The Persistence of Inequality in the Face of Undeserved Wealth

By Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 27, 2006


I have written about the “equality of opportunity” as an important indicator of democracy in post-war Liberian society. But as governance has evolved during the Sirleaf administration, it has occurred to me that this kind of idealism is hard to match with reality. With the joy of the holidays at hand, I am left to wonder, where is the starting gate, if we are to equalize opportunities for everyone? Are there Liberians who have already had opportunities tilted in their favor undeservingly? How do we move from “equality of opportunity” in theory to practice? How do we account for the scars of injustice and institutionalized evils that placed some Liberians ahead, and left others far behind on the socioeconomic ladder?

It is hard to exaggerate the inequality gap in present day Liberia. Differences in socioeconomic opportunities among Liberians have deepened and remained persistent. The gulf between the rich and poor is so wide that you can drive a truck through it, even in the absence of updated statistics. I insist that the inequality gap crosses ethnic identity, gender, age, and many of the same markers that people use to sow the seeds of difference. One important implication of the inequality gap is that Liberians caught in the existing socioeconomic drought, who constitute the broad majority, cannot improve their share of the national income. Of significant concern is that the trend toward inequality reduction is not invigorated by targeted social policies that are necessary preconditions for eliminating the pervasive perception that some in Liberian society still receive disproportionate shares of the national wealth criminally. Or the chances of success for some are dramatically and determinedly different than others who have close ties to the ruling regime. It is important to underscore that one of the hidden root causes of civil conflict in Liberia is inequality.

“Equality of opportunity” indicators refer here to socioeconomic benchmarks that are the bedrocks of upward mobility. All things being equal, movement upward, downward, or stagnation on the socioeconomic ladder is based in large measure on education, competence, and/or skill level. But all things are often never equal. Some people are more privileged than others. Legitimate inheritance, discrimination and/or thievery may give some individuals and groups legs up on others, hence, sources of inequality.

Some individuals and groups are drenched in poverty-inducing conditions because fate has delivered them such prospects. Nonetheless, most of the inequalities are not accountable to fate. There is a significant lack of stewardship among those given responsibility for governance. Many are unemployed and others work in jobs that provide minimal wages; in jobs that assign no prestige and stature; live in squalor; have limited or no access to preventive, even curative medical care; and schools in their environments are substandard. These conditions are mutually reinforcing along the life course. They serve as vehicles for high incidence of intergenerational inequality and hopelessness.

In these communities, school dropout rates are the highest. Many times, at least only one or two people from each family or whole communities manage to get through these traps, and then attend and graduate from post-secondary institutions. But when they complete higher education, the labor market is so saturated in privilege and discrimination (who know you), that they “circle the wagon” endlessly to gain employment that can pay them life-sustaining wages. Being the sole employed person in a family has repercussions, because you become the single provider, which affects nearly all aspects of your life chances. There seems to be a vicious cycle operating here. If you are born in segments of Liberian society where opportunities are minimal or nonexistent, family and community responsibilities abound. If this cycle is unbroken, it reinforces the sequence of events that dampen prospects, cause one to lag behind peers, and eventually makes it hard to triumph over intergenerational poverty. What is even more painful is that in Liberia, many who find themselves in these situations are watching powerlessly as responsibility for governance is placed in the hands of some of the same “corrupt elites” that failed the country so dramatically. The paradox of recycling corrupt officials from the past in a government which claims to be bent on ridding society of ineptitude remains puzzling to some observers.

The truth remains that individual and group behaviors have obvious effects on the cultivation of inequality. Many of those behaviors can be controlled, and if so, inequality can be reduced dramatically. The government has a big role to play here. It can make and enforce policies that erode the prospects of predators from gaining a head start. It can also make laws to enhance the chances of the most at-risk populations, especially those living in “vulnerable geographies.”

Our intellectuals have an important role here as well; stewardship for their knowledge and influence. They must educate and expand our understanding of economic disparities and their sources, while also devising solutions to them. Here, the structural underpinnings of inequality must be deciphered and discussed widely so that it fosters critical thinking and informed decision making in all quarters of society. Linkages between inequality and ethnic identity, geographic location, gender, and other social variables have to be explored to enlighten the public about its responsibility in bridging socioeconomic gaps.

It is in displaying academic rigor, a fervor for politics, and most importantly, personal empathy for the poor and dispossessed that Liberian intellectuals will contribute to building the foundational elements of an egalitarian society. In delving into the historical context of how inequality evolved in our society, which is sorely omitted from our public discourse, and linking it to the psychic scars of present day crisis, they frame the suffering of the poor into the consciousness of the larger society. In so doing, they urge us to change the ways in which we relate to the poor and to one another. Each day, we all must be reminded that what’s at stake is no less than the future of our children and grandchildren. They are entitled to better prospects than we have availed ourselves. It is not uncommon for people in society to forget the past and continue as if all is well. That sort of absentmindedness or lack of memory is dangerous for nation building. It is the role of social critics to keep the national antenna up, using the past as a pointer to warn about looming dangers.

Indeed, the legacy of inequality will remain with us, if those with much refined understanding of the social circumstances that got us here, the media included, remain silent. In their silence and ennui, they collude with the perpetrators of enmity. The elite must shine the light of critical analysis on itself, if we are to prevail over the hurdles that inequality puts in the way of recovery. By illuminating inequality and other social ills in society, we liberate our society from the strong grips of the customary repulsive ignorance and prejudice that have caused misconceptions about the “have nots” in Liberian society.

