Over the last week, we have decried and dissected the challenges facing the private sector in Liberia. To be fair, we have done so from the perspective of government and the private sector, calling out the flaws and opportunities on both sides. We have tackled the issue from the historical perspective and addressed the current challenges…although it seems precious little has changed in our long history.
Today, we discuss our reaction to those challenges, the most common of which are defeatism and negativity and nonchalance; and we urge our fellow Liberians to change their perspectives.
“L.I.B.” is that tongue-in-cheek remark we make whenever something happens that clearly illustrates the trouble with Liberia… with us. We say it all the time. The New Democrat also coined the phrase, “This too is Liberia,” which has much the same meaning.
While these sayings are humorous, they present our bad habits as somehow endearing and point to a dangerous and popular perception of the impossibility of our improvement. We seem to believe that our attitudes and situation cannot and will never change. This is half the problem.
The Bible says, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” If we believe ourselves to be failures, we will continue to be so. But look at the Ghanaians, who have succeeded where we have failed. They profess that they are “the best,” and so that prophesy keeps fulfilling itself.
We, therefore, have a choice to keep thinking ill of ourselves, poking fun at the situation, and yielding the same poor results; or we can take responsibility for our own progress, get up from here and think forward.
That includes dispelling the lies we tell ourselves that foster our collective inferiority complex:
Lie #1: Liberians are stupid. Totally untrue. The people that liberated Africa cannot possibly be stupid. Even our car loaders and thieves are smart. Go to Red Light and or Broad Street and see the ingenuity of those boys running around stealing people’s phones. Their dexterity and finesse is impressive, we must say. Instead of put-downs, those young men need encouragement to channel their strengths toward something positive. What about the market women who make it all the way to China to buy goods? With their boldness and business acumen, they each generate thousands of dollars a year. But what happens to it, and how can we help them to build powerful businesses instead of dig themselves into a hole? Focusing on and playing to our strengths is the key to dispelling this lie.
Lie #2: Liberians are lazy. Okay, this is only half a lie, we all know that. But just look at the young men in central Monrovia hauling water across the city, day in and day out, and we see the other side of that story. Rather than sit by and do nothing, they sweat and strain themselves for a living. Also, just try peeling a coconut. It looks fairly easy; but it takes a great deal of strength and skill. And we know of some drug addicted young men in Red Light who have chosen to take up the trade in order to change their lives. This shows us that change – individual and collective – is possible for us!
Lie #3: Our bad habits are unique to us. We all know that joke we make: “There are Blacks, there are Africans, and then there are Liberians.” This ‘joke’ suggests that we are the worst of the worst of the worst. But, in fact, we are not all that different from any other people group.
A question: why do the United States of America and the European countries need laws? If those people were so perfect, they would not need laws, policies or even a constitution, because everyone would all automatically fall in line, doing what is right. But they do not.
Instead, they commit acts that range from plain stupid to downright evil and prisons are built to punish them. And that still is not enough, because their governments are deeply flawed: the very systems that drive these countries foster racism and poverty in contradiction to their respective constitutions. The results expose the gross hypocrisy of their messages of democracy and good governance to us.
The difference that makes their systems work to the extent they do is the engineering of choice.
Smart governments recognize that people respond to incentives – negative and positive – that guide people in the way they should go – culturally, commercially, in their relationships, etc.
We can learn from that. Instead of our Government making the excuse that “Liberians are lazy, stupid and have uniquely bad habits that cannot be corrected,” they need to strengthen and enforce laws, policies and systems to induce right behaviors.
For example, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MOCI) should work with other stakeholders to standardize vocational training for various trades ranging from hairdressers to electricians; establish a licensing and inspection system; and set a higher minimum wage for certain services, to encourage skills building and high performance with the promise of more gainful employment for professionals. MOCI should also strengthen contract enforcement and establish an affordable and effective mechanism for aggrieved consumers to seek redress.
This, along with Government’s efforts to rebuild its own credibility, will shift attitudes in the right direction to truly develop our private sector.
Rome was not built in a day, and the Liberian mindset cannot be reformed in an hour. It takes time, but it is highly possible. Let us believe that we can change for the better, and that we can beat the best at their own game. Let us act on our faith and see the results thereof.