Moving Liberian Youth From At-Risk To Promise And Hope

By Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
November 22, 2005


As the title suggests, my aim is to discuss the elusive subject of chronic poor social development among Liberian youth. I first offer introductory remarks and raise some questions for setting the context of the discussion. The ultimate goal here is to orient readers to the subject of youth development in nations recovering from war. Further, I offer some general recommendations for dealing with this problem from the perspectives of youth development and mental health policies. This initial overview may prove useful in setting the stage for future deliberations. The vision offered herein deals with the intersection of “self and systems” as it relates to the chronic problem of poor social development among many Liberian youth. I leave the more substantive discussions to be held by the public policy staff of the forthcoming administration.

My focus is on the young people who experienced the war. Even more poignantly, the emphasis is on the segment that participated in persecuting the war, known as child soldiers. While this paper does not aim to explore the fraudulent acts of trickery, deceit and mind control that were used to entrench Liberian youth in deviant lifestyles and conditions that stunted their social development, it is an analysis aimed at breaking the repetitive cycle of self-hate and violence that are its consequences. I recommend seven basic tenets and one practical politically expedient suggestion on which such systemic change will be aligned so as to survive the predatory onslaught. This paper raises more questions than it answers. Despite this, its greatest contribution is that it establishes the fulcrum upon which our national dialogue on opportunities for at-risk youth hinges.

Framing the Context

Liberia has undergone profound transformation in its basic foundations in the last 14 years of instability and war. The war and associated changes have made lethargy and crime natural parts of day-to-day functioning. The basic norms of civility that were anchored on personal trust and close knit kinship relationships have all but disappeared. The social fabric, principally families have also disintegrated in great numbers and the threshold for return to communal violence has become immensely thin. Perhaps, whether or not we return to war is heavily dependent upon if we take proactive steps to prevent Liberian youth from relapsing into the conditions that caused their involvement in the war.

Among Liberian youth, the breakdown has manifested itself variously in the form of downward socioeconomic indicators. Among such indicators are school dropout and related rising illiteracy rates, lack of life and social skills, massive unemployment, and growing illegal substance use/abuse or addictions of various kinds. Current and past involvements with violent warring factions - have all combined with previously mentioned social pathologies to put many Liberian youth at–risk. If mobility upward the socioeconomic ladder is critical to their personal success and national security, the fact that these young people have been locked out of such a promise and hope has brought us to a point of national emergency. Moreover, the civil war has uncovered what some adults have preferred not to see – the corrosive effects of societal failure to make meaningful changes in failed conditions. The common presumption about poor social development and outcomes among youth is that it is exclusively the youths’ fault. The fact that Liberian social, economic, and political systems are structured in ways that reward mediocrity and do not set high expectations for citizens is not widely considered a culprit, hence, a false presumption. More so, when events are cut off from their contexts (cultural or otherwise) they tend to lose their relevance and validity.

As we look toward building a new nation, we must bring to the forefront of household, community, and national discourse the challenges associated with Liberian youth. In addition, we must generate urgency, resolve to actively participate in addressing their conditions and ultimately evolve strategies to bring them to a place of promise and hope. We can no longer leave their future to chance by leaving them to their own devices or that of predators (warlords and unscrupulous academics and politicians) who, have shown not to have their best interest at heart. It should be recalled that when the warlords and corrupt individuals were conditioning these young men and women to carry out their genocidal actions, their children were being harbored in foreign countries were they attended schools and pursued their career goals.

If a systematic attempt is not made to define the context of the problem and the stakeholders involved, the natural response is that we default to the youth, making them the primary drivers of their own fate when they lack the basic capacity to carry on such a task. The process of defining their needs must cross all the boundaries set by inflexibility and unwillingness to build an integrated system of care and service delivery due to turf fights that often occur within bureaucratic institutions.

Defining the Youth Population

I consider our youth population to be members of a cohort that are very similar across cultural and socioeconomic lines. These boys and girls are adversely influenced by a wide variety of pressures that emanate from living in a failed state, which in my mind approximates the conditions of the ghettos and barrios of western society or worse. Many of these young people are disconnected from family and even self-reared. Having been immersed in street life, some lack socialization in the critical values of respect for self and others. They are by-products of widespread, concentrated, and entrenched poverty, poor health and nutrition, rampant self-doubt, immense self-loathing, hatred for others, low expectations, and a whole host of negative societal outcomes.

