LIBERIA’S GRASSROOT AGENDA: A Prescription for Self-Help Job Creation and Economic Empowerment
By Tito M. Johnson
A STEP BACK IN HISTORY
Liberia’s problems began at the very inception of the nation’s formation with the unconscionable discrimination against the indigenous stock by the settler stock, perpetrated through isolation and neglect, which resulted into the complete exclusion of the former from every aspect of life as a nation. Not surprisingly, being highly suspicious of the natives, the former preferred collaborating with “outsiders” in the [private] business and commercial life of the country, as these early rulers were preoccupied mostly with the running of the institutions of government rather than business and commercial undertakings in any significant manner; Therefore, they encouraged foreign investors into the country to start various businesses. Unfortunately however, they failed to carve-up a predetermined segment of the economy exclusively for Liberians and providing the means/encouragement for the people to go into business for themselves; thus beginning the domination of the economy by foreigners—with the first expatriates being Europeans and later Americans in the late 19th century and lasting up to and including the 1970s. The Dutch retail giant OAC, The former American retail giant, Montgomery Ward, Firestone Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio and The Chase-Manhattan Bank of New York are examples; this phenomenon persists today, with Lebanese and Indian traders who first came to the country in the late 1940s.
The abhorrent awareness that economic empowerment usually
leads to hunger for political empowerment as well as
the recognition that the natives constitute the majority
of the population of Liberia, the ruling elites of the
day, employed exclusionary tactics meant to alienate
and disenfranchise the vast majority of the citizenry
and hopefully, to help dilute their majority position;
thereby, subsequently binding them to the margins of
main stream society thus ensuring their total isolation
from participation in the political dispensation of
To argue that the rush to monopolize political power at the risk of the nation’s economic wellbeing has undermined the very essence of the nation—“ONE NATION INDIVISIBLE, WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL”— as enshrined in the pledge of allegiance to the flag of Liberia, will be an understatement, if not a travesty; because there can be no true unity, liberty and freedom or justice without economic and political emancipation. The monopolization of the political life of the nation by the settlers at the expense of the natives was followed by commercial and economic isolation as well. The punitive result of this apathetic and divisive policy of past despondent oligarchs has been and continues to be: economic stagnation, political instability, an uncertain security environment, and the most cruel, grinding poverty afflicting the majority of Liberians, which ultimately imploded into full blown civil strife over the last decade and a half.
DOMINATION OF THE ECONOMY BY FOREIGNERS
The Liberian economy is almost completely dominated by foreign nationals, with Lebanese and Indians constituting the bulk of the foreign business owners. This situation is no surprise to those knowledgeable about the nation’s political history which is replete with unimaginable repression and misdeeds; but the unwelcome and perhaps unintended down-side is that the economy is inextricably controlled by these mostly unscrupulous so-called business people who are prune to the tendencies of manipulation of the political and economic landscape to suit their personal interest. Moreover, the profits they generate is more often than not, repatriated to their respective home countries for the building of their homeland, while Liberia—‘the hen that lays the golden eggs’—suffers the indignities of poverty and lack of development. Additionally, the dominance of these foreign business people—especially in certain sectors of the economy, which certainly should have been reserved for indigenous Liberian entrepreneurs—has tended to short-circuit or undermine Liberian entrepreneurs through overall business competition and specifically, competition for the meager loan-able financial capital potentially available from local banks and other financial institutions. And in most cases, these foreign nationals are given preference over Liberians because they are perceived to be better managers who are likely to payback the loan(s) in a timely manner. One cannot digest the rationale for Liberian financial institutions supporting the business adventure of foreigners owned businesses at the expense of indigenous Liberian businesses, but so is life in the Liberia I know. Again, the reason has traditionally been political, although in recent times, it may have very well been perception rather than politics. This perception that Liberians do not know how to efficiently run a business and oftentimes do not make good on loans— which is not necessarily true—is at the core of the unfortunate practice of making business loan(s) to foreigners while Liberians struggling for loans to jump-start/resuscitate their start-ups or growing firms are left in the cold, [so to speak].
GOVERNMENT OR THIRD-PARTY INTERVENTION
Without external intervention—essentially by the government or its designate—with reference to management-training and business financing, the business climate for indigenous Liberians is likely to remain illusive and just an enticing dream never to become a reality; thus justifying the need for a government intervention program aimed at aiding potential entrepreneurs and current Liberian business owners jump-start their own businesses or grow existing ones.
Self-empowerment is the noblest virtue that there is; money and economics facilitate educational and political empowerment and together, these form the foundation of self-empowerment and self-actualization. In order for a nation to control its own destiny, it ‘must’ control the productive means of the society through its people; to do otherwise would be tantamount to [at a minimum], mortgaging its future and [at worst] committing economic suicide. Our history and recent experience is our best teacher. To do nothing to correct this despicable and shameful phenomena is to doom ourselves to indefinite ridicule and failure; Therefore, to advocate for Liberians to take control of their own destiny is a no-brainer—it is an absolute necessity—and it cannot be stressed enough that it should commence with the utmost immediacy. Surely, this is the only real way the people can shape the course of events in the country as it relates to poverty alleviation through food security, infrastructure development, political stability, social and economic progress and prosperity: code for ‘taking control of the economy’. Overall, such development would practically allow for full participation of the people in the design of the mechanisms and activities which shift the policies that affect their lives.
