By James Suah Shilue
Liberia is increasingly confronted with development challenges exacerbated by growing urbanization and the recent Ebola epidemic, which exposed major shortcomings in Liberian society, such as weak social contract, weak institutions, inadequate capacity among public institutions to address uncoordinated rural urban migration and growing crime rate. Monrovia has experienced surge in population from its pre- war four hundred thousand inhabitants to slightly 1.1 million- showing that significant percent of the country’s population lives in Monrovia. In addition, Montserrado County, of which Monrovia comprised 87 percent of its population, has the highest population growth rate of 3.5 percent as compared to other counties and the national population growth rate of 2.1 percent. From all indications Monrovia is overcrowded and the trend of urbanization seems to not be abating but gradually leading to environmental chaos, excessive pressure on already limited social and economic infrastructure, proliferation of ghettos, drugs abuse, prostitution, criminality, ‘Zongos’ street kids, destitution, increased presence of people with mental disabilities, etc. The lack of human security in terms of effective safety net, breakdown of traditional family value and active decentralization policy–although there is an evolving effort by the government, and a dominant Monrovia centric development trajectory are major contributing factors for current urbanization.
Unlike in developed countries where urbanization is usually accompanied by industrialization, relative economic growth, recreational facilities for the youth, in the case of Liberia, rural urban migration is only compounding human security challenges and taking place in a post crisis environment of negligible industrial growth and acute deficiency in development activities. Most of post war Liberia’s reconstruction efforts seem focused literally on the physical reconstruction with little attention being directed at building relationship and restoring trust in polarized communities. Interestingly, Resilience is becoming a new discourse or as one commentator said “brand for any initiative if you want to attract donor support”. Indeed, this ‘buzz’ word is now the appealing qualifier for all initiatives, such as ‘Liberia is a resilience country’, resilience health sector, resilience security sector, resilience fiscal policy, resilience transportation system, etc. However, not much efforts are made to describe or even illustrate this booming word but we continue to hear and read too much vague and oversimplification of what is resilience.
It is clear to me that people are clamoring for what they can earn and not how we can help bring sanity back to our ‘Sweet land of Liberty’. We have lost our traditional African value of being our brother’s keeper and the dispossessed are left on their own while the elites and those who are linked to the ruling establishment amass unimaginable wealth. In and outside Monrovia, we are witnessing large scale infrastructure projects blossom, which enhance the beauty of the city and facilitate revenue generation but the social connective tissue to embed these physical infrastructure into community life- like the changes in norms and thinking that must happen to return our society to peace, seem to not be gaining adequate attention. This poses problem for genuine peace and sustainable development.
In the wake of UNMIL drawdown and the current economic stagnation Liberia faces, it is inevitable that we need to pursue and prioritize human security thinking as innovative strategy that could minimize the negative effect of urbanization and ensure social cohesion. For too long Liberians depend on externally designed capacities and help- forgetting that Liberians at all levels have strength that they have been using to manage conflict and carry on with life before, during and even after the Liberian civil war. Unfortunately, dependency mentality has penetrated our DNA and the country’s development agenda such that we do not look inwardly to harness what we have but continuously rely on quick fix that have proven unsustainable. Example, the news of Oil discovery in Liberia led to the total abandonment of the promising agri- industry, which 75% of the population relies on for their livelihood. The eventual collapse of NOCAL and exit of major Oil giants left us in tatters with the development agenda yet to adopt a paradigm shift. This superficial notion of resilience does not help Liberia’s development process. The news of UNMIL drawdown is being received with fear and uncertainty because as a country we are intrinsically accustomed to relying on external assistance. Rather than worrying, I would encourage state and non- state actors to embrace real ‘Resilience thinking’, which is not only a reality check but a heuristic shift that should compel us to be looking for ways to move from reliance on UNMIL- an externally directed institutions that has actually provided ‘peace’ and security equilibrium, to an idea that focuses on harnessing local and indigenous capacities for Statebuilding and Peacebuilding.
It is with this in mind that the notion of ‘Resilient City’ resonates with contemporary challenges in Liberia. The concept of Resilient City is about development planning and actions that involve state and non- state actors in building and creating physical and psychological spaces that can contribute to the safety of people living in cities. It is about collaboratively doing things that help us bridge the divide among our people and build community capacities to absorb and recover from any shock or stress while maintaining their essential functions, structures, and identity as well as adapting and thriving in the face of continual changes.
Donor countries that provide development aid to our country utilize this strategy/concept by the way they support, work with and treat NGOs in their societies. But in our setting there are some government functionaries that see CSOs as anti-state agents and therefore use their positions to make the work of CSOs very difficult. Equally, there are some NGOs that besides not being accountable to their target groups only make their living by criticizing everything by government without weighting the consequence on the wider society. If we do not collectively work together to transform our country, we risk slipping back to the doom days of anarchy and tyranny. By adapting resilience thinking, the ‘we against them’ mentality will be minimized as we will be working together irrespective of which spectrum of society we find ourselves. With this progressive thinking, for example the plight of our people who are hit by flood in West point as a result of climate change, becomes our paramount and collective responsibility. Further, when embellished with resilience ideology, we do not look at tribes and genders or call ourselves ‘progressive’ only out of nostalgia but go beyond rhetoric to demonstrate true love and solidarity with those at the lower ebb of the society. This is about putting the Lone Star that symbolizes our collective identity above our personal greed and aggrandizement. Resilience thinking is the inward looking force that speaks to our human conscious and drive us to think of positive ways to reintegrate Ebola survivals rather stigmatize them. Further, when working with this mind set, government will make allocation in budgetary approbation for CSOs to be less dependent on external funding, give to Churches, Mosque and communities groups to provide warm meal for the homeless, create accommodation for street children, show concern for aging folks and even the ‘Zongos’, who feel rejected and not accepted.
