What is really behind the private sector conundrum?

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The world’s leading economists have long acknowledged the important role of small and medium enterprise in development, job creation and economic growth. Following the Great Recession of 2008, wherein millions of people globally lost their jobs, homes, financial and other assets, entrepreneurship was hailed as the savior of the global economy. Ordinary people were urged to halt their fruitless job searches and start their own business. And many did

During this recessive period, a trend emerged: emigrants from developing economies were leaving America, seeking opportunities in their native lands. Fareed Zakaria, award winning journalist and host of CNN’s Geopolitical System (GPS) show, highlighted this trend, and cautioned the US Government against losing millions of talented foreigners – a group that had fueled America’s success since the nation’s inception.

A significant number of Liberians followed this trend. The waning US economy, and the promise of a peaceful homeland, drew countless exiled Liberians homeward – many on that proverbial “one-way ticket to Monrovia.”

This was the Liberian Government’s chance to absorb into itself the economy the talent, vibrancy, experience, and absorptive capacity of a ready-made middle class. These repatriates, if well accommodated, could yield high returns on investment, and create jobs.

Sadly, the Sirleaf Administration did not bite. While many of these returnees have stayed on, they are frustrated and disappointed; and the key factor that keeps them here is the intangible, inexplicable, unquenchable love of country; and a sense of duty. What is behind this conflict between the will of some to serve and the system’s resistance to them? We explain.

Government is responsible to create the environment for a thriving private sector: easy access to cheap electricity (God help LEC), running water, and finance; good roads and ports, etc. Straightforward business registration, tax payment, and loan application processes that do not involve rent seeking. Just to name a few. But it does not!

The key word used above is ‘straightforward’. As a people, we are anything but. We ‘bluff’ or manipulate one another to get a quick buck on the side; smile in each other’s faces, while stepping on each other’s dreams, simply because those dreams are not our own. Why?

The real public enemy #1: Envy. If I can’t or won’t do it, no one should.

“The Crime Kokulo Commits,” a piece written by Foreign Minister Augustine Ngafuan, perfectly illustrates this point. The poem tells the tale of slothful Kollie and diligent Kokulo. As the story progresses, Kollie grows increasingly envious of Kokulo’s progress simply because of his own failure.

“Because Kollie is unemployed,” it says, “the crime Kokulo commits is to have a job.”

This lies at the heart of our private sector troubles. Liberians who endured the war resent those who had a chance to leave, better themselves, and return with a competitive edge. It matters little that the presence of these repatriates is a promising turn in the tide, which could raise all boats. The idea: they are taking our jobs (for which we are not even qualified)!

Sadly, the international experience many have received has not erased that seething selfishness. Too many Liberians, location notwithstanding, have a deep dislike for (or fear of) the prosperity of their compatriots. A Liberian approaches government on behalf of legitimate foreign investors, requests an audience with key stakeholders, and is shunned because the success of said investor would spell profit for our fellow Liberian.

Private citizens are equally gripped with this complex. Once a Liberian business begins to grow, people cringe – why should he/she be getting rich off of me? Mind you, those harboring this attitude are the same ones groveling to every “Chief” for a penny; but the minute their brother’s downfall arrives, they are the first to rejoice.

Liberia’s sweetness, mixed with the bitterness of this envious culture, makes for a torturous experience of loving a country that does not second that emotion.

But we can change. After all, we coined that adage that, “If you are mean to other people, you are mean to yourself.” How about we follow our own advice, ditch the crab mentality, and try on some good old fashioned good will. “Be shrewd as serpents,” the Bible says, “and harmless as doves.”

Perhaps, then, we will find our way to the prosperity our Pentecostal preachers keep talking about.

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