The term youth is used in this title to refer to children from pre-teen to young adulthood. Without reliable statistics, one can securely estimate that youth constitute nearly 25% of Liberia’s population or even more. How can Liberia survive if it has absolute no strategy to rescue a quarter of its population from the throes of self-destruction and other homicidal and suicidal tendencies? Like the situation in which “Black America” finds itself, where nearly one of three of its youth is incarcerated (Kunjufu, 2001) or where school dropout rates in the third grade are used to predict the number of prison cells built (Wynn, 2005), Liberia must declare a state of national emergency. Here is why. We adults cannot declare that our children are ill in massive numbers and then try to convince the world that we are immune from the illnesses affecting them. It would seem to me that some of the conditions that are negatively affecting our youth are present, if not, exaggerated in and among some adult populations, especially the predators, who too must be rescued, if we are to have a sustainable and systemic response to the problem at hand. Adults indict themselves when we make negative claims about the conditions of our youth by throwing stones and holding our hands back.

Some Vital Questions

Can we afford another generation of Liberians to continue to live under the spell of these predators? How many Liberian boys and girls have not attended school or have been in and out of school for the last 14 years? How many of them have given up on going to school? How many of them have not lived under the same roof with their parents or in the bosom of caring and responsible adults for 14 years? How many of them have not seen a doctor for 14 years? How many of them are sick with HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases (STDS)? How many of them who are sick with these STDS are undiagnosed and still transmitting these diseases to their multiple partners? How many of them witnessed the deaths of their parents, friends, or caregivers and have yet not been seen by a mental health professional? How many of them were the perpetrators of violence (communal or otherwise) against other Liberians, including members of their own families, and yet have not had the benefit of culturally appropriate counseling for such nightmarish experiences? How many of them lack the basic life and/or social skills to exist within a functioning society? Why is there a scarcity of healthy value systems among many Liberian youth? Given that the requirements for employment have changed globally, thus requiring more sophisticated people and technical skills and formal education, how many of them are unable to be absorbed by the job market?

Noteworthy, many of these young people lack such interpersonal skills as communication, collaboration, teamwork, problem solving, and appropriate leadership skills. High school education alone, especially a mediocre one, can no longer pass muster. Add to this, that some of these youth cannot concentrate for a full twenty minutes without being restless, fidgeting or disruptive. In the global communication age, technical skills have become indispensable to employment in even low-wage jobs. In some cases, employers tend to sort applicants based on their history of involvement in community building and voluntary activities as young as junior high. This means that not only should a systemic change involve concerns with academic achievement (the quality of their formal education), but their psychosocial well being: physical health, mental health, attachments to peers, family and community, and all the other priority components that contribute to being productive and successful in a fast-changing global society.

Relevant Historical Lessons

The Tubman administration is credited with the formation of the Liberian National Youth Organization (LNYO) in collaboration with the Israeli government. During the Tubman administration, the Liberian National Youth Council (LNYC) also undertook a pilot project in Foquelleh, Bong County, which launched community development activities in the rural sector. In their youthful ages, Kenneth Y. Best, Publisher of the Daily Observer and Charles Minor, Liberian Ambassador to the United States were some of the participants in this project.