We saw the effectiveness of this rational during the health crisis. Praising the role of Liberians in confronting the Ebola epidemic, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said “We organized our churches, mosques, faith centers…they prayed, but more than pray, they taught their parishioners and congregation about preventive measure. We enlisted youth leaders and women leaders to take responsibility and take charge, and we gave them the means to be able to go from house to house. That was the right thing to do. That changed this. It made people a part of the solution and that worked”. Indeed, it works but unfortunately the endemic problem in Liberia is we do not learn from our experiences and prevailing post-conflict reconstruction strategies in Liberia typically focus on identifying and repairing formal organizations and physical infrastructures ignoring the informal arrangements that sustain our people over years of state failure and the recent health epidemic. If Peacebuilding is about increasing the resilience of societies to prevent and manage conflict, then there is a need to focus on those things that aid people to ‘bounce back’ rather than going back to status quo.
I got inspired with the idea of resilient city during my recent research ‘Framework for Assessing Resilience’ in the fifteen counties in Liberia. The study shows that when state and non- state actors work together, they build peace by jointly solving lots of problems and building better relationship that help community and society to withstand shocks and stressor. Interviews with different groups in and outside Monrovia revealed that people develop coping mechanism that help them overcome various challenges but attach importance to their efforts being recognized, supported and even expanded for the good of the whole society. They also value belongings, care, love, accountability especially by state actors and tolerance.
The recent Ebola crisis has shown how these issues are quite essential in building trust and confidence in the state. The health crisis exposed the unavailability of essential social services and the lack of trust by citizens in the government. However, because Ebola was nondiscriminatory in hunting down victims, be it government employee or CSO member, people worked together collectively to protect themselves, their communities and even the nation against the scourge. Although it was a catastrophic period in the history of our country, however the experience presented an opportunity to identify communities’ resilience and explore ways to harness those innovations for the good of our country. It is about how we open up space for engaging with local communities and also making them the focal point. Resilience thinking embraces complexity but at the same time recognizes that even small community-level conflicts have historical, cultural, political and social overlays through which members perceive and respond to both the possibility and reality of violence. Reactions by the people of West Point during the Ebola crisis was not only based on State imposed curfew but perception of systematic neglect and dominant thinking that West point is occupied by criminal and people who resist change. Thus, while the Ebola crisis offers an opportunity to correct our development agenda it also reinforce harmful perceptions and prejudices that historically divided our society.
Our country is still suffering from the relics of conflict, youth unemployment, bad governance, displacements, GBVs, immoralities and various forms of criminalities. While these problems continue to undermine the fabric of the nation, we are more concerned about ways to strengthen national security institutions, even when we are not facing real external armed aggression. Least I am misconstrued, it is important to give attention to national security, especially with the threat of terrorism that have hit neighboring countries. However, when discussing sustainable development it is critical to distinguish human security from the more conventional thinking of national security. So, while national security focuses on the defense of the state from external attack, human security is about shielding individuals and communities from any form of violence or insecurity.
The civil crisis 1989 to 2003 caused major population shifts within and out of the country. Displacements were virtually common as almost all Liberians, at one time or another, were forced to leave their homes to seek shelter in Monrovia- movements that increased pressures on urban services and transformed the livelihoods of the population. The conflict disrupted the traditional tribal organization that existed in our countryside before the war. The Monrovia centric disposition of national elites and centrality of our governing process continues to affect the running of the legislature as most lawmakers continue to remotely represent their constituents. For those lawmakers who are from impassable regions, due to bad roads, there is a tendency to single handily decide for their constituencies while on the other hand those who elected them perceive themselves as abandoned or forgotten people. This kind of Top down decision making approach has to a larger extent engender fascination for urban life thereby inspiring rural folks to abandon their communities for Monrovia. Such urbanization, which is largely unplanned and induced by neglect and non-participatory practice, has deepened existing social and economic pressures in Monrovia- fueling violence, criminality, environmental degradation and even an attitude of ‘we against them’, by the dispossessed and marginalized folks.
During the civil war and the recent health crisis, the nexus between national security and human security was manifested by the movement of ordinary people from region they considered epicenter of the crisis to areas where they perceived human security where available, to protect themselves from the threat of the disease, hunger and marginalization. Accordingly, there is a need to strike a delicate balance between human and national security, when thinking of sustainable development and resilient cities. State authorities should reach out to marginalized communities and people by providing their basic needs, create ways to encourage people center decision making culture, undertake effective decentralization process that ensure more even distribution of resources, in particular to rural areas, and provide better opportunities for people to earn comfortable living. There is a growing sense that by strengthening communities’ capacity to overcome violent shocks, it opens up new possibilities both for conflict prevention and for more sustainable post-conflict community recovery. On the other hand, national security needs to be strengthened, in particular, security and access to justice must be provided for women and girls, since sexual and gender-based violence is widespread.
Resilient city is fundamentally part of the human security discourse that focuses on efforts that promote tolerance and enhances conflict resilience. Although the focus is on Monrovia but it applies to all cities in rural Liberia. The idea is we should prioritize human security thinking and involve communities in development planning process as this will enable communities to share their local assets, protect and guide investment, look out for each other and contribute to the safety of people living in their localities. It is not about elites deciding what is good for communities but jointly doing things that help bridge the divide among our people and building community capacities to absorb and recover from any shock or stress while maintaining their essential functions, structures, and identity as well as adapting and thriving in the face of contemporary challenges.