Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Liberia's Budget Battles: A National Soap Opera

When I arrived in Monrovia, I was informed by Minister Sayeh that the scope of my internship would include a focus on Liberia’s budget. A draft of the national budget had been submitted by the President to the Legislature less than two weeks before I landed in Monrovia. I was just in time, the Minister explained, to work from the end of the Ministry of Finance until it was passed. Stacked against the other issues I had been tasked to work on --- investment policy, debt relief, fiscal policy – the budget seemed, well, a bit dull.

What I did not realize then was that the Minister had just given me a front row seat to the summer’s most explosive drama. In fact, the high profile budget saga that unfolded over the next two months had more sensational plot turns, surprise twists, and preposterous characters than in an entire season of the soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” (Even in its most ridiculous heyday, when Marlena was possessed and Stefano died and came back to life, again.)

My initial read of the draft budget didn’t give even the slightest hint of the ensuing controversy. In fact, during my first tasks of writing talking points for the Cabinet and press releases for the newspapers, I could find nothing but good news to tell. Thanks to robust revenue growth, the draft budget represented a 40% larger pie than the previous year. It was hard to argue with the sectors that stood to benefit from this growth: compared to the previous year, education was to get an additional 44%, health an extra 28%, and public works (and in particular roads!) a needed 59% boost. Civil servants and retirees were designated lucky winners, with well deserved salary increases bound for grossly underpaid government employees. The pot of funds for community development in Liberia’s far flung villages would grow a bit fuller. And more money would be spent on job creation to make a dent into the country’s 85% unemployment rate. Clearly I didn’t need to be a spin doctor to tease out good PR for this budget. Liberia may not have a lot of zeros in its $180 million draft budget, but there is no question that it was aligning all of its pennies with the most important priorities.

Before I could kick up my heels and celebrate, however, the proverbial shit hit the fan. And who was doing the tossing? The Auditor General: the new bully in town, who catapulted overnight from total obscurity to (in)famous national figure. Who is the Auditor General, you might ask? Functionally, the Auditor General is an independent auditor appointed by the President to oversee post-audits of government spending. Reporting directly to the Legislature, the office of the Auditor General is designed broadly to strengthen public financial management and accountability. Normally this role is quiet, behind the scenes, and technical in nature. Normally, of course, but not in this instance. Personally, the Auditor General in Liberia is a relatively young and inexperienced Liberian named John Morlu who returned from many years in the United States to assume his new post. Mr. Morlu’s most distinguishable physical characteristic -- his short stature -- may not have merited psychological analysis, were it not for his decision to wear chunky platform shoes.

Despite his legal mandate to conduct post-audits of spending (translation: after the budget is implemented), Mr. Morlu quickly proved himself trigger happy. After only two months in the country and without ever consulting the Bureau of the Budget or the Finance Ministry, Mr. Morlu authored a dramatic 96 page treatise about the draft budget submitted by the Executive. Translation: a pre-audit. His complaints lodged against the draft budget ranged from the nit picky, such as a lack of page numbers, ironically written in his own page number-less report. To the misguided: criticisms based on misunderstandings that could have easily been cleared up had he simply consulted the government. And finally, to the sensational: allegations of an egregious lack of transparency, disclosure and accountability, and a bold statement that the Legislature’s passage of the budget would constitute a failure of their duty to the Liberian people.

Mr. Morlu unleashed a media frenzy when, without any warning, he brazenly fired off his 96 page treatise along with a confrontational cover letter to the President, the Legislature’s leadership, and the media, all at the same time. Suddenly the rosy front page headlines I had helped craft about the budget were replaced with the damning allegations of the Auditor General. Our team went into rapid response mode. We toiled on the ninth floor of the Finance Ministry until far past my bedtime and drafted the official response for the newspapers and media. The Minsitry chose to toe a sober, fact-based line and clarify the many incorrect accusations put forth by the Auditor General. In the meantime, the President sent a three page letter to the Auditor General that packed a lot more punch and put Mr. Morlu squarely in his place. And left me cheering over the tenacity of the “Iron Lady.” The letter was subsequently leaked to the press and soon became more ammunition in what was rapidly becoming a sensationalized battle, played out on airwaves and newspapers across Liberia.

