In Defense of a Thoughtful Social Policy

By Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
September 13 2006


How Did We Arrive Here?
A rich imagination is not required to visualize why an epidemic of crime is overtaking Liberia in the aftermath of the war. How we arrived at this point in our history is not hard enough to understand. People could not have gone through a horrendous war without being inflicted by its consequences. In every household, community, and the larger Liberian society, the predominant reality is rage, grief, terror, emotional tensions, loss of inner strength, nervousness, self-loathing, chronic poverty and many other perilous conditions – linked for the most part to the heinous offenses that people witnessed and/or directly suffered during 14 years of war. Those terrifying, even grotesque images have come to represent, in many minds, their prime reality. Their past, and memories of the past, have paralyzed many, and today, stand in the way of each and all Liberians being absorbed into an inclusive, self-sufficient, law abiding society. Images from the past have colored people’s attitudes toward themselves, toward others, and toward the government. The war changed Liberia, and Liberians alike – some for the worse, others for the better. Essentially, it destroyed the inhibitions and better judgment of many. Readers should note that I am not trying to excuse the criminals in Liberia, but providing explanations for the prevailing conditions that we can utilize this understanding as a guidepost that informs how we should intervene.

For some, the harsh realities of the war are sources of everyday struggles, embedding sharp-edged physical pain into every texture of their humanity. For others, effects of the war manifest daily in variety of ways: dependency, anger, depression, a propensity to deadly violence and criminal enterprise and the list goes on and on. There are those who have managed to use the war as a source of resilience launching constructive pursuits. No matter how the war operates in each life, the government has the responsibility to create healthy pathways and social conditions under which all Liberians can lead productive lives.

This article has the task of challenging the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf government to take a hard look at the social rot that the war produced, which is preventing many Liberians from realizing optimal benefits from their lives. It develops rationale for why the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration should abandon the apparent one track economic approach that is the centerpiece of its reconstruction. It also develops rationale for an alternative governance approach that suggests balanced attention and allocation of resources toward its social policy alongside its investments in economic policy. In essence, the same level of attention and visibility that its economic policy receives needs to be rendered to its social policy.

How do I know that lopsided investments are made in economic policy over social policy? I draw this conclusion from three indicators. The first clue is the fact that armed robbery is overtaking the nation and acting as a drag on national security and quality of life. The second clue comes from the government’s response, urging citizens to engage in vigilante justice against the scourge of armed robbery. One gets the sense that the burgeoning criminal enterprise is overwhelming the government’s capacity to manage this problem. The third indicator is the fact that in much of the government’s public relations campaign, it has made concerted efforts to announce its economic recovery initiatives: the National Investment Commission attracting new businesses or the Finance Ministry increasing revenue collection, but relatively limited attention, in my view, has focused on social policy milestones. Together, these clues paint a picture that leave one doubtful if the Johnson-Sirleaf government is taking a serious look beyond the solitary economic determinant model to find alternative explanations for the rising tide of social problems.

If crimes are rippling through neighborhoods and through the cities, and overwhelming the government’s national security capacity, is the answer vigilante justice as proposed by the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf administration? As CEDE put it aptly, the government excused itself from a critical responsibility of protecting national security. Perhaps, it meant neighborhood watch, as many other commentators have pointed out, and this needs not be belabored. Hopefully, citizens would not interpret this call to embrace vigilante justice as license to intimidate and harass people with whom they have personal conflicts under the auspices of crime prevention. The traditional response to these kinds of social problems has been to create a joint commission of civilians and law enforcement experts to think about innovative ways to halt and reverse the condition. It should be noted that investigating reports of crimes and growing criminal presence and the risk of harm to citizens is the primary work of the government. Providing national security is paramount because nearly all others hinge on it.

But rather than dwelling on the law enforcement angle of this debate, I will probe it from the vantage point of social policy. There is compelling evidence that focused attention on building psychosocial assets: prevention and treatment of social problems or the deliberate and conscious investment in a continuum of services to address well being: questions of delinquency, school failure/dropout, lack of life skills, mental health, family breakdown, child abuse and neglect, ethnic tensions and conflict, degraded sense of community and cohesiveness, and the manifold other manifestations of social dysfunctions – is a dire necessity in an environment such as Liberia. The primary concern of this paper is with building a developmental infrastructure, not an economic one, where people who were left vulnerable in many respects can thrive. This is what I am referring to here as social policy intervention.