Under the Tolbert administration, the Federation of Liberian Youth was launched, which later partnered with the University of Liberia and the Liberian National Youth Council to fund a pilot project namely, National Youth Voluntary Service. The aim of this project was to encourage students from the University of Liberia and high schools to collaborate and engage in community development in rural Liberia, including building toilets, schools, and digging wells. For example, a nine room school building was dubbed in Konobo District, Grand Gedeh County in the 1970s. This was supposed to have been the pilot for launching the National Youth Service Corp. Shortly thereafter, the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) launched its SUSUKU Project in Grand Gedeh County, accompanied by the rise of student militancy at the University of Liberia, Cuttington University College, Tubman High School, and other institutions of learning around the country. As student militancy gained momentum, it eclipsed government efforts to form a National Youth Service Corps. Students disassociated themselves from the government and its efforts for fear of being branded as “reactionaries.” However, several other factors were responsible for its failure. The LNYO did not continue following President Tubman because his successor, William R. Tolbert, broke diplomatic relations with Israel, which had been the main patron of the LNYO and its key trainer of Liberian staff. More so, during the Tolbert administration the Federation of Liberian Youth organized a government sponsored Executive Mansion National Conference on youth that brought together President Tolbert and his cabinet in dialogue with young people spanning the various counties and territories. Tolbert referred to these young people as Liberia’s “precious jewels” and engage them in ways that set the standard for elevating government’s response to the concerns and needs of young people.

During the Doe administration, the priority for youth development was linked to the president’s love for soccer. There was no concerted effort to engage youth in a meaningful non-sports based community development activity like the rural development projects that occurred during the Tubman and Tolbert eras. However, the Doe administration provided immense support for the Liberian National Soccer Team, which brought many Liberian soccer players to international prominence. George Oppong-Weah emerged as the most prominent of such beneficiaries and later became African, European, and World soccer champions before launching his campaign to become Liberia’s president. Developing an enabling and empowering environment for Liberian youth to attain appropriate life skills and excel ceased to exist during the Taylor regime. If any administration is the key culprit for the dismal state of affairs in Liberia among the youth population, it is the Charles Taylor regime.

After inauguration, the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf administration would immediately need to build an infrastructure to garner youth social development. It would have to learn from the past. Historical facts provided are thus intended to make the case that some systemic efforts have been made to improve the quality of life for youth and increase their opportunities. From the Tubman administration, especially the LNYO, its roots in multiple government agencies: the then Department of Public Instruction and Defense indicates that youth programming should be cross-disciplinary and bridge sectoral gaps. The LNYO also had an Executive Officer who reported directly to the President, indicating the level of prominence, access, and authority (president’s direct involvement with young people) that the person overseeing youth services should have to the highest public office in the nation. The LNYO was woven into the fabric of both community and cultural organizations and also emphasized outdoor field activities, physical fitness, strengthening national unity, and collaboration between parties interested in the well-being of youth. The values and virtues of good citizenship (patriotism) and grassroots involvement and the continuous improvement of programming and services were also highlighted in the mandate that created the LNYO, and therefore these characteristics should be harnessed by the next administration.

Still, one has to acknowledge that the quality of programs and services for youth did not provide equitable access to resources and did not pay attention to inequalities at all spectrums of society. Differences existed among counties and local communities. As a result of systemic inequalities, many children, especially those from indigenous origin that were poor, found themselves frequently at-risk. Many youth who traveled from the rural sector to Monrovia to attend Tubman High, the University of Liberia and other schools suffered significant hardships and became the indigents of the urban area. This and related problems emanated from national policies that funded rural counties inadequately compared to their urban counterparts. It also led to hiring incompetent and/or under performing staff in various government positions, including public educators. Ineffective administrative structures largely centralized were also the culprit.

Adults’ Responsibility

Just in case some adults are claiming that they are not responsible, it is important to ask: “Who makes the moral decisions in society? Who controls the power in society? Who controls the resources in society? Is it adults or youth? To get rid of the predators in their lives, we must give Liberian youth new brains, new hearts, and courage, although not literally. Their ability to learn has been compromised by successively being in and out of school over the last 14 years. Their hearts have been rendered cold and callous by exposure to the brutality of war and the dehumanizing brainwashing pogrom that they suffered at the hands of many warring factions, which have rendered many remorseless. Their capacity to fend off their detractors has been reduced vastly by an assortment of negative self-images and the lack of opportunities. Essentially, when our young people lack healthy outlets to acquire healthy values and express their voices and views, they are starved of the discernment it takes to prevent them from being swayed by the predators.

