By Jimmy Suah Shilue
Liberia’s resurgence following paralyzing brutal upheavals and resilience against the recent Ebola epidemic was not possible without the collective efforts of both home-land and its Diaspora populations. This brings into perspective on-going debate about Diaspora in relation to their transnational contributions to their home economies- a discourse which has been gaining immense attention both in the academia and in development circles. The debate has been further enhanced by Globalization- which has created or simplified the relationship between relatives, sojourners, migrants and country of origin. This phenomenon gives opportunities for Diasporas to emerge, to survive and to thrive. The level of capital flow and skills transfer from international migrants, especially those from developing countries, to their countries of origin in the form of remittances, establishment of businesses and developing home country public sector are all possible because of globalization. However, while Diaspora remittances and investments may play a vital role in sustaining basic livelihoods and jump starting post-conflict countries’ economies, it should be noted that diaspora economic power can also be exercised in ways that are predatory and accentuate social divisions and grievances. In the case of Liberia, there is growing perception that almost all Liberia’s conflicts were orchestrated and unleashed by long distance nationalists out of nostalgia; their desire to enhance democratization in Liberia and even based on their selfish motives.
Yet beyond the debate on whether returned Liberian Diaspora are agents of change or brain gain for the country, their contributions to Liberia continue to be viewed with mix lenses because decades of continuous flow have not brought about noticeable economic transformation. Whether this is due to the lack of proper tracking mechanisms or no interest by the government, one thing that is clear is Liberian Diaspora is making enormous contributions to Liberia’s reconstruction drive. An astounding World Bank’s report of 2012 on global remittances reveals, Liberians in the Diaspora out-beat per GDP other Africans living abroad by remitting $378 million in 2012, an increase of $18 million from 2011 remittance of $360 million, a more than 31% of global remittances and third of Liberia’s GDP in 2012. However, such huge contribution to their mother-land the World Bank 2012 submitted that there is nothing much to show for such contribution. The lack of evidentiary empirical data or extensive study that examines the extent and impact of Liberian Diaspora economic contributions –be it through remittances, investment, or contributions in human capital, remain major challenge in Liberia’s developmental plan. Data deficit or discrepancies and outright gaps such as these underscore the urgent need for research that can address even the most basic empirical questions in order to inform the development of policy options and an evidence-grounded analysis of their implications and tradeoffs.
Efforts to address such critical data gap were undertaken by an international scholar at the George Washington University with four Liberian researchers in 2014. While collected data are still being analyzed, initial outcomes point to variety of constraints Liberian Diaspora experience in trying to do business. Among others, the issues of electricity, transportation and lack of finance were among the top obstacles to doing business in Liberia. Other problems mentioned as factors that undermine Diaspora efforts to invest in Liberia are the lack of protection on land purchased by diaspora member, the lack of enforcement of the Liberianization policy, no incentives from government and dishonesty by entrusted family members and friends as some of the factors stalling their efforts to invest in Liberia.
Undeniably any investor will surely be frustrated if desired dividends are not realized from his/her investment. As such, the Liberian Government is under moral and economic obligation as a responsible custodian of state and non- state stakeholders activities to try and forge a working partnership with its Diaspora community, even if it is diagonal to the principles they ascribed to, which in fact are well-intentioned to harness the wealth being remitted into tangible outcome that would be reflected through prism of living better condition of the Liberian people.
Liberia’s wars seriously disrupted everything- dramatically altering the entire social and economic fabric of the country thereby causing so many Liberians to live outside the country. Hunted by the ghosts and shadows of the horrors of the crisis and traditional bounds to family members left behind, one way through which the diaspora keeps the hope of returning home is to adopt transnational disposition- processes by which immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement. This is a basic feature of a good number of Liberians currently living outside their home country, particularly those in the ‘near diaspora’ around West Africa and those of the ‘far diaspora’, the United States of America and Europe. The exact figure of Liberians in the USA is unknown but conservative estimates put the number between 10,000 to over 450,000. In Europe, credible statistics indicate that from 1985- 2001 about 4240 Liberians once lived in the Netherlands. However, victories of anti- immigrants’ political parties and attendant draconian policies in the early part of the year 2000, have altered immigrant landscape in the Netherlands resulting to most Liberians as well as other immigrants migrating to the U. K, USA and Canada, in search of better opportunities. Statistics of Liberians in other E.U. countries, when collected and collated could even strengthen our argument for informed empirical data.
In recent years most scholars have directed their focus on the impacts of remittances on economic development by Diaspora population. Liberia has a long history of Diasporic connection with the United States owing to the distinct historical connection between the two countries yet the general perception is that a good number of the Liberian diaspora have not utilized the opportunity to contribute to the development of the home economy through investment. Unlike most countries where the government has a deliberate policy or arrangement in engaging the Diaspora population and leveraging their pool of professionals, Liberia is yet to have a functional Diaspora office in-country. Robust and continued engagement of people in Diaspora by their home-country government can, in most instances, contribute to economic growth because they bring skills to bear in the rebuilding process and invest in the fledging economies. However, without an organized system of recruitment and mobilization strategy of the diasporic population, the risk of recruiting through patronize arrangement, which can cause more harm than good as we have seen in recent time in Liberia, becomes highly likely. Using orthodox processes that are not based on merit but ‘who knows you’ does not only undermine Liberia’s developmental agenda but ignites unnecessary tension – causing many non- diasporan Liberians to perceive members of the Diaspora as returning to take their jobs and compete with them in their businesses. This breeding tension was ably described by a Liberian researcher who is currently serving as minister in a piece “Liberian Diaspora- Accepted or Rejected- what is Homeland?” In an effort to mitigate such looming conflict, different initiatives are been undertaken, one of which was an hour Diaspora-Homeland Dialogue bi-monthly radio talk show that was geared at fostering broader public dialogue about Liberian diaspora relations with non-diaspora. The initiative started at the University of Liberia Radio station prior to the Ebola crisis but unfortunately could not continue because of funding difficulties and most importantly the Radio station was sadly destroyed by fire.