In my mind, this suggests the declining social significance of ethnic identity in the political life of our country. While many predators and politicians have been able to exploit ethnic identity for personal and political purposes, perhaps, our worry should be on how to disentangle the chronic class divide that is woven into the structures of our society. I am not suggesting that the debate on how to resolve the huge ethnic divide is over. But, I am making a case that class inequalities are just as damning as the toxic divides that stem from polarizing ethnic difference, if not more potent.

The debate over class disparities which are locked into our discussions about how to legally prosecute members of the “privileged classes,” specifically those people, who allegedly stole the national wealth, will not eclipse debates about the ethnic divide. But because ethnic identity is undergoing fundamental shifts, and it is becoming increasingly difficult draw a straight line between ethnic identity and class (life chances), we might want to pay serious attention to class inequalities. This might be an avenue through which we can unify disparate groups and induce our shared commitment to building an open and free society.

For all intents and purposes, the argument that I am making here is that fundamental economic cleavages exist in Liberian society: those between rural and urban residents, women and men, young people and adults, skilled and unskilled people, and the list goes on. Think strongly about this – these groups cross ethnic differences. More concerning should be the power disparities that keep springing from among those wedded to the status quo and others willing to unhinge and reverse the status quo. The power associated with unearned wealth, which owners are now ready to hand down to their children and grandchildren as inheritance should worry us even more.

The issue at hand is intergenerational inequality and wealth is the pathway to accessing education, occupational mobility, more sustainable income, prestige, stature, and of course, power. When we view the lifestyles of the “rich and infamous” in our society, who accumulated their wealth on the backs of the poor and/or stole them from the state coffers, I am convinced that their unearned assets and privileges are the greatest sources of inequality. Failed governance, which is an outgrowth of the blending of illicit quests for wealth, incompetence and ineffectiveness, cannot be remedied, when justice is compromised.

We live in a society where workers face harsh responses when unionizing to protest their suffering. Liberian society is also known prominently for lack of sufficient means whereby people with common class interests, the poor more specifically, can advocate for justice without facing coercion and outright suppression. The corrupt and powerful have more resources at their disposal to buy nearly all that they want. This includes, but is not limited to twisting the judicial system to serve their interest. In this sense, there is a continued clash between the self-interests of the powerful and justice for the not so powerful. Nowhere is this obvious than in the realm of prosecuting corrupt former government officials – where rather than forging ahead, there are appearances that the status quo still has not been overturned. Could it be that justice and criminally acquired power are interlocked in a conspiracy to maintain inequality? Right, the political dynamics in Liberia are complex and complicated, and even the best efforts to cautiously evade pitfalls of the past are not foolproof.

With complex psychological dynamics going on in the heads of Liberians who are watching all this play out, some are wondering, if all the promises made that government will prosecute these individuals would ever come to fruition. Why should the prosecution of Gyude Bryant, Rudolph Johnson and others be moving at a much slower pace than others? Whether or not the government attributes its actions to deliberate strategy to realize optimal prosecutorial outcomes, there are those citizens who might use the seeming exclusive focus on one group over the other as symbols of preferential treatment. That is why the Liberian government needs to remain vigilant in avoiding the appearance of protecting the status quo, even if inadvertent. Knowing that the politically connected and wealthy in Liberian society have time and time and again, subverted justice for their personal favor using cronyism, fraud, coercion, and other unlawful mechanisms, there are substantive reasons for these misgivings.

What do I mean by closing the inequality gap in Liberia? I mean decreasing the proportion of economically and socially disadvantaged Liberians and ensuring that justice proceeds in the case of those Liberians and others who have gained their wealth illegally.
We do not want Liberian children to enter adulthood in poverty or the other adverse conditions that combine to reduce their prospects for being globally competitive. Ultimately, we want all Liberians, especially children and the most vulnerable to have the likelihood of success, regardless of their ethnic background.

Because inequality begins quite early in life, and continues on the life course to adulthood, old age, and into generations yet unborn, it is critical to break this ominous cycle. We remedy this abysmal trend by starting to think about social policies that examine the sources of intergenerational poverty, and intervene to prepare youth and other less equipped populations to acquire life skills. If the health, cognitive, social, and emotional development of a child is hindered by inequality, he or she is likely to lag behind their peer who grows up in wealth and social security.

Research-based evidence, although quite limited with regard to the Liberian context, indicates that addressing inequality holistically through social policies of multi-pronged assortment can heighten individual and group self-sufficiency. Where inequality exists, the potential for underachievement in school and other important spheres of life are the highest. Inequality has disproportionate effects on the most vulnerable in society. Without solving this problem, we would not achieve the solidarity that is necessary to build social cohesion. I believe that if national resources are distributed by competitive processes (not just impersonal and invisible market forces), but buttressed by distributive justice devices, inequality will definitely be mitigated. This makes justice a critical component of our approach to reconstruction.

Hopefully, the intersection of justice and inequality or vice versa is an important consideration in the government’s prosecutorial and broad social development strategy. But long after the prosecution of the case against those in the news has abated, it is my fervent hope that issues related to the ethnic divide and class would not be swept under the rug forever, so that condescension against the “less fortunate” can mushroom. The prophetic voices of social justice professionals, some of whom are often religious in their posture, others political, some intellectual, others plain spoken grassroots folk in their grounding, must keep these issues alive. This, we must do out of deep loyalty for the land, our liberties, and the lives of our fellow humankind.

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 family in Coon Rapids, Minnesota.
© 2006 by The Perspective

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