A critical review of the pursuit of progress in Liberia
Author’s note: This article was written as a critical analysis of a particular behavioral trend observed across several generations in Liberia. It should not be construed as criticism of any particular political administration; but rather as a critical assessment of the “Liberia Experience” over a protracted period of time. It is my ardent hope that the “New Generation” of leaders in Liberia and the people of Liberia will assess my conjectures critically and draw on a few “lessons learned” in avoiding some of the pitfalls that have perpetually befallen their predecessors. He who has ears, let him hear.
-M. Nathaniel Barnes
Liberia is in trouble. In spite of the commendable political gains made over the last decade and a half, the primary social, cultural and economic issues facing Liberia persist and the prospects of any effective, sustainable solutions remain elusive. Why does the phenomenon of social, cultural and economic stagnation continue to present a major obstacle to Liberia’s progress especially in the midst of globalization and progress being made by countries previously placed in the same category as Liberia? This question has eluded the leadership and people of Liberia for many generations. Given that there have been spurts of economic growth and the potential for stability and prosperity for all, Liberia seems unable to break the proverbial cycle of mediocrity, self-hatred and denial.
Over the generations, there have been multiple attempts to create structures that would result in sustained political stability, economic expansion and social cohesion. Interestingly, while some of these attempts produced limited successes, they did not result in the desired impact when measured using human growth and development indices. Policies associated with Tubman’s “Unification” and “Open Door” Initiatives; Tolbert’s “Total Involvement” (Mats to Mattress); Doe’s “In the Cause of the People, the Struggle Continues;” Taylor’s “Above all else, the people;” and Sirleaf’s “Lift Liberia” have not catapulted Liberia anywhere near the ultimate goal of becoming a Middle Income country in the foreseeable future. As a matter of fact, although the verdict is not yet in concerning Weah’s “Pro Poor” agenda, after all previous attempts, Liberia remains one of the five poorest countries in the world.
The primary reason for the lack of significant and sustained progress is that all attempts to foster real growth and development have been built on a defective social and cultural foundation. This defect points to two interconnected facts. First, Liberia was born out of crisis; and, second, Liberians have lived under a cloak of “national denial.”
Liberia evolved out of a series of well-known (but little examined) crises: the crisis of inter-ethnic conflicts; the crisis of slavery; the crisis of exploitation of a dominant group over all others; the crisis of failed attempts at true integration; and the crisis of elitism. Failure to fully address these crises and atone for them is manifested in Liberia’s national denial leading to a splintered diversity with multiple, conflicting agendas. Liberia will continue on this “endless road to nowhere” if Liberians do not find unity in their diversity and agree to a common national destiny.
The Liberian dilemma is further exacerbated by the proclivity of new political administrations to not only pay little or no attention to the weak and crumbling foundation, but to charge full steam ahead, attempting to build new development initiatives on the proverbial weak foundation.
During the many robust political campaigns in Liberia’s political history, much of the rhetoric has centered on Liberia’s weak social, cultural and economic foundation. Deep sentiments are eloquently articulated about how Liberia’s developmental progress is hampered by Corruption, Nepotism, Absence of Capacity, Social Inequities/Marginalization, Injustice, Apathy, Impunity etc.
One could safely conclude that there is significant national knowledge and appreciation of societal malaise. Liberian politicians have mastered the art of articulating social problems and bringing them to the forefront of social consciousness as they persuade voters to elect them. Presumably this approach works because, more than anything else, voters desire a society free of social evils.
In the midst of this phenomenon, newly-elected officials take office and immediately embark upon development initiatives rather than addressing the “weak foundation” which was paramount in their passionate campaign rhetoric. Perhaps this is a manifestation of the politicians’ desire to derive tangible deliverables for their constituents who harbor high expectations of immediate benefits positively impacting their lives.
The obvious question is, “Why would one invest significant amounts of time, financial resource and effort, for example, in implementing a new education development initiative, and expect it to thrive when it is built on a system fraught with corruption, nepotism, absence of capacity, etc.?” The notion of diving into building infrastructure without first examining and correcting major social ills is especially baffling as building on the same fragile foundation has never historically yielded the desired sustainable results.
