How Can We Liberians Achieve Our Own “Great Leap Forward”?

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I am motivated to write this article as a result of my many travels abroad in Africa and other parts of the world that have left me very troubled and depressed upon my return home after I have observed the level of development in these countries and see our own stage of development.

In this connection, I heard the President of Liberia, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, upon her return from the African Union (A.U.) meeting in Rwanda recently, heralding the tremendous progress made by Rwanda since her last visit there.

There are five countries in Africa with recent history of civil strife, namely Liberia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, the Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. But only two of these countries, Liberia and Sierra Leone are lingering at the bottom of the development ladder, while Ethiopia, Rwanda and the Ivory Coast are making great strides in economic development. Why has this not been the case for Liberia? Even in West Africa (our own backyard), we have been overtaken by countries like Ghana and even little The Gambia. We are considered one of the poorest countries on the planet. Why?

We Liberians who are concerned about our location on the ladder of economic development must reflect on where we are now and how we intend to accelerate our pace of economic development, our own form of the “Great Leap Forward.”

I have been doing some reflection and reached the conclusion that unless we Liberians experience a revolution of the mind that leads to positive behavioral or attitudinal changes (changing minds, changing attitudes – Larry Bropleh) our development will continue to proceed at a snail’s pace and we will continue to be left behind by other countries, as in the case of Ghana and many others. This article is intended to serve as food for thought or to provoke thoughts and generate serious discussions following the recent celebration of our 169th Independence Anniversary (after having achieved relatively less than satisfactory performance in progress and development) and as we proceed with the ensuing presidential and general elections, and consider alternative strategies to mobilize support for the pursuit of accelerated development efforts. We hope this article will usher in the formation or the consideration of a new vision for Liberia and enable us to ponder ways to transform this vision into reality, thus transforming our society. This thought process, in my opinion, should, inter alia, involve how to go about remodeling our national psyche which will bring about a change in our mindset at all levels of society, thus making governance easier and more effective.

It is hoped that the content of the article will lead us in the direction of achieving our own form of the “Great Leap Forward.”

This article is intended to sound a wakeup call, a call to develop a national sense of purpose and good governance for speedy development and progress, or a call to form strategies for actualizing the phrase, “The Great Leap Forward,” a phrase that connotes a concerted series of actions designed to achieve economic, social, and infrastructural transformation, the all-encompassing transformation of a society from a state of backwardness to advancement in the shortest possible time. It is a phrase which originated from a series of programs initiated by the Chinese under the leadership of the late Chairman Mao
Tse Tung, which was continued by Deng Xiaoping, who added a bit of capitalist flavor. This program propelled China from a backward country to the position of the second largest economy in the world today, second only to the United States. Even though this phrase originated from China, however, other countries have embarked upon their own form of Great Leaps Forward. Notable among these is Singapore, a small and backward city state, devoid of natural resources, which today is known as one of the most developed and cleanest countries in the world, thanks to its late Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew.

In our own background, one such country that readily comes to mind is Ghana, which was once worst off economically than Liberia.

Some might recall the days of empty supermarket shelves in Ghana and when many Ghanaians came here in search of basic commodities, in search of employment and the U.S. dollar. Today, Ghana is the subject of admiration by Liberians. Some have purchased second homes in Ghana. Some go there for medical reasons. Some have even left Liberia and are residing there permanently. Others go there as tourists.

The Great Leap Forward, as in the case of China, may be considered extreme or leftist in nature.

The Chinese people experienced great pains, self-denial and sacrifice during this period.

There were great upheavals and displacement in the Chinese society. Other countries such as

Singapore, however, achieved the same objectives with less upheavals and pain. Each country must determine its own nature and levels of intensity and resulting disruption in society depending on its context within which it operates as it strives to achieve its own “Great Leap

Forward.” But the common thread flowing through all these development efforts aimed at societal change is a well-thought out national plan of action which is a subject of focus and an unfailing commitment to its implementation by the government of the day. Such a plan must have clear measureable targets
and timelines, which harness all available resources in the direction of societal transformation and progress. This program involves moving the people in the direction and support of progress and development.