The real firestorm was still yet to come. In an interview with Voice of America just a few days later, Mr. Morlu declared to the world that the current government was “three times more corrupt than the former interim transitional government of Charles Gyude Bryant that it replaced.” Morlu contended that he had proof based on a “risk analysis of government performance.” Yet this claim is as outrageous as his allegation of corruption: after just eight weeks on the job, the Auditor General had yet to conduct a single audit of either the interim government or the current government, and could not possibly have had valid data to defend such a sweeping assessment.

Mr. Morlu’s statement proved to be the figurative shot heard round the world, or at least around Liberia’s corner of West Africa. Over the next few weeks, the radio and newspapers talked of little else. “Three times more corrupt” was discussed all over Monrovia and everyone seemed to have a view: senators, government officials, men on the street. In the midst of this highly charged controversy, the Legislature announced a public hearing to debate the Auditor General’s concerns with the draft budget and called upon Mr. Morlu, the Budget Director, and (Finance) Minister Sayeh to testify. Another late night was pulled to help the Minister prepare her testimony, including her opening remarks and the responses to questions about the budget and revenue projections.

The atmosphere at the hearings was nothing short of a circus. The stage was actually set more for a circus than a government hearing: two floors of stadium-style seating overlooked the ground floor of the immense conference center, where the Legislature’s leadership and the key speakers sat. Filling one half of the seating on the ground floor were the members of the Legislature. On the other side and above sat the public: a rowdy group of some 200 men whose selective cheering revealed their overwhelming support for the Auditor General. (Or, perhaps, simply an opposition to the Executive). Filling the rest of the space were scores of journalists and armed UN security.

The hearings, dubbed by one newspaper as the “most anticipated” event of the year, commenced with opening remarks by the leadership of the Legislature, followed by statements made by legislators from their peanut gallery. The pomp and circumstance of these statements was striking. 20 journalists with microphones would swarm around a bellowing legislator as he stood shaking his fists, and would then sprint to the next ranting legislator and thrust their microphones in his face. The speeches were rewarded with loud cheers from the crowd, forcing the Speaker to repeatedly pound his gavel to maintain order.

The Auditor General was the first to be called to speak, and speak he did. For over an hour. Two weeks of national controversy served only to egg on Mr. Morlu, and his testimony was even more sensational than his earlier treatise. Minister Sayeh spoke next, and delivered her concise but extremely pointed opening remarks. The highlight: her line, “If the Auditor General needed to be educated about the budget process and public finances in Liberia, all he needed to do was ask.” Boo-ya. The Budget Director picked up where Minister Sayeh left off, delivering such an impassioned and hard-hitting oration that the crowd went wild. Unruly spectators from the stands spilled onto the main floor, angry legislators jumped to their feet yelling, and the futile gavel pounding of the Speaker did nothing to quell the chaos. In a matter of a few frenetic minutes, the hearing was cancelled, Minister Sayeh and other senior officials were evacuated by UN armed guards, and – at the height of absurdity – one of the most senior Cabinet members was accused of threatening a journalist. Which was later twisted to even more far fetched accusations of his threatening the Auditor General himself. The front page of all of the newspapers the next day showed a dejected journalist laying on the ground, a photo of the accused minister looking as if in a mug shot, and highly dramatized accusations that, in the US, would have led to lawsuits.

In the end, the Legislature did pass the budget last week. After two months of debate, one of the only changes that the Legislature prioritized was a very large increase in their own pot of money and personal benefits: far less attention was paid to addressing the concerns raised by the Auditor General, several of which were valid. Lost in the fist fighting was the actual substance behind the controversy: the budget. What the media, the public, and the legislators seemed to focus on were the sparks flying and not the source of the fire, and in the end very little was gained. The opportunity to constructively engage the public and the government on important issues of public financial management and the budget process, and ultimately raise the standards of the budget, was lost entirely. The budget that ultimately passed was not only no better than the draft critiqued by the Auditor General, in my opinion it was worse, with a disproportionately large budget for the Legislature that rivaled the entire education budget and dwarfed the spending in far more crucial sectors.