Every country on this globe has experienced crisis and poverty. Those that are considered successful have come to grips with the realities presented within these two paradigms and have been able to implement solutions to overcome them. The fundamental drivers behind sustained solutions to crisis and poverty have historically been a cohesive, reconciled and disciplined society that is prepared to deal with its disparities in an environment of inclusiveness and justice. The Liberia paradigm lacks the essentials of inclusiveness and justice which may be an indicator of its national denial. Throughout its history, Liberia has encountered very difficult issues; and, unfortunately, Liberians have chosen “flight” (as reflected in denial) as opposed to “fight” (as reflected in confronting tough issues directly). As a result, Liberia has an axiomatic closet full of skeletons that have accumulated over generations of denial, that are now, like chickens, “coming home to roost.”
Until Liberians come to grips with these stubborn facts, the faulty foundational pillars of our national desires, dreams and visions, will be unable to support any serious initiative for sustainable growth, development and prosperity.
There have been historical attempts to establish peace-building and reconciliation platforms in Liberia. From Tubman’s Unification Program to the Post-Civil War Truth and Reconciliation Commission, attempts have been made to address inequities, injustices and other social and cultural stumbling blocks to progress. However, these have met only limited success because they examined symptoms rather than the deeply rooted causes of the Liberian crises.
While there may be no “silver bullet” which could immediately address and resolve all of the challenges Liberia faces today, effective and visionary leadership certainly lies at the epicenter of the solutions.
An intriguing phenomenon which has long existed in Liberia has been the general inability to differentiate between “good and effective politicians” and “good and effective leaders.”
A good and effective leader is by definition an effective politician. On the contrary, a good and effective politician does not necessarily translate to an effective leader. The political history of Liberia is strewn with countless instances where politicians have successfully attained political power only to fail to transition into leaders properly equipped with the requisite tools, skills and qualities to effectuate meaningful change for the nation and people. Thus, as politicians, they constantly resort to the single mastery they possess in order to address all of the challenges and opportunities confronting them. Hindered by their lack of the requisite skills and tools to confront tough issues, elected officials resort to more rhetoric and superficial ribbon cutting.
In order to effectuate real and sustainable change that leads to progress, growth and prosperity, experienced and effective leaders understand that politics is only one tool out of an array of mechanisms available to the process of nation-building.
While politics can be an efficient and useful tool, it must in some instances be subordinated to other instruments and methods in addressing the dynamics of change. One method that could be useful in bringing about effective change is de- centralizing power and responsibility. Decentralization, throughout the governance hierarchy, leverages empowerment of county and municipal authorities as well as the private sector. This encourages leaders, at all levels, to take ownership and bring their skills and experiences to bear in the nation-building enterprise.
Building institutions populated by a pool of technical experts without regard to ethnicity, political affiliation or gender is another strategy to address mediocrity in government. For example, government institutions should be managed by technocrats as opposed to political appointees. Every government employee below Deputy Minister should be a highly-trained, professionally recruited, vetted, technocrat who serves regardless of who is in political power.
Given our history of small successes, multiple failures and numerous “false starts,” Liberia is at a precarious point. Liberians must scrupulously examine their national quest for peace, reconciliation, growth and prosperity. Liberia should expend all of its energy, resources and resolve to expose, shore-up and permanently fix its “BROKEN FOUNDATION”!
A solid and reliable national foundation supported by Justice, Reconciliation, Unity, Integrity, Honor, Accountability, Transparency, Strong and Reliable Institutions, among others, will take a collective effort led by both elected officials and technocrats. Leaders must exploit an array of tools, methods and approaches that will ensure unity and social cohesion, prosperity, economic growth and expansion. To accomplish this, our leaders must exude all of the key characteristics inherent in effective leaders by far the most important of which is COURAGE!
Once the foundation is stable and firm, Liberia can build systems, processes and projects that will endure thus providing a surefire way towards the elusive peace, stability and prosperity that Liberians have sought for generations.