The people are the basic raw material which must be processed and transformed through quality education and training. A well-motivated, educated and trained populace produces valuable goods and services and transforms their environment in terms of infrastructure and aesthetics, making it well ordered, clean and beautiful. Look at Japan. It has far less natural resources when compared to many African countries; but today, Japan has the world’s third largest economy and is one of the most advanced countries on planet Earth. Its main resource is its people; its engine of growth and development in whom huge investments have been made.

Some of those investments that will help propel Liberia on its Great Leap Forward are: well trained, paid and motivated teachers and educators; comfortable learning environments; well equipped laboratories and libraries in schools; a national library system throughout the length and breadth of Liberia; a functioning internet system in the learning environment; emphasis on math, science and technology, to name a few.

We, too, must be prepared to commit huge investments in our people if we are to achieve our own “Great Leap Forward.”

How does one go about driving or moving the people in the direction of the needed societal change? In my opinion, one may opt for the use of the Chinese model, which requires the use of excessive force, resulting in massive societal upheavals to obtain compliance, or one may use less force by altering, redirecting or readjusting the psychology or mindset of the people. This, in my opinion, involves identifying those negative values, attitudes and behaviors, which serve as obstacles to development, and developing programs to discourage them while at the same time promoting the opposite of those negative values.

While expertise in the technical areas is greatly needed in Liberia, the need for social scientists such as psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, etc., should be given priority. These social scientists must be assembled and employed on a full time basis with the expressed task to reconfigure or reorder our society and alter the national psyche or the mindset of the Liberian people in the direction of supporting and bringing about the needed positive change in our society. A change of the mindset must precede societal change because the present state of our mindset has flawed our society in many ways and will obstruct efforts at making change. The obvious results of these flaws are: our body politic, in which everyone wants to be president at the same time, leading to over twenty five (25) political parties seeking power. Our private sector is largely in the hands of foreigners. Dishonesty and Indiscipline are the order of the day. Institutions are very weak, many things that work well in other countries do not work here because we always want to do things “the Liberian way,” which means cutting corners and doing things the wrong way, to name a few. Listed below are a few of the negative values which are prevalent in our society today. These must be discouraged and replaced with positive values if we are to achieve meaningful progress and development. These values are inter-related and are by no means exhaustive.

Negative & Positive Values, Attitudes/Behaviors

Desist From Being Unpatriotic: Avoid placing one’s personal interests before those of the nation both in one’s personal and daily life and/or in the exercise of public functions. Avoid engaging in words or deeds that undermine the interest of or bring disgrace to one’s country.

Promote Patriotism: Love for country: Put Liberia first in thoughts, words (what you say or write) and in your deeds or actions, as your discharge public or private duties. See yourself as a Liberian first before any ethnic, tribal affinity, political party membership or religious affiliation.

Avoid Disunity: Avoid acts that breed disunity in a country. Some of these are: stigmatization, segregation or unfair or unjust treatment, specifically in distributing the resources of the nation and opportunities for advancement. Avoid double standards, favoritism, etc., in meting out punishment for the violation of rules, procedures or laws.

Promote Unity: View yourself as a Liberian first before being a part of any ethnic, tribal or religious group. Relate to individuals based on the content of one’s character, rather than origin or any other reasons. Promote fair and just economic and social policies and programs. This is part of this process.

Avoid Indiscipline: Lawlessness, recklessness, laziness, irresponsibility, sluggishness, failure to conform to or have respect for rules, order, etc. Indiscipline is a form of laziness which restrains people from taking advantage of opportunities, achieving their objectives, or being productive. For example: How can we permit foreigners to come to Liberia, mine our sand from our rivers and sell it to us at exorbitant prices? Can’t Liberians come together in groups and engage in this undertaking? Again, we are blessed with abundant productive land for cultivation but many unemployed individuals loiter in the streets
aimlessly on a daily basis, some seeking handouts, some in the streets with a few items of very little value in hand for sale. Foreigners come here, cultivate our land, sell the produce and do well economically. Why can’t we Liberians do the same? Why can’t the government re-establish institutions such as the
Agricultural Development Bank to support and channel Liberians into agriculture? Why can’t we Liberians establish the capacity to preserve our perishable produce, which will prolong their availability on the market and make it more profitable for those who grow them?