Broad support exists for the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf government and its economic recovery policy, and rightfully so. Even so, sufficient time has elapsed since inauguration for one to start wondering about the quality of and the government’s commitment to social policy. Many would agree that reconstruction in the aftermath of the war has to proceed on many fronts. However, the two critical lynchpins of the reconstruction are the economic and psychosocial levels. Undoubtedly, multiple, factors interacted from the pre-war and the warring past to contribute to the present dysfunctional state of affairs in Liberia. These manifold interconnected causal factors are showing signs that they outweighing whatever social policies the government has put into effect. We have yet to witness the unveiling of policies to address lingering ethnic tensions and the accompanying social isolation and disaffection that exist widely among different populations. True! We have heard about the economic interventions to recruit businesses to address the high unemployment.

Those within the Johnson-Sirleaf administration who believe in the preeminence of economic change over investments in the psychosocial sector are still popular. But it is not far fetched to think that the stock of their idea is eroding precipitously as the crime rates increase and induce, and even magnify other social problems. These economic hawks have to reconcile the backlash of achieving growth at the expense of the social sector. I can only imagine that the inequalities and social pathologies would find it hard to allow investments in the economic sector to make the most optimal impact on daily life.

The last couple of years following the war have seen veritable revolution in scholarly publications that have increased knowledge and understanding of the social forces that caused the war. The difficulty is that present interventions, like the past, seem to be episodic or intermittent, proceeding without systematically drawing insights from the new knowledge. My own research suggests that psychosocial development is the institutional core of making lasting change in the underlying causes of the war. Investing in one sector (economic) over the other (social) leads to repercussions in the form of the increase in criminality and crimes as is occurring in Liberia today. The seeming lopsided focus on economic development at the expense of psychosocial development, points to the fact that the government has yet to marshal the burgeoning new knowledge to support its policy making. It is time now to balance the scales of policy making to ensure that policy makers are responsible in their allocation of our resources toward interventions that will make the greatest impact on societal problems.

Building Functioning Social Protection Systems
The civil war damaged the infrastructure, ethnic hatred surged, and citizens’ trust in the government weakened, as did their trust in one another. National security was also a casualty of these downward trends. The war placed the country on a powerful path toward the disintegration of the nation. It is not an overblown threat to think that the growing news that crimes are wearing down confidence in the economy and governance capacity of the Johnson-Sirleaf administration. Could it be that citizens are disaffected by what they perceive as the slow pace of change, however unrealistic, that it has impelled some to respond by involvements in criminal acts? If you have a society that is toxic, chaotic, basic needs unmet, and people are divided along ethnic lines, I believe that it is a safe haven for criminality. When government fails to make an intentional and conscious efforts to resolve the psychosocial needs of its citizens, which are bedrocks of opportunities for upward mobility - that is where criminality breeds.

Social protections are designed to serve those citizens for whom the usual social provisions have failed. In Liberia, it is clear that the number of citizens that lack basic social provisions and opportunities for change in their conditions constitute the majority. The public sector has to provide services that strengthen citizens’ capacity and abilities to meet their basic needs, to supplement the care that they are able to access through personal initiative or substitute care they are unable to obtain through personal initiative. I come from the school of thought that social policy plays a critical role in promoting the adjustments of citizens and bringing about cohesion. Indeed, there is absolutely no contradiction in subscribing to economic competitiveness, while at the same time ensuring that social risks are averted including sickness, old age, disability, etc.

The Hallmarks of Successful Social Policy
Successful social policy is one that achieves and maintains change both in people’s worldview and their personal outlook. To fully restore Liberian society to place where the scars of the war are healed, interventions will have to occur at least at three levels, involving the public, private, and civic sectors individually or collaboratively. Three forms of damage have been done to the Liberian psyche which must form the core of social policy. Understanding the nature of and categorizing how people were affected by the war, and the barriers specific categories of citizens, face in accessing mainstream society is crucial to designing interventions to meet their needs: formal, informal, or otherwise. Too often, the development of social policy does not distinguish between different groups. People are lumped together, which contributes to less than optimal solutions. We often hear about the economic reintegration of ex-combatants as an antidote to growing social problem, but hopefully, proponents are aware that there are more to social problems than jobs programs and a few feel good projects. There are those who also call for arming the current police and military recruits, forgetting that the first step is to clinically and culturally determine if these individuals who themselves either perpetrated or suffered violence, need assessment of their readiness to carry loaded guns.

Understanding the Nature of Damage Caused by the War
What follows are my unscientific categories of the damage inflicted by the war on the Liberian people. There is absolutely no science behind these descriptions. They are based on mere informal conversations with people who experienced the war as well as my understanding of the post-conflict society landscape and some of the best practices used to guide intervention in these circumstances. I describe the potential damage without suggesting specific solutions because interventions to mitigate psychosocial problems are profoundly influenced by a combination of factors: age, ethnicity, social class, religion, the nature and pattern of the person’s displacement during the war, gender, and other family dynamics that I am unaware of. These factors influence how each person or group relate to the person facilitating or providing the intervention and/or respond to treatment.