Liberia’s budget saga raised several lessons. The first is the challenge of effectively communicating facts and engaging the public on policy matters in the Liberian context -- one characterized by widespread illiteracy and very low levels of education. In such an environment, nuance and factual details are too easily trumped by a simple, powerful message like "three times more corrupt" that can easily be communicated, irregardless of its analytical merit. Magnifying this challenge is the weakness of Liberia's media. Far from playing a critical arbitrar in the sensationalized debate, helping readers sift through the hyped accusations, Liberia's newspapers simply played agitator.

A second lesson is the fragility of the reform process. Liberia's government is deeply committed to reforming its governance architecture, and has set off on an ambitious set of simultaneous reform: public financial management, legal and judicial reforms, and more. Troubling is the reality that an imperfect reform in one area can severely impair progress in another, derailing even the best of efforts. For instance, hiring an Auditor General should strengthen accountability and governance. Yet in this case, hiring the wrong Auditor General led to a mammoth distraction from the Government's earnest efforts to tackle corruption, and has resulted in the country losing some of the ground it worked so hard to gain. Likewise, a poorly functioning media can, counterintuitively, hinder efforts to inform the public and communicate facts over hype. And when self-serving Legislators are elected to serve the country, "good" democracy can be antithetical to good governance.

Far from being dull Liberia's budget process was, as it turns out, unforgettable.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Lots of love for Team Liberia

Family dinner

Celebrating Yue Man's completion of Liberia's application for (many millions of dollars of) funding for a tuberculosis program fom the Global Fund.

Our daily commute (in a 15 passenger van) to work
Two words describe my feelings toward Team Liberia: "the BEST!" [Team Liberia, this refers to "the best" as in the "the BEST best," and not just "the best."] Team Liberia has been the source of endless giggles, hilarity, memorable adventures, and just plain joy. We've morphed into a hybrid of summer camp (with girls vs. boys waterballoon fights), family (eating dinner every night together) and Real World Monrovia (with just a tad less drama). Consumed by intense work schedules and equally intense surroundings, it has been a great relief to have such a fabulous group to come home to every night. Monrovia, surpisingly, has its fair share of nightlife: a handful of outdoor bars with live music, a few favorite spots right in the beach, a hotel restaurant-turned-coffeeshop, and even a fabulous sushi restaurant. These have given us enough enough escapes to keep our spirits and energy up. Most evenings, though, we bond at the Baptist Compound -- feeding our addictions for mindless TV series (the OC and Sex and the City), teasing each other about our eccentric personality traits, and reflecting on our experiences and work. To put it mildly, I adore Team Liberia.

A Diamond is (Not Liberia’s) Forever

Liberia is poor. Its people are poor, its government is poor, the state of the country’s infrastructure is poor. You’d be hard pressed indeed to find a country much poorer than Liberia today.

And yet, paradoxically, Liberia should be filthy rich. From the perspective of its natural resources, Liberia boasts a literal gold mine. Open a map of Liberia, close your eyes and draw an X, and you may very well have located your fortune. Dig below the ground and you’ll find diamonds, iron ore, gold, and other lucrative minerals. Look up and you’ll run straight into one of the gazillions of trees that comprise Liberia’s vast and valuable forest. And, if you’re the kind of pirate who is willing to take a gamble on your treasure, head straight for Liberia’s continental shelf and be first in line to discover possible new reserves of oil and gas.

Tragically, Liberians know precious little of the bling bling from these riches, and far too much bang bang. The hefty profits from extractive industries – diamonds, gold, forestry – have for decades been used against Liberia’s people instead of for them. These riches fuelled the prolonged civil conflict, putting hundreds of thousands of guns into the hands of rebel factions and child soldiers. Corrupt business deals and outrageous plundering by (morally repugnant) political leaders from previous governments meant that Liberia saw almost none of the proceeds from the sales of its diamonds and trees.