CREATION OF INDIGENOUS LIBERIAN BUSINESSES
Understandably, post war economic conditions in Liberia are precarious to say the least; to put it bluntly the economy is in dire straits at best. One thing that should be clear though is the fact that donors and other international partners cannot do it all for us, as regards our recovery efforts. Certainly, economic recovery in general and the transfer of the economy into our own hands in particular, must begin with the recognition that the current state of affairs is unacceptable as it simply portrays ‘a state of ineptitude’ of Liberians as a people. In truth, the development and progress of our country rest on our shoulders and no one else’s. Others can only help us but the real weight has to be carried by ourselves. Therefore, we must start the effort by identifying our individual professionalisms and expertise: I’m not talking about Doctors and Lawyers here—these high level professionals are already doing fine. I am talking about the little guys—people in various trades like for example: Electricians, Tailors, Farmers, construction workers such as Masons and Brick Layers, Carpenters, Agriculture Technicians, Mechanics, Welders, Shopkeepers, Bakers, Restaurateurs, young College and Vocational School Graduates, Beauticians and Hair Braiders, just to name a few.
Instead of waiting for the arrival of big-time foreign investors and multinationals to come to the rescue, the trick or strategy in the meantime should be: for people to organize themselves into little groups and start their own cooperatives or companies. A good example is, a group of accounting graduates starting a Bookkeeping and Accounting Services Company to cater to small businesses that cannot afford to hire an in-house Bookkeeper or Accountant. And people in other areas of work can do likewise. Still others can organize themselves into NGOs and solicit funding from various sources as well as volunteers willing to go into the remotest parts of our country to render services to our people, like proper health and sanitation awareness, digging wells and building toilets, adult literacy teaching, ect, ect. Also, the real professionals like Management and Finance professionals, Engineers and Agriculture Experts and others can start consultancy firms as their own self-employment schemes, and help the newly formed companies as their clients, with management and financial consulting. For example, these Engineers and Agriculturists can consult on workforce-training in new technologies and best practices in their respective fields.
Indeed with focus, there can be no limit to what we can achieve; and within a matter of a few years, you can be sure the process of taking over control of our economy would be well underway if not complete. Wealth creation which brings with it jobs creation can only be done by the people through the private sector. Government does not create wealth, it only spends it, neither can the government create jobs; it can only tax and regulate the mechanisms that make the economy works. Indeed the government serves as a catalyst—by creating an enabling environment—conducive to wealth creation and GDP growth. On the other hand the people, by co-mingling/harnessing their private resources through entrepreneurship are the ones that make this possible.
Having said that, let me remind you that I haven’t
lose sense of the painful reality that Liberians are
a destitute people whose condition was exacerbated by
the many years of war, thus making it an up hill task
to access the financial capital necessary to jump-start
This is where the roll of government in this national grass-roots economic recovery effort and national drive to give control of the economy to the citizens is paramount. The administration of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf needs to seriously consider small and middle sized private enterprise development and promotion as the principle vehicle through which we can achieve sustainable and durable economic recovery, job creation and ultimately, the take-over of control of the economy by the people. Along those lines, the following recommendations are submitted:
• The government of Liberia should set up an
agency to be called Small Enterprise Development and
• Government in collaboration with International Partners should allocate around $300 million to $500 million solely for this purpose. It should be a revolving fund which would charge a standard reasonable interest rate on loans; and it should be administered through local banks and other financial institutions
• The Small Enterprise Development and Assistance Authority (SEDAA) should have as a rule, mandatory entrepreneurship training certification to qualify for start-up loan
• SEDAA either directly or through private consulting firms is to provide mandatory oversight/monitoring until loan is fully paid
• Government should set up a national food-bank under its General Services Agency (GSA). The food bank is to serve as an emergency food source to prevent internal food shortages as well as an outlet through which it can make an impact on the continent of Africa by donating food aid to other African countries that may be affected by natural or man-made disasters. By so doing, the government will become a big customer for enterprises that are agro-based as it is expected that the bulk of the companies to be started will be farms and ranches to help alleviate our food problem; moreover, the majority of the people to be targeted through this program mostly live in the interior where agriculture is the principle activity of livelihood. However, an incentive to increase farm output/production would be the assurance of a ready customer (the government) and a ready market [i.e. restriction on importation of food-products that are produced internally, so that the consuming public can present a readily available market]
• Mandatory savings and checking accounts to be maintained by these businesses, and monitored by SEDAA to prevent mismanagement of funds and ultimately loan default. Such oversight is to continue until loan is fully repaid
• Mandatory periodic audit—at least once a year, during the life of the loan
• The retention of private Liberian consulting firms through SEDAA to help provide prudent management direction during the first year of operation. This would be a win, win, win scenario for the government, the big-time Liberian consultancy firms and the citizens’ start-up company
• Restriction of certain sectors of the economy—to be later identified by the government—for indigenous Liberians
Should this proposal come to fruition, government’s efforts in jump-starting the economy on the one hand and job creation as well as transferring control of the economy to Liberians on the other hand can be positively and expeditiously achieved with the desired results. And hopefully Liberia’s road to economic recovery and reconstruction of the country is likely to be paved with gold and ultimately, the people whose wellbeing the government is struggling to seek would be the real winners and the nation a proud and prosperous homeland.
The author, Mr. Tito M. Johnson is a concerned Liberian and free lance writer who is a product of the University of Liberia. He now resides in the United States of America; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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