If not, how can we achieve our own Great Leap Forward? Disdain for order or waiting your turn in a queue is another form of indiscipline which is common in Liberia. Look at how we behave in traffic. No one wants to wait for his turn in the line. Extra lines are formed in the lane of the on-coming traffic leading to huge traffic jams, unnecessarily prolonged delays and the waste of valuable time. Sirens are common place and used as a status symbol. Individuals of power and privilege are known for bucking the lines and Police are intimidated if they dare stop them.

Promote Discipline: Respect for rules, laws, punctuality, sense of purpose, hard work, and achievement. Recognize and reward acts of discipline and, in a consistent manner, mete out strong and clear sanctions and punishment for acts of indiscipline. Leaders should also be exemplary in promoting discipline. Practice what you preach.

Avoid Dishonesty: Cheating at work, home, sports, even in religious institutions; converting what belongs to others to your personal use without permission. Cheating and theft are more prevalent today than I have ever known in my lifetime of many years. For example, I cannot recall the scale and frequency of theft reported in the banking system and public service as they are today. Trust and confidence are virtues which are very scarce to come by in our country today. How then can we achieve our own Great Leap Forward if we Liberians cannot come together, pool our resources, work together and create wealth in our economy?

Promote Honesty: Develop the will to implement laws without fear or favor against individuals who engage in dishonest acts. Develop the political will or courage strictly to apply rules or laws, even if the offender is your closest friend or relative. No double standards. No favoritism. Selectively accepting responsibility for wrongdoings in the public service because the offender is a close friend or relative sends the wrong message or gives the impression that we are not serious about fighting corruption. Recognize and reward those who are honest. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Let your word be your bond. Pay your debt.

Avoid Mediocrity: Indulging or condoning sub-standard performance; hiring of unqualified and inexperienced individuals; placing square pegs in round holes solely for political reasons or to ensure blind loyalty limits independent thought and obtains unquestionable obedience, or to exercise total control in the working environment, are ways in which mediocrity is enhanced.

Promote Excellence: Recognize and support quality achievement through merit. Establish clear objectives and guidelines and open up the selection process for participation from the public in the selection of individuals who are given national recognition during the independence celebration. Include a mix of people around you (in ministries and agencies), many of whom have a track record of competence and excellence.

Strive to Discourage Lateness: Paying no attention to time; not meeting deadlines on timeliness; always showing up late for programs and appointments. The higher up the ladder of position and authority one is the more is the feeling that people must always wait for you and therefore the tendency to show up late unapologetically. This sends the wrong message to the governed (people) that punctuality is unimportant.

Promote Punctuality: View time as a valuable resource which should not be wasted. Observe timeliness and deadlines in achieving targets, objectives, and goals in the work place. Set the example by holding timely meetings, appearing at programs and events on time, meeting timely appointments.

Avoid Uncleanness: Sloppy personal appearance and filthy surroundings in the home, community and the environment at large. Avoid littering. We Liberians admire the order and beauty of other countries; yet we fail to do proper zoning and do ugly things such as littering that make our streets, community and environment unattractive. Go to the Chicken Soup Factory around Gardnersville. There you will see huge piles of garbage right in the middle of the road where the Japanese are constructing the new road, almost blocking it. How, then, can we achieve our own Great Leap Forward and the beauty we admire in other countries if we continue to behave like this?

Promote Cleanliness: Promote good personal hygiene; as it leads to good health. Keep surroundings, communities, and the environment at large clean and beautiful through proper zoning, order, waste disposal and landscaping. Develop robust media educational programs to promote cleanliness and respect for the environment. We admire the beauty of other countries but we do ugly things that make our environment ugly.

Avoid Ostentatious Lifestyle and Tastes: For luxurious vehicles (above US$50,000), huge and costly homes (above US$100,000) and lavish furnishings. Why do we want to live so well using scarce public resources when the vast majority of the people whose interests we claim to champion or whom we claim to represent are, on a daily basis, struggling to make ends meet? Yet, we claim to be lovers of the grassroots at elections time or when it serves our purpose.