The solution seems all too obvious and basic. Governments should be the honorable stewards of a country’s resources. Any leader who steals should be locked up. Private (and particularly foreign) companies should not get away with highway robbery: a reasonable share of their profits should be transferred to the country from whose land these companies are getting rich, and used responsibly to fund schools, hospitals, and roads. And the ultimate consumers of these products --- in particular the millions of love-struck American men who purchase the bulk of the world’s diamonds for their future brides --- should take great care to ensure that their insatiable demand for Liberia’s buried treasures results in development, and not destruction.

For their end, the Government of Liberia is now doing its part. Last week the Government launched its participation in the “Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative” in a jubilant ceremony at City Hall, complete with balloons, singing teenagers and the requisite presence of government and donor dignitaries. At the fanfare event, President Sirleaf announced the Government of Liberia’s voluntary pledge to enact a more transparent, accountable and equitable management of its extractive resources. Basically, this will entail publication of all payments made by mining, petroleum and forestry companies to the government, and the reconciliation and external audit of payment and revenue information.

Me, Minister Sayeh, Dan Honig, and Dabah (special assistant) at the EITI launch

A similar program in Nigeria has made progress in ensuring that oil revenues actually end up in the coffers of the national government. Whether or not this money escapes Nigerian’s notorious corruption as it filters to the local level is a separate question, of course. And a skeptical reader may also question the effectiveness of governments in spending this money and at the end of the day, whether it will actually improve the lives of everyday citizens. However limited this progress, though, it does suggest that the marriage of strong political commitment at the top and watchdog programs can help avert the flagrant robbery of the past.

As Liberia now throws open the doors of its mining and forestry operations, the challenge ahead lies in translating this political commitment into urgently needed revenues, employment, and infrastructure. Liberia's development prospects in the next decade will depend heavily on these extractive industries. In the absence of reliable electricity, a trained workforce, and uninterrupted peace and stability, I'm dubious about the prospects for much other private sector activity, like tourism or manufacturing, at least in the short term. Liberia's natural resources are so valuable to the rest of the world that they will attract investment, regardless of the constraints that scare other nervous investors away. The huge Mittal Steel deal and other new concession agreements will soon revive these critical industries and jump start the economy. Perhaps this time around, Liberians will finally get a piece of their treasure.

**To learn more about Liberia's efforts to comply with the Kimberly certification for its diamonds, see Kaysie Brown's recent blog posting

** For anyone in the market for a diamond engagement ring, check out Amnesty International and Global Witness for more information on how to purchase a conflict-free diamond.

** Click here to read the full text of the President's speech.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Colleen has arrived!

Colleen has arrived in Monrovia! My little sister (and favorite side kick) Colleen will be spending the next two weeks with me in Liberia, followed by a two week adventure in Senegal and Mali. Colleen -- a third year student in the University of Iowa's nonfiction writing program -- and I made a pact to travel as much as possible together while we're both in graduate school, capitalizing on our overlapping breaks and our mutual wanderlust. Traveling with Colleen is always a joy. Not only do I relish her writer's eye-view of her surroundings (which contrasts nicely with my policy wonky lense), but I also cherish the quality sister bonding time. During her time in Liberia, Colleen will be writing an article for Ms. Magazine about women leaders in Liberia ,and will be retracing and updating some of Graham Greene's novice meanderings from his book "A Journey Without Maps." And of course making me giggle incessantly. Catch us soon in Timbuktu...

**For more on Colleen's writing, see:

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The bold and the beautiful: Liberian lapa

Me, Emily, Matilda, JR and Yue Man shopping for lapa in the Waterside market in Monrovia

It's not exactly a well kept secret that I worship bright colors. Green, yellow and most of all red: the brighter the better. My recent year in India unleashed my inner Crayola crayon box and my wardrobe hasn't turned back since. Liberia, remarkably, has managed to take this up a notch by adding a new twist to my affinity for shockingly bright colors: big, bold, beautiful patterns. Here in Liberia, female fashion is characterized by suits (i.e. matching long skirts and tops) made from "lapa" cotton decorated in daring patterns. Guided by the expert fashion advice of Emily's colleague Matilda, the female contingent of our intern group has become regulars at our tailor's shop, growing more and more adventurous with each of our orders for lapa suits. So far I've shied away from the matching headdress, out of fear of looking like the single most preposterous (and gigantically tall) expat in West Africa. If my Liberian colleagues have their way, though, I may soon be decked out like a full on African princess. Or spotted giraffe. Jury's out.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Cabinet Retreat

