Friday, September 6, 2013

The Workshops

As mentioned in previous blogs, the principal purpose of this trip was to hold workshops on two statutes I have drafted—a Competition Law and a Foreign Trade Law. The workshops were held on consecutive Wednesdays, one for each statute. Both went extremely well, by any measure. Attendance was excellent. There were representatives of the Ministries of Commerce, Justice, Finance and Foreign Affairs, of the Liberian Chamber of Commerce, the Liberian Business Association, the Liberian Bar Association, the Law Reform Commission and the National Investment Commission, among others, as well as private businessmen and citizens. More importantly, though, the participation level was superb. One never knows what to expect at these types of events. After I finished my half hour introduction, I could well have been met with stony silence. Fortunately, that was not the case.

Liberia folks are not at all shy about expressing their views. That is what happened: I had no sooner finished talking than half a dozen arms were up in the air waiting to be recognized. Virtually all participants had read the laws ahead of time and therefore their questions were informed and thoughtful. As a result, the next few hours just flew by. It was a bit tiring being on the “hot seat” for that length of time, but it was extremely worthwhile. There were many laughs along the way as well.

When people speak of the Liberian Government, the common lament is the lack of “human capital”. That is true. There are many smart people in government today but generally only enough to fill the top positions. Below the top, there is a significant drop-off in talent. Some of that is due to the war where tens of thousands of young men and women were killed or displaced. Also, there is the matter of the Liberian diaspora. Many of those in the upper echelons of government are U.S.- or U.K.-educated. Usually they return to Liberia when they graduate, but many get frustrated with the pace of progress here and head back to America or Europe for better, and frankly better-paying, jobs. There is therefore a wealth of Liberian talent living and working outside the country.

The President needs to address this situation. She is trying to do so through an emphasis on education, but that process will be slow to bear fruit and is financially challenged. The Minister of Commerce told me last year that fully 76% of her employees and staff at the Ministry do not even have a high school education—and this is the Ministry that is supposed to be leading Liberian business back to profitability and developing domestic and international trade policies to facilitate that. The Assistant Minister for Trade, with whom I have worked most closely on this trip, has been constantly frustrated by the lack of talent around him. The result is that he has to do most tasks himself, many of which could easily be, and should be, delegated to a more junior person. Such is the reality in government generally here. The same was true at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when I worked there in 2010.

Nonetheless, as the workshops over these past two weeks demonstrated quite clearly, there are many bright, thoughtful men and women in this country, dedicated to the cause of restoring it to what it once was. There are just not enough of them at this stage.

As a result of the views expressed at the workshops, I have made substantial changes to the Draft Laws. Once those changes are finalized, the Laws will go to the Law Reform Commission for a detailed review. The Commission reviews all laws in Liberia before they are tabled in the Legislature. We are therefore making some progress, one small step at a time.

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