Promote Humility: Adopt a modest lifestyle and tastes at all levels of government and plow savings from there into care for the vulnerable people of our society and into development programs.

Avoid the Crab Mentality: The tendency for Liberians to pull one another down by cheating, crediting with no intention of paying, or giving preference to foreign companies over Liberians in the same line of business because of envy and greed, especially those Liberians who are trying to progress. This is a common practice in the insurance business in which I am involved. Some government ministries and agencies find the weakest excuse to prefer foreign insurance over Liberian companies, hiding behind the 25% margin of preference. Should there be a margin of preference for a Liberian business with a track record of performance? No! A 100% plus should be awarded to Liberian companies. If this is not done, how then can we achieve The Great Leap Forward?
Promote the Ant Mentality: As you may know, ants are noted for working together, building their shelters through team work and supporting one another as a means of survival. We Liberians must adopt this behavior at all levels of our society. We must behave like ants by supporting and encouraging Liberians who engage in business initiatives (especially those who perform well) in preference to non-Liberians who are involved in similar business initiatives. The government and others should make paying Liberian businesses that perform satisfactorily a priority, as this is a form of empowerment. Make the meeting of debt obligation a matter of course. Let your word be your bond. We Liberians must do this if we are to achieve our own Great Leap Forward.

Managing Public/ Property/ Assets: Avoid the misuse, abuse and destruction of public property and assets, as funds to replace or repair them can be used for other development endeavors. Make budgeting provision for the maintenance of public property, as assets properly maintained last longer and serve as building blocks or foundation for further advancement.

Securing Public Assets: Promote the protection, respect, and reverence for public property, be it fixed assets or public funds. They must be secured and used transparently and with the utmost care. Make budgetary provision for the maintenance of public property such as government buildings, roads, etc.

This will prolong their lifespan, create the foundation for expansion and further development and contribute to achieving our Great Leap Forward.

Avoid Sycophantic Behavior: Individuals who exhibit this type of behavior tell their bosses only what they want to hear even if what they are doing is against the common good. Their motive is to serve their personal interests or gain. Such behavior makes the bosses and leaders grow a big head and believe that they are gods on earth. They begin to think and act imperial and omniscient (all wise).

We must beware of sycophants. They are very prevalent in Africa today and Liberia is no exception. They undermine democracy by hijacking the process of peaceful transition, causing leaders to remain in power beyond the term promised or beyond their constitutional term so as to further the sycophants’ own personal interests, as they want to remain close to the leaders to peddle influence, remain in their position of power and privilege and continue their “chopping.”

Promote Independent-mindedness: Well-meaning and confident leaders will not surround themselves with only “YES” men or women, people who tell them only what they want to hear. They should also encourage independent or alternative thoughts and also include individuals near them who are independent thinkers. This helps to promote good and wholesome decision-making.

Avoid the Lack of Compassion: The me, myself and I syndrome. The best things (positive, rewards) are for me, my relatives, my friends, even if they don’t deserve them. Those who deserve an opportunity or privilege will not get it – they are the monkeys; those who don’t deserve it, will get it – they are the baboons. After all, monkeys work; baboons draw. In government operations, for example, the tendency by the first branch of government, the National Legislature, to use its function of budget review and approval to hijack the budget by demanding a large portion thereof for the payment of huge salaries and benefits in return for carrying out their official function of budget review and approval. This creates a high imbalance among government officials’ salaries and benefits in the public sector, limits the amount of funds available for normal government operations and the flow of funds for development projects.

This makes it more difficult for government operations to impact the lives of the ordinary people and impact development efforts. Of course, some functionaries in the other branches are just as guilty of similar behavior. If we continue this way, how then can we obtain our own Great Leap Forward?