Yesenia, Yue Man, Emily and I with (my boss) Finance Minsiter Antoinette Sayeh

Finance Minister Antoinette Sayeh presenting a retrospective on the fiscal year

On Friday our intern team was (generously) invited by the President to the Cabinet Retreat, which was held at a Baptist retreat center and attended by members of her Cabinet . The all day event proved an incredibly memorable opportunity to be a fly on the wall of President Sirleaf's government and to see policymaking in action. My boss, Finance Minister Antoinette Sayeh, dazzled all of us with several excellent presentations on restrospectives and lessons from the fiscal year and on progress with poverty reduction deliverables. Overall, the day provided us all with quite a bit of food for thought and insights into policy.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Bring us (back) our best and brightest

Until very recently, Liberians were fleeing the instability of their embattled country in droves. Over the course of the 14 year civil war, half a million Liberians took refuge in neighboring countries like Guinea, Ghana, and Sierra Leone, many in overcrowded refugee camps. Those with the means (or a fortuitous stroke of luck) made a beeline for the United States, establishing a highly educated and professional Liberian diaspora in American states like Maryland and Virginia that, ironically, bear the same names etched on Liberia’s map 150 years ago by the freed American slaves who arrived on Liberia’s shores.

President Sirleaf’s election in 2005 immediately halted this hemorrhage, and has even begun to turn the tide in the opposite direction. Displaced Liberians, returning in mass from refugee camps, have swelled Monrovia’s population and have begun to piece together the remnants of their previous life. Strikingly, President Sirleaf has also inspired a dramatic reverse brain drain. Drawn by personal invitations from the President and a soaring optimism in the country’s direction under her leadership, Liberians living abroad are now coming home, bringing with them decades of professional experience, impressive diplomas, and an often zealous commitment to moving Liberia forward and to regaining the country’s lost ground.

The presence of returned Liberians from the United States is unmistakable. Take President Sirleaf’s administration. The vast majority of Cabinet ministers have just spent upwards of 20 to 30 years in the US. In fact, it is a rare occurrence indeed to find a senior-level decision maker who wasn’t in the US during the war. (A very notable exception is the Minister of Health, a US-educated Liberian doctor who spent 30 uninterrupted years running Liberia’s largest hospital outside of Monrovia, forgoing lucrative medical positions abroad and braving dangerous fighting to keep the country’s medical lifeline going). Returned Liberians are opening banks, revamping entire industries, deftly administering government ministries, and bringing new ideas and urgently needed investment.

A mission to give back

When I’ve asked these returned Liberians why they have come home, I invariably hear the same answer: “Because the President asked me to.” This response appears to be equally about the President herself –- and the reverence, admiration, and loyalty that she inspires in people – as it is about a patriotic duty to public service at such a watershed moment in Liberia’s history. The President’s extensive Rolodex, developed through her many years working abroad, enabled her to tap many of the diaspora’s best and brightest for influential positions within and outside the Government. And while it is difficult for anyone to say no to this “Iron Lady” President, the affirmative response to her invitation was to a large degree an expression of a sincere desire to make a difference.

Ben, a 42 year old Liberian who was educated at Virginia Tech and left a successful technology career outside Washington, DC to resuscitate (at the President’s request) Liberia’s struggling state-owned telecommunications company, explained this sentiment to me: “Many of us who were fortunate enough to live in the United States have, through a great deal of hard work, achieved success in a traditional sense. We attended good universities, went on to impressive jobs, made money, bought a house, and did well for ourselves. And then at some point we asked, ‘Now what?’ What we’re searching for now is something bigger than this material success, some way to contribute to a larger picture. That’s why so many of us have come home to Liberia: to give back.”

Yesenia, Emily, Yue Man and I with Mary, a recently returned Liberian who is tackling corruption in the passport office.