We need an integrated strategy that links existing silos in the youth’s educational, physical health, mental health, and employment prospects. The consequences of not paying attention to Liberian youth are dire. Foremost is that they will continuously become preys of predators who used them as baits for launching insurrection. It is likely that the bodies of these youth could be exploited as vessels for the drug trade. Some have been known to transport illegal drugs via their internal organs for merchants from one country to another. Essentially, these young people do not have the “webs of protection” that are necessary to face life challenges in an already devastating environment, which provides little or no opportunities for attaining success.

Strategies for Systemic Change

If the new government fails to give this issue foremost consideration, nation building and national security has the strongest potential to be derailed by the predators: political misfits and warlords, using the youth to do their dirty work. This is a horror story because Liberian youth live in a state of chronic dependency. The injury that they sustained from the predators have caused considerable psychosocial wounds that if we let the trend to continue, the killing fields that will emerge would be more dreadful than ever before.

Many important questions abound regarding the state of affairs related to Liberian youth as you would notice throughout this paper. What can be done to save the youth population whose physical, emotional, educational and economic well-being hangs in the balance, threatened by neglect and selfishness? Essentially, at the beginning of the next elections cycle, the defining feature of success and failure will be how Liberian youth are faring. This is not to neglect other vulnerable populations: children below ten years of age, seniors, women, etc, but to draw greater awareness of elected leaders to a gaping hole in our policy infrastructure.

The broad steps outlined in this paper emanate in part from the knowledge base of seeking to engage a disempowered youth population that feels unmotivated and abandoned by those who should care for them. One size does not fit all when devising strategies to mitigate the problems that youth face. Yet, some general assumptions apply across the board that forms the basis for best practices that can move youth from at-risk to promise and hope. I refer to these tenets as “destiny drivers” whose roles are to galvanize public action.

Tenet 1: Identify a diversified group of stakeholders and build a “core team” for launching a national youth development plan
We should broaden the focus beyond mere intervention and prevention programs, which are the typical public policy responses to the plight of disadvantaged youth. We should develop a “core team” of institutional stakeholders that have responsibility for evolving an integrated response to the needs of youth. A systematic, sustainable, and holistic approach for moving youth from at-risk to promise and hope means that we are intimately familiar with all the various sources of influence (positive and negative) on their existence. The “core team” has to be invested in the lives of youth and equipped with the resources and given the authority to influence youth behavior.

The stakeholders would have to apply multidimensional approaches to rehabilitating the youth population. The list should be diversified to include academic stakeholders, faith-based stakeholders (Christians, Moslems, etc), parent and other intimate stakeholders, economic stakeholders, sports and recreational stakeholders, heritage and historical stakeholders, etc. All the participants that can be mustered to spur achievement of the youth’s Liberian Promise would need to be garnered. If we bring all critical sectors together to have a buy-in on the challenges that face our youth, especially all those that have abdicated their responsibilities, we will create a cultural shift that is so critical to rebuilding Liberia. We can no longer address these conditions as silos because the results would be superficial solutions.

Tenet 2: Articulate motivations and high expectations for all stakeholders
To break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and social decadence that have mired young people into a life of hopelessness, the first step has to be making sure that adults clearly check and articulate their motivations and high expectations for all stakeholders. What factors have motivated us to engage in addressing the needs of youth? Is it for selfish purposes? Is it rooted in a conscious, deliberate, and purposeful decision to launch a systemic plan to understand and address the needs of an important segment of the population? Are we willing to devote considerable time and resources on the social development needs of youth? Are our strategies plotted on a developmental continuum that customizes solutions based on the specific needs of the youth (individually and/or in cohort)? Do we have a clearly defined framework and infrastructure for deploying our strategies and carrying out our interventions? Is the current climate youth-friendly or hostile to pursuing their interests?

Tenet 3: Strategies should be meaningful to the cultural contexts of all stakeholders.
Organizational development is a socially, culturally, and historically dependent process. Therefore, organizational change does not occur within cultural or historical vacuums. Indeed, misrepresentation and misunderstanding of cultural context renders a process meaningless to stakeholders whose voices and values are not included or considered in the building of systems. If the cultural context is not acknowledged the ethos, vision, and mission upon which change occurs becomes misplaced. Indeed, for real change to happen in the lives of youth and other interested parties, the strategies we derive must be culturally meaningful. That is the only way it would be able to move youth from at-risk to promise and hope. Do the mission and/or vision statements have specific expectations for transformative change? Do the mission and value statements provide critical insights about what the government plans to do about the problems identified? Are the mission and values accompanied by measurable goals? Does the strategy identify the various ministries or agencies that have direct or indirect roles in effecting change in the lives of Liberian youth?