Promote Compassion in Government Operation: Reduce waste, abuse, corruption and greed and use the savings to impact the lives of the ordinary people and carry out development programs. How can Liberians who live abroad expect to return home to contribute their quota to development of Liberia if they expect to be paid higher salaries and benefits than Liberians with similar qualifications and experience living and working here? This, in my opinion, is not only unpatriotic but it also shows a lack of compassion for the weak and vulnerable of our society. What extra compensation returning Liberians should receive should be a reasonable relocation allowance. Another thing is that they should bring their immediate family home. Let us all struggle together to make Liberia better for all of us, including our children. This will reduce the financial burden on these Liberians from abroad by limiting the need to remit scarce foreign exchange abroad to take care of their family upkeep and mortgage payments. This will also reduce the tendency to engage in unsavory or corrupt means to augment income for transfer abroad to support the family. Such behavior demoralizes local Liberians who see it as a form of discrimination and segregation. This tendency creates tension in the bureaucracy, leads to low productivity and may even induce corruption.

Dependency: While well-intentioned foreign aid should be encouraged through transparency and accountability and must be used for its intended purpose, it should not or cannot be depended upon as the primary sources for economic development of a country. Economic development comes about by creating the right enabling environment for the flow of direct foreign investment; however, funds for development must come primarily from the generation and use of internal resources. But if the budget consists mainly of the wage bill and the constant cry is “no money!” where will the resources come from for achieving our own Great Leap Forward (accelerated Economic development) in health, education, infrastructure, etc.? The way things are, we are just living from day to day, relying only on foreign aid administered mainly by NGOs because we are not trusted.

Promote Self Reliance Through Good Economic Management: This can be achieved by promoting many of the things mentioned above such as avoiding ostentatious lifestyles and tastes, avoiding dishonesty, the misuse and abuse of public resources and assets, etc.

Before concluding let me briefly speak on “unity” as it ranks high on the list of positive values required for progress and development. Our Lord Jesus Christ’s remark that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” can be applied to individual family relationships as well as various groups (tribal, ethnic or otherwise) relationships within a nation. We Liberians must realize that no matter where we as various groups originated, who came first or last, we together have a common destiny of progress and development. Unity creates national cohesion, a generally recognized and accepted ingredient critical for development and progress. Unity is a source of a vibrant force which energizes government developmental thrusts and forms building blocks for progress and development. Therefore, unity must be promoted at all times and at all levels of society. It must be promoted in thoughts, words and deeds by the leadership. The people must view the leadership of the country as an embodiment of unity. Leadership must be perceived and in fact be the unifier. The government’s mode of operation must be viewed by the people as fair and just. It must be promoted through the formulation and implementation of the governments’ policies and programs. It must be promoted during programs on national holidays and other national occasions, through slogans such as, “from mat to mattress”, “total involvement for higher heights”, “self-reliance”, public discussions and skits in the print and electronic media, through religious institutions and schools. Achieving and sustaining unity in Liberia requires lot of time, energy, resources and commitment, as Liberia is truly a house divided against itself. Evidence of disunity is very prevalent in our society. Listen to the radios and read newspapers. The only time I see Liberians united is during international football games when the national team is playing and The Lone Star Forever is being sung. Then, we are all united. After that, we go back to demonstrating the same old divisive behavior. If sports are what it takes to achieve unity, we must then promote and support sports development so our national teams can be successful in all sporting disciplines and we can sing the “Lone Star Forever” more frequently and meaningfully. The challenges of attaining unity are many and great but they can be overcome. Yes, we can; and we must not relent as the benefits to be derived in terms of progress and development are great.

We should be under no illusion that what is being proposed here can be easily accomplished. But, again, anything of value does not come easy. It requires serious effort and commitment. If other countries can achieve this feat, we, too, can do so. This, however, requires a strong and visionary leadership that is prepared to live in an exemplary manner, unite and instill confidence and belief in the governed (the people). They must be strong but well-intentioned; be prepared to use both the carrot and stick, but must also know how and when to use them, realizing that ultimately, it is the common good that matters.

They must represent an embodiment of those positive values earlier discussed in this article that lead to positive behavioral changes which will transform the society and usher in the achievement of our own Great Leap Forward (GLF).

A demonstration of exemplary leadership will inspire the governed to see that the governors are serious about change and they will begin to fall in line despite whatever pain, discomfort or inconvenience, as everyone will share in the pain. But the good thing is that the pain will be a purposeful pain, the burden of which should be shared at all levels of society (no monkey work, baboon draw), a pain whose end product will lead us Liberians to progress and development or GLF.