Coming home is not easy, nor is it without sacrifice. Public sector salaries in Liberia are a pittance compared to the compensation that is commanded in the United States. And after 20 years abroad, many overseas Liberians face such financial realities as mortgages and expensive college tuition bills, not to mention a vastly higher standard of living. To overcome the financial hurdles to returning home, several inventive donor-funded programs have been implemented to help cross the financial t’s and dot the salary i’s of seasoned professionals who accept low paying jobs in the capacity-strapped Liberian public sector. While these supplemented salaries are still often a third or less of US salaries, they go a long way towards narrowing the gap between good intentions and financial reality.

In discussions of challenges they face, returned Liberians frequently cite culture shock, difficult living conditions, severe limitations in the skills of their staff, and the deep frustrations that arise when high expectations clash with reality. It is increasingly clear that the challenge of rebuilding Liberia amounts to a long gruelling marathon, and not a high octane sprint. One of the key challenges facing the returned diaspora then is to sustain their commitment and energy after mile 1, when the initial euphoria has worn off and the road ahead stretches on another trying 25 miles.

A binding constraint to Liberia’s development

The return of Liberians like Ben is more than just inspiring. Some would even argue that it is crucial for Liberia’s development. More than any other obstacle – crappy roads, low foreign investment, a feeble budget, annihilated infrastructure, crushing unemployment --- weak human capacity is one of the most central, if not the central, binding constraint to Liberia’s development in the next decade and beyond. Of course, “human capacity constraint” is a pleasant sounding euphemism that encompasses a range of damning shortcomings that boil down to individuals’ skills, motivation, and capabilities. Two decades of war had the effect of hitting a national pause button in Liberia. Education was almost entirely disrupted, which meant that no lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, judges, technicians, or engineers were trained. A whole generation reached their productive years without developing skills and with little hope of actually being productive. Liberia’s entire economy came to a screeching halt during the war, gradually eroding people’s work ethic and initiative and fuelling a pervasive culture of petty corruption that continues today. For those who were educated or skilled before the war, these same endowments that are now so desperately needed in Liberia were the ticket to people getting out of Liberia. This has left the country today with a gaping hole of middle managers and qualified staff at all but the very top levels.

To understand the impact of this human capacity constraint, consider for instance the impossibility of building an effective judicial system without enough lawyers and judges and with an under-trained staff that can take months to process claims. What are the prospects that war criminals will actually be persecuted, that women will be able turn to legal protection against widespread rape, or that nervous investors will trust that their property would be legally protected? Or the difficulty in educating Liberia’s children when less than half of school teachers have any formal training (or, in some cases, education!). Or of getting anything done efficiently when civil servants have little experience with the sort of follow through, computer skills and productivity that underpin any effective administrative apparatus.

This last point may sound harmless, but I can attest from personal experience that it is a very, very serious challenge. Case in point: the hellish 18 hour day I endured on Thursday, during which I worked with some 7 government ministries and managed several staff to collect and analyze data for two Cabinet presentations reviewing the fiscal year and poverty reduction deliverables. What should have been an exceedingly simple and straightforward missive proved to be, in very crude terms, a “cluster f*ck.” Halfway through the day I unleashed a militant micromanager that I never before knew existed (and who I hope never rears her scary head again!) and began to pray for the gray clouds overhead to rain down follow-through and initiative all over downtown Monrovia. By 1:30 AM, through a super-human effort, I finally had two Power Point presentations, an updated matrix, a growing ulcer, and a renewed appreciation for everything I just wrote in this blog entry.

No matter what name you give it – institutions, governance, human capital – there is little question that the availability of effective, skilled people is essential to Liberian’s Herculean task of fixing the country’s governance architecture and implementing the ambitious development agenda. Since human capital cannot be developed instantly overnight, a crucial stopgap measure is the immediate infusion of people like Ben.