Liberian Diaspora contributions to Liberia have been very huge but mixed with happiness, hatred, development and favoritism. A glimpse of raw data from on-going study shows that the impacts of Liberian diaspora are felt in three major categories- remittances/support, entrepreneurship and skill transfer. During the civil crisis in Liberia and even the Ebola epidemic, every sector was shut down and destroyed thus making Liberians to rely on external support from friends and relatives abroad, particularly in Europe and the United States of America. Even after the various crises, many families and households still do depend on foreign supports from their relatives and friends living oversea for survival. Preliminary analysis of the data indicates that in (2010-2012) more respondents from Europe, claimed that they sent money/support to one household in Liberia as against those from the Unites States of America that support more than five households. It is safe to infer that more household families in Liberia are being supported by U.S. diaspora because of the huge number of Liberians in the U.S. owing to the flexible and Liberal immigration policy compared to the restrictive European policy that does support large scale immigration process.
In terms of employment and entrepreneurship, there were mixed views on the economic gains of Diaspora population in the country. Most non Diaspora respondents agreed that members of the Diaspora are making some contributions but there were others who felt that the government unfairly prefers Diaspora to non –diaspora. Moreover, non- diaspora spoke of the lack of respect and attitude of supremacy often exhibited mostly by members of the United States Diaspora towards people in Liberia. Concerning motivation for returning home, many Diasporans suggested that their return/coming back into the country is primarily to help contribute their quota to the rebuilding process and to take advantage of the new economic and business opportunity in the country. Other submitted that they came home to open businesses to help themselves and relatives they left behind and also to create jobs for Liberians. Interestingly, the latter group said that they do not have anything to do with the government in terms of taking up any appointment yet sometimes wrongly seen as jobs seekers. Generally, majority of Liberians that were interviewed said that they have businesses on Camp Johnson Road. They also claimed to be involved in the importation of general merchandize, used cars and household items.
In addition, other Liberian Diasporas claimed to be involved into real estate development, technology solution, importation of used cars, and logistic/rental businesses. When it comes to which type of business most Diaspora members are involved with, unverified data suggests that transportation business ranks the highest for those from Europe while food, entertainment and education are the top business mostly established by United States Diasporan returnees.
The high cost of doing business in Liberia has been identified as one of the critical factors discouraging Diaspora from getting involved in most businesses or frustrating those who had tried. However, despite all the odds, most of them see new opportunities for investment back home and they believe these opportunities will help speed up economic activities beyond the current level.
On factors that led to decision of returning to Liberia, some said to contribute to the reconstruction process, capitalize on new opportunities, the lack of equal opportunities outside, racism, not recognizing their qualifications, nostalgia, family reason, etc. High tariffs and multiple payments made to government ministries and agencies, inconsiderate landlords, corrupt officials and dubious relatives constantly reverberated in various consultations with members of the Diaspora. These explanations show that diaspora population are not passive when facing marginalization and social exclusion but develop means to react to both real and perceived social inequality in their host societies. From the stated reasons, it is clear that that transnational activities by Liberian Diaspora have now become important tools to counter systematic marginalization and foster a sense of belonging to a country they consider ‘sweet land of liberty’.
While the full report of the study will be released when ready, the purpose of this piece is to encourage all those who are interested in the debate around Liberian diaspora to take advantage of empirical data than rely on emotional sentiments, which do not help the development process but inflict more damage. Clearly this is an abbreviated glimpse of what seems to be a comprehensive study with both quantitative and qualitative analysis of all the major issues. This brief is not exhaustive as the actual study contains, several components, including gender dimension- example female diaspora are not only involved into businesses but are more assertive and vocal in advocacy and women empowerment issues. The work also extensively delved into diaspora and political participation, social and economic issues, social capital and challenges with reintegration and even dual citizenship. The full research has lots of interesting cross-cutting issues as well.
Current peace being enjoyed in Liberia could not be possible without the social, economic and political contributions of members of the Liberian Diaspora. Economic remittance from the diaspora play a crucial role in maintaining the household hence mitigates real and potential violence. While remittances and investments from the diaspora may well be regarded as vital for sustaining basic livelihoods and for stimulating grassroots economic activity, preliminary evidence suggests that the economic power of diasporans may also underwrite tensions at various levels ranging from the household, to the job-place, and even in the political domain. Moreover, although war drove a majority of Liberian professionals and technocrats abroad while debilitating formal education and professional training systems in Liberia, the diaspora is not an unproblematic reservoir of human capital. The role of Liberians living overseas should be acknowledged and the Government of Liberia should engage member of the Diaspora as well as non- Diaspora population in a transparent and merit based process. The desire to remain connected to Liberia is inevitable in light of globalization, which has made travels and communication quite simple but more importantly their transnational status is not only a resistance against both real and perceived social inequality in their host societies but a way of fighting for belonging and acceptance in their home-land.