As we approach the 2017 elections, we must seriously reflect on where we are now on the ladder of development; where we want to move to on the ladder; how fast we want to get there in the realization of our own Great Leap Forward; what qualities we are looking for in a leader to take us there; and who amongst those seeking the high post during the 2017 presidential and general elections possesses these qualities.

We must insist that all those seeking the high post present the voting public a document consisting of a well thought out comprehensive action plan, including how it can and will be implemented. This plan must reflect a new vision for transforming Liberia and the steps required for transforming the vision into reality, in pursuit of achieving our own Great Leap Forward. We must make it quite clear to all seeking power that we Liberians are no longer prepared for the same old, same old business as usual—the same old, same old negative values and attitudes that have, for over a century, retarded our progress and development. No same old, same old budgetary shortfall. No more same old, same old, there is only money in the budget for salaries and little or nothing to carry out the primary functions of the ministries/agencies. No same old, same old promises betrayed. No same old, same old this is our time so we must have the choicest positions, most lucrative contracts running into the hundreds of thousands and millions of US dollars, many of which are never properly implemented and access to public funds which are not utilized transparently, without due regard for accountability and expect to be protected by the powers that be: these tendencies will retard the achievement of our Great Leap Forward.

We must evaluate each plan of those contending for the high post; analyze its content and issues considered for successful implementation. We must scrutinize the candidates’ character, academic achievements, track record for getting things done and the fulfillment of promises, etc. We must educate the voters to make informed decisions, reminding them that mistakes made take years to undo and will delay the achievement of our Great Leap Forward. This will result in Liberia being overtaken by many more countries developmentally and be left further behind by more progressive ones.

In this article, I have earlier referred to the negative values and behaviors that retard our growth and development; negative values that must be discouraged and replaced with positive values and behaviors leading to the achievement of our Great Leap Forward. Look at our roads and the traffic. Before we can complete a stretch of road, it is already inadequate. The number of cars on the roads fast exceeds the roads available. Today, two lane roads as major highways are things of the past. Four, eight, and twelve lane roads, overpasses and tunnels are the order of the day in the developed and the emerging world.

Yet, we are struggling to build two-lane roads (some of which are suspect in quality) in Liberia.

Yes, we must acknowledge that development has taken and is taking place in our country, but it is too slow. If we do not speed up, we will continue to be left behind. We must, therefore, tighten our belts, equally share the pain, make the sacrifice, run the race and at the end of the day achieve our own Great Leap Forward.

I don’t want those who read this article just to commend me by saying simply, it is a good article and put it down. I would be greatly disappointed if that occurs. I want people to constructively critique it, to make it better and more useful. I would like to see others writing on the same issue but from different perspectives. I would like to see those who truly believe the sentiments expressed here to come together, organize ourselves and serve as a nucleus, a real force for change in our society; and also to discuss it and recommend implementation strategies to remove the garment of negative values, attitudes and behaviors and put on the new garment of positive values, attitudes and behaviors which will help us achieve our own Great Leap Forward, which is so urgently needed in our motherland, Liberia.

I have tried to make this article as balanced as possible. Yet, there may be portions which may be found unpleasing to some readers. The intention of this article, however, is not to be unduly critical of any individual or group. It is an honest and patriotic attempt to analyze the causes for the slow pace of our development in our country and recommend a way forward. I hope it will be seen only in that light.

Finally, I wish to thank the Almighty God for giving me the strength and the intellect to put this paper together and I hope it will generate interest and be found useful to the readers especially those patriotic Liberians who wish our country well as we strive to achieve our own Great Leap Forward.

Mr. Clemenceau B. Urey, Sr. is a 1972 graduate, BA Political Science, Cum Laude, from the University of Liberia, holds an MPA (Masters Public Administration) degree from Syracuse University (1974) and an MBA degree, Finance (1983) from the Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, USA. He has accumulated vast experience from both the public and private sectors, and held several positions in government and the private sector. He is currently owner and CEO of the Atlantic Life & General Insurance Company in Liberia.

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