Damage 1: It involved individuals who were direct targets of the perpetrators of the war. It will be critical to address the emotional wounds that they experienced. Some may have been raped, maimed, their properties seized, their relatives wounded or killed in their presence – all these left scars that will just not disappear without some conscious intervention.

Damage 2: It relates to perpetrators of the wounds, some of whom were children or adolescents when they participated in the war. They suffered psychological hurt by hurting others. They may have treated others as less than, denied them their material needs, demeaned them in the presence of relatives and others, denied them of their resources, and much more. These perpetrators cannot be integrated in society as if nothing happened. Like their victims, many of these people require special attention before their humanity can be restored.

Damage 3: The war conditioned certain perpetrators and victims to believe that violence is a viable alternative to solving the intractable problems that exist in society. Some of these agents of instability have their minds so corrupted by this worldview that they have become dangers to themselves and others.

All these variations of pain, although internalized, can be healed and those affected restored to viable members of society. Unless they recover from these conditions, they will continue to carry the gaping holes in their lives, manifested in the form of antisocial and criminal behaviors and attitudes that we are seeing in our society. Unhinged from their past, war trauma limits and damages the capacity of society to end the cycle of violence and related dysfunctions. It makes the task of nation building harder, because war trauma translates into institutionalized norms that are counter to building a healthy society. But when people heal from the effects of war trauma they can find ways to work together to stop the downward turn. That is why mental health treatment institutions are critical to the reconstruction of Liberia. This is not a claim that it is a cure-all, but a vital need.

The Complexity of Solving Social Problems
Although I introduced a caveat suggesting reluctance to provide specific solutions, I think it is reasonable to issue the following general guidelines, especially in light of the fact that bulk of the people intervening in social situations in Liberia might be foreigners or Liberians who have lived abroad for some time.

• It is known in intercultural communications literature that people learn about those that are different from their cultural or social group through “openness” or by suspending any judgment and letting the client teach you. This insight might just not be apt for foreigners, but also for Liberians who are new entrant into Liberian society having lived abroad for numerous years.

• Foreigners and new entrant, thrust into working in social situations should be willing to allow their long-held views of social reality to be challenged even modified or changed. Learning the historical context and politics of the new environment that are pertinent to engaging the people with whom they will be working is critical. A foreigner or newcomer who is uniformed about these cultural issues and perspectives is bound to face difficulties in adequately building relationship with people in Liberia. They might either be misunderstood or vice versa.

• For example, Liberians are likely to deal with loss, relationships, intermarriages, gender roles, interethnic relationships, and other like situations differently than westerners or even those Liberians who have assimilated to western values or other values from their societies of refuge and just returning to the homeland. Indeed, demonstrating respect for the cultural context is of immense value in addressing social situations – and the war adds a different dimension to the texture of the social problems facing the country. Equally so, Liberians in the homeland have to be flexible to show respect for the “adaptive needs” of the foreigners and newcomers willing to join in the recovery of our country.

The rising tide of crime threatens our future, therefore, the thinking that steers reconstruction in Liberia need reexamination. Without a substantial reorientation of the Johnson-Sirleaf reconstruction policy: its goals, target population, the effects of its economic intervention will be disappointing and their potential benefits will remain unrealized. I believe that the prospects for stabilizing conditions in Liberia are not hopeless as some forecasts suggest, but the government cannot continue on its current path for too long. This path is not immutable. It is possible to understand, through the careful examination of specific experiences or cases, what mistakes have been made and can be avoided, and what policies deserve to be replicated. By peeling off the layers of the damage done to the individual and collective psyches of the Liberian people, future social policies could be more focused on meeting the needs of specific individuals and groups of citizens, especially those who are too easily excluded because the nature of their conditions are not visible to the ordinary eye or understood fully by those who purport to be experts, but lack the appropriate knowledge and cultural understanding to sift and resolve these context-rich social conditions.

In closing, if structural reforms are being undertaken, they have to replace the fragmented systems with coordinated community networks of social protection systems that integrate economic and social policies. More specifically, relegating social welfare policymaking to a subservient position, under the auspices of the Health Ministry is in my view worth revisiting in light of the fact that social pathologies are eating at the core of the nation’s fabric. Rethinking this and other structural arrangements for service delivery to the vulnerable people in society: children, adolescents, women, the aged, former combatants (youth especially), should be an important part of reforms. The legislators who write and pass laws too, have not seen value in asserting much power behind the executive branch to change the dynamics either, which leaves me wondering if at all change is ever to come in the conditions prevailing in our country.

The Author: Emmanuel Dolo lives with his family in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. He works for South Washington County Schools as the Director of Educational Equity and Integration. He can be contacted at
© 2006 by The Perspective

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