Exacerbating historical inequalities

And yet, despite the many benefits associated with these measures, they also raise some troubling concerns, first and foremost about inequality. Inequality has been one of the most salient features in Liberia throughout the country’s history. Since the first ships of freed American slaves arrived on Liberia’s shores nearly two centuries ago, the inequality between the native population and these Americo-Liberians -- in everything from wealth to power to education -- has been immense. Making up only 5% of the country’s population, the freed American slaves and their descendents maintained an exclusive monopoly over the country’s wealth and power structure. Little effort was made to raise the living standards of the native population, who were even subjected to forms of slavery. Despite the success of decades of Americo-Liberian elite rule in creating a high profile for Liberia within Africa and in sustaining strong economic growth rates, the native population exercised little power during this time and enjoyed few benefits from the country’s gains.

Resentful of these age-old inequities, most Liberians jubilantly rejoiced in 1980 when Samuel K. Doe, a 29 year old uneducated military sergeant, overthrew (and killed) then Americo-Liberian President Tolbert to become the very first ever native leader of Liberia. Samuel Doe proved to be the foil of today’s technocratic President Sirleaf. When asked by international reporters what economic policies he would pursue in office, he stared blankly at the camera, with his mother by his side, and nervously answered “the same.” History proved this timid response wrong: the economy took a nose dive throughout Doe’s corrupt and inept ten year rule. As a result, the same people who celebrated his ascension fell deeper into poverty, and the country ultimately unfolded into civil war.

Samuel K. Doe

Twenty five years later, the country’s leadership has once again undergone a coup, albeit through democratic means. Reacting this time to decades of egregious corruption and conflict, the majority of Liberians in 2005 caste their votes for a leader who represented integrity and competence, as opposed to ethnic affiliation. Yet the lessons from Doe’s rise simply cannot be ignored, particularly as the return of overseas Liberians threatens to exacerbate the country’s inequality: this time, enlarging the gulf between those (mostly native) Liberians that remained during the war and suffered, and those whose privilege enabled them to seek refuge in the United States and leap to a new standard of living. Now home in Liberia, the returned Liberians form an even more elite class than ever before seen in the country’s history. The elite circle of Americo-Liberians-returned-from-America --- brandishing impressive (and often intimidating) credentials from US universities and companies, residing in Monrovia’s choice real estate , and wielding a disproportionate influence in the highest echelons of government -- contrast wildly with their fellow citizens, who earn on average 30 cents a day and, if lucky, live in an even remotely permanent shelter.

To be sure, this elite class is different than its predecessors. By and large, their wealth was not gained through plundering (as was the case with the corrupt rulers of the past thirty years who withdrew from the Central Bank like a personal bank account), and the commitment of the Government to poverty reduction and development for all people is unshakeable. Still, concerns arise. In a country as poor as Liberia -- where unemployment stands at 85% and the private sector is barely functioning -- government positions are the be all and end all: the highest forms of influence, the best paid positions, the most prestigious, the way someone “arrives” economically, politically, and socially. Restricting access to an elite circle of skilled returned Liberians may well maximize the Government’s effectiveness, but at the cost of excluding native citizens and fostering potentially destabilizing resentment, whose cost may again prove fatal.

In my conversations with my Liberian co-workers – secretaries, drivers, administrative assistants – I have been very impressed by the genuinely welcoming attitude that many have expressed towards the returned Liberians, and of their earnest desire to learn from them. The concerns that have aired in these conversations, however, include the condescension that they feel is often directed at them, the lack of respect, and the perception that skilled locals are often overlooked in favor of expatriate Liberians. A lingering challenge that I, too, face is to be patient and understanding, and to find ways to respectfully empower my colleagues and help close the capacity gap.

Ultimately, it is my hope that the differences that divide Liberians will be dwarfed by the power of what brings Liberians from all ethnic and class divisions together: a deep desire for a better future for Liberia. President Sirleaf has proven remarkably skilled at attracting people home, and she now faces the task of drawing her disparate people together, whether they be former rebel leaders, educated telecommunications experts, or rural families struggling to put rice on the table. The President herself has proven an adept chameleon: switching from “simple English” with a thick Liberian accent to a technocratic speech depending on her audience, and wearing hats ranging from courageous opposition leader to international role model.

Today in Liberia, with the landscape of “home” quite literally transformed by war, Madam President faces the challenge and opportunity of reshaping her home, Liberia, in a more equitable, just image. It is in this endeavor that I, too, give her my vote.