroad and the leadership of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights Struggle, I was highly motivated to return to Liberia to Walk The Talk about Poverty Alleviation. In 1971, I returned to Liberia, having been given a contract to provide leadership in the establishment of the College of Business and Public Administration while serving as first Dean of the College. The Visitor of the University, President Willam Tolbert, had a different idea and he intervened to make the banker Mr. Romeo Horton, his friend, business partner and fellow partisan, the first Dean of the College. After the Horton appointment as Dean, I was offered the post of Head of the Economics Department and I accepted, as I wanted to perform well in the area of human resource development. While serving as Head of the Economics Department. I provided leadership in institutionalizing the indispensability of the combination of Theory and Practice for Societal Development by setting up the Liberian Economic and Management Research Institute (LEMRI).

Lo and behold, the authorities of the University did not like the role that I was playing and they fired me three times from the University. But at each time of the firing, the Faculty and Students of the University protested and the University authorities reinstated me. I was also serving as Representative of the Liberia University Teachers Association (LUTA) at the University Council. Then came the fourth firing and the media carried announcements to the effect that I had to vacate all University facilities within twenty-four hours or I would be evicted. This is how I left the University of Liberia. While at the University, I was providing some public service as Budget Advisor to President Tolbert. When I raised some accountability issues, I was also fired by the President of Liberia. So, by 1974, I was out of the University and out of President Tolbert’s office.

But my work continued, as I provided leadership in setting up Susukuu, the fifty-year-old poverty alleviation organization in1971. As nearly all Liberians were in farming communities, facing shortage of arable land and living under subsistence conditions. It became necessary to give highest priority to improving the conditions in the farming communities. Therefore, Susukuu presented itself to the people in the poorest part of Liberia, notably Putu, Grand Gedeh County. While motivating people in Putu in Grand Gedeh to use what they have to improve their conditions, President Tolbert held an Administrative Council Meeting there and ruled that we should be evicted from Putu because we were there planning to overthrow the government violently. By the time Susukuu left Grand Gedeh, I had provided leadership in forming the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) in 1973, realizing that consciousness raising about the political situation in Liberia was necessary to bring nonviolent pressure to bear on changing conditions for the better. Thinking that MOJA was only an anti-apartheid Movement, President Tolbert applied for membership, which was accepted by MOJA. As soon as MOJA began working to expose President Tolbert’s interest in promoting the interest of apartheid through business dealings, he withdrew his membership from MOJA. President Tolbert paid no heed to the MOJA warning that the poverty among the poor could become the pretext for greedy people to break the Rule of Law by engaging in violence. President Tolbert was overthrown violently by the American-backed Liberian military and Master Sergeant Samuel Doe became head of state as leader of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC). No wonder the USA government subsidized the Doe government with USD500 million annually despite the fact that President Ronald Reagan of the USA called him President Moe.

Through the foregoing approach to solving societal problems. I have worked publicly at the National Planning Agency; the University of Liberia; the Office of the President of Liberia as Budget Advisor, Chairperson of the Price Commission, Chairperson on Vision 2030 and Advisor on Climate Change; as Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs; Chairman of the African Group of Governors of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; member of the Eminent ECOWAS Advisory Group; Member of the Amnesty International Electoral Panel; Senior Advisor on the Management of the Post-Apartheid Economy; Senior United Nations Advisor to the Government of Mozambique; and Senior United Nations Advisor on African Recovery and Development. My private work with a societal impact includes the work of Susukuu; the work of MOJA; the work of the Universal Prison Fellowship; the work of the Liberian Women Initiative; the work of the Universal Peace Federation; the work of Servants of Africa Fighting Epidemics (SAFE). and the work of the Kukatornon Reconstruction Company.

Susukuu is now fifty years old, while MOJA is forty-eight years old and the poverty generation system still exists in Liberia, as seen in the Legislators who have access to USD1,000 a day and their friends/partners in the commercial sector have access to USD2 million a day while over eighty percent of the people of Liberia have access to at most less than USD2 a day. Much work has been done but still more work needs to be done. Most of the members of the 52nd and 53rd Legislatures who wanted to be re-elected were not re-elected. This trend will continue but this situation will not be corrected fully until the electoral system is changed from UNFAIR to FAIR so that persons with good records of helping the poor to help themselves can be elected. The Struggle continues to motivate people through the sharing of knowledge so that people can take nonviolent actions to change the electoral system for the better. Hopefully, this Commentary is helpful to people through the presentation of what I did to learn how to solve problems and this knowledge has been used to solve societal problems nonviolently, within the Rule of Law, in Liberia and in other countries.

Gweh Feh Kpei (the Kpelle language for The Struggle Continues)!