Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Have Things Changed?

Since my arrival and during the course of navigating around Monrovia and its environs, I have been asking myself if anything has really changed since the last time I was here a year ago. Certainly, there is more asphalt on the roads, there are new traffic lights powered by solar panels, there are more gas stations and certainly more cars, and there is more building going on. But what about the stock of ordinary Liberians? Has their lot in life improved at all in the last twelve months? Sadly, the evidence would suggest not.

By any measure, the unemployment rate remains at an appalling level, around 70-80% (nobody really knows the exact number). However, it is somewhat misleading to talk about unemployment in this country. That is because most of the employable portion of the population is doing something. That “something” typically involves activity in the so-called “informal sector” of the economy. That means men and women working for themselves with family members commonly assisting them—selling cell phone cards, water, candies and other treats, common household items, agricultural produce, fish, and so on. This, however, is a hand-to-mouth existence that doesn’t generate much in the way of disposable income or tax revenue for the government. The problem is that everyone is doing or selling substantially the same thing, with the result that the sellers vastly outnumber the buyers. Nonetheless, people do what they can to get by. There is no governmental assistance to help them. The average Liberian subsists on about $1.25 a day. Bottom line: life here is very difficult for the average person.

It wasn’t always that way though. For example, in 1960 the average per capita income was about $600 a year. In the scheme of things, not bad in a West African country at that time. That increased to around $800 per year in the mid to late 1970s. In addition, in the 1960s the Liberian economy had double digit growth rates. It was, in fact, the second fastest-growing economy in the world after Japan. Its growth stemmed from increased exports of rubber, iron ore, palm oil and timber. The trouble was none of that growth filtered down to the average Liberian, whose did not improve much as a result.

Where did the wealth go? Mainly to the ruling class, the so-called Americo-Liberians: the descendants of the American slaves who were repatriated to their “homeland” by well-meaning American slave owners in the early 1800s. The Americo-Liberians ruled Liberia with an iron fist once it became an independent republic in 1847, with the indigenous tribes being reduced to second-class citizens. This was a governance model that was doomed to failure. And fail it did, big time. In April, 1980, in one of the most improbable and unlikely coups in recent history, an illiterate Sergeant in the Liberian Army, named Samuel K. Doe, from an area of the country that had theretofore had no influence whatsoever in the running of the government, invaded the Executive Mansion and brutally murdered then President William Tolbert and his wife in their beds. Doe then ruled Liberia for the next decade (despite his obvious deficiencies) until he, in turn, was brutally and savagely murdered (which was famously captured on tape—viewer discretion is strongly advised) by a rebel named Prince Johnson. Prince was in competition at that time with Charles Taylor, who had invaded Liberia with his own force of rebels, from Cote d’Ivoire, for the right to govern Liberia. The 14-year civil year war was on.

During the war, the average per capita income of Liberians dropped to the astonishing level of $50 a year in 1996. It has gradually risen in the years since peace was declared in 2003 to around $300 at the present time. Certainly not enough to live on by any definition. President Johnson-Sirleaf has been doing her best to get the economy back on its feet since she took office in 2006 after democratic elections. It is, however, an enormously difficult task. The infrastructure of Liberia was completely destroyed during the civil war—roads, bridges, power lines and generation facilities, water and sewage treatment, and telecommunications. All of that has had to be rebuilt from the ground up at a tremendous cost. Foreign direct investment has been very difficult to attract given these realities. The people who suffer most are the average citizens.

Take the example of my driver, Emmanuel. He has been driving for the Ministry of Commerce for about four years now. Prior to that he ran a business with a partner. I don’t know what he makes but he told me the other day that the pay from the government is low. He works extremely long hours. He is up just after 4:00 a.m. and usually doesn’t get home until 9:00 or 9:30 at night. He has four girls at various stages in high school. That should not usually represent an onerous financial burden except that in Liberia even primary and secondary school is not state supported. In other words, Emmanuel has to pay the equivalent of “tuition” to get his girls through public high school. Furthermore, he tells me that the tuition fee is just the beginning. The schools keep coming back to him throughout the year with various and sundry charges for a wide variety of things that we in North American take for granted. I imagine that a huge amount of his paycheque (as small as it is) goes to keeping his girls in school. Like most Liberians I talk to, he sees education as the only way out for his kids. So he is prepared to sacrifice everything to ensure that they get a good education and hopefully, at the end of it, a decent and fulfilling job. That is the reality of being a caring parent in Liberia. I wish I could do more for him and others in the same situation. Emmanuel wants to go back into business for himself, but he knows he can’t do that until his kids are through school. He has already built his own store, but it will remain unoccupied for the foreseeable future.

The bottom line is that this country, and others like it (e.g., Sierra Leone) who are transitioning out of a long period of a devastating civil war, have a very long way to go to realize their potential and to share the benefit of that potential with their citizens.

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