Academic progress is a core to any level of success in a global economy. Hence, a rigorous academic foundation is not negotiable, which makes the Ministry of Education a vital part of any comprehensive strategy to provide a springboard for excellence among our youth. The curriculum should be infused with Liberian civic history and culture. The history and culture that they have currently been exposed to have often been dysfunctional. They will need exposure to a history of the past that affirms the values and worldviews all cultural groups as opposed to one that is customized to subjugate specific populations.

Having noted the important role of academics, one has to acknowledge that many Liberian youth have reached ages of maturation without the adequate academic rigor needed for success, thus their life plan must include informal or non-academic life skills that can foster much realistic and faster transition to employment. With this in mind, vocational education accompanied by life skills development: communication and vocabulary development, interviewing skills, resume preparation, people skills, etiquettes for dress, interpersonal skills, self-esteem building, etc, would be necessary in the progression of preparation. The process of moving these youth from at-risk to promise and hope also means that the Ministries of Labor, Youth and Sports, and Justice would need to join this enterprise. The latter ministry (Justice) is included as a stakeholder in the youth development project given the need to devise proactive and/or restorative mechanisms for dispensing justice, should the youth have the propensity to commit offenses that violate local or national laws.

Tenet 4: Consistently collect data and measure progress of efforts made.
We must conduct a needs assessment in the initial phase of our planning and set a stage for ongoing data collection to track progress and challenges. But data gathering does not occur independently of well-trained professionals and standardizing academic and non-academic credentialing and licensure processes. Initiatives that put emphasis on quality and outcomes management will distinguish the seriousness of our efforts. The data gathering should be expanded to include youth academic grade level, youth/family demographics, history of drug and alcohol use, history of experience and/or involvement in violence, index of life, social, and job skills, parental responsibilities, physical medical needs, innovations developed by youth themselves, etc. Data would allow us to create a comprehensive and robust strategy or else the solutions devised would emanate from chance and guess work.

Tenet 5: Create a nationwide management hub and executive to coordinate interventions.
The natural hub for managing an integrated public policy response to the youth development strategy is in my view the Executive Mansion. This would elevate youth development policymaking to the core of the government’s priorities. A Presidential Policy Advisor with responsibility for mounting a coordinated and holistic response to the needs and concerns of youth is recommended. This Presidential Advisor will facilitate a team of professionals within and outside the public sector to implement this plan.

The solutions to such problems must also be developed on a broad continuum. Solutions cannot be directed at one problem at a time, but be part of an assortment and be applied concurrently over a sustained time period with resources being infused from all sectors identified as collaborators and partners in the project. From the vantage point of the Executive Mansion, the coordination of the solutions will garner the needed access and authority to generate the active participation of various public and private sector partners.

Tenet 6: Align strategies with culturally responsive research methods and best practices.
Our elders have reminded us continuously that: “If we continue doing things the ways we have always done them, the chances are that we will continue to get the same results that we have gotten in the past.” Liberians, both in and outside of academia, with very limited exceptions, have overlooked or placed limited emphasis on the need to do empirical research on the conditions that continue to ail us. The time has come for institutions to collect evidence on the efficacy of youth development and educational programs and generalize their results to the larger public. Researchers will evaluate activities and ideas that support youth learning and draw on their expertise of existing theoretical and curricular approaches that provide the most ample means for transitioning youth to culturally aware people and competent workforce. Scholars would ask about the gaps in service delivery. Do silos exist in the service delivery systems? This is where the University of Liberia and the various higher institutions of learning come into play as stakeholders. They too should reform their structures to include research institutions and broaden their curriculum to include training in psychology, mental health, social work, and other related fields. Higher education programs should also have college preparatory components for youth that are underprepared so they too can access higher education, if they so desire. The goal here would be to embed an academic and social skills development curriculum to prepare these youth for the workplace. Since this is a national priority, it would be useful for the government to invest in scholarship programs that prepare citizens for undergraduate and graduate training in these allied fields.

