Last week I had the privilege of attending a Town Hall meeting hosted by the government of Liberia. Aimed at the large diaspora community in Atlanta, the event was designed as an opportunity for government officials to explain the country's Poverty Reduction Strategy and to