Tenet 7: Attend to structural conditions of government institutions that place youth at-risk.
In simple terms, no amount of changes would occur in the lives of youth if the structural conditions of government institutions, schools included, are not changed. No longer can we mask the enduring power of cronyism and structural inequalities on the basis of ethnicity, gender, and class in our society. A meritocracy has never existed in Liberia. While there are significant numbers of structural issues that can be mentioned here, a primary area of concern relates to equity reforms. All efforts will be counterproductive if disparities exist or if the government is perceived to be pursuing the agenda of the status quo. Furthermore, the standards for education (K through college) and professional status for educators as well as compensation for people in the allied fields mentioned previously will have to be raised considerably, if the issues under scrutiny are to be improved. Remedies will have to be linked to improvements in the training of professionals and continuous improvements in those training over their professional life. Based on research results, the benchmarks for essential resources and best practices will be defined and professional standards would then be developed to support high-quality holistic opportunities for youth social development.

Tenet 8: Appoint George Oppong-Weah as ambassador for youth development programs
Given that the results of the elections were not favorable toward George Oppong-Weah, and he is viewed by the underprivileged youth population as a symbol of their future prospects, I believe that appointing him as ambassador for youth development programs would have several values. Public resources are scarce and the need for fundraising would be critical to success of such a venture. Oppong-Weah is well suited to harness resources from around the world and bring visibility to the achievements of Liberian youth in all arenas. Because many of the underprivileged youth see him as a role model, his association with such a program would garner massive participation. It would also serve as a form of outreach and an olive branch by the Johnson-Sirleaf administration, which would utilize Oppong-Weah’s strengths. Oppong-Weah would improve his political stature, while still functioning in a capacity that is a natural fit based on his previous professional experience. The Youth Development Policy Advisor to the President can be responsible to build Oppong-Weah’s needed leadership competencies to enhance his performance in this position.

Concluding Thoughts
The fundamentals of a good society are how it cares for its most vulnerable populations. Liberian youth stand out as one of the most vulnerable populations today. The clarion call today is then for a comprehensive and cohesive plan and associated strategies that can improve the lives of Liberian youth. Each of the tenets recommended is pivotal to deepening our conceptual understanding of the challenges that youth face, although not exclusively. It should be noted that solutions developed should not be designed as a one shot, short-lived intervention merely intended to give an administration superficial popularity. Instead, this should be a natural and permanent fixture within the government, given that Liberian youth have suffered massive psychological trauma and cultural alienation that requires sustained investment of human capital and resources. To accomplish this aim, a core of Liberian professionals with proven backgrounds in youth development and related fields should be gathered and empowered to draft relevant legislations to institutionalize as organic law the commitment to the needs and concerns of Liberian youth. This action would prevent future administrations from paying little or no attention to the needs of the youth. The tendency in Liberia has been that new governments have often neglected established policies and erected their own fixtures not for purposes of national development, but their selfish agendas.

On the road to a pluralistic democracy, citizen-involvement cannot be as passive consumers of government services, especially our youth. They need to build equity in their own lives, but equity is never gained by watching from the sidelines. Equity requires time investment and active and productive participation. Therefore, the youth population has to be engaged, motivated and mentored to not become mere consumers, but active and fruitful participants.

Finally, Liberian youth are abundantly blessed with gifts, skills, and resiliency that are ripe for nurturing and strengthening. Like every group of young people, they are as eager as any of their peers around the world to lead worthwhile lives. All that I believe they desire is the right commitment and support from adults. That being the case, while the conversation about motivating them to create better and brighter destinies need to examine the challenges they face, the effort should equally emphasize their strengths, if not even more. Research on youth social development is anchored in large measure on the strengths perspective, which focuses on people’s strengths and less so, on their areas of growth as a guiding framework. In doing so, we will be utilizing evidence-based practice as our strategy.

About the Author: Emmanuel Dolo is the Director of Educational Equity and Integration at South Washington County Schools in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. He lives with his wife and two children in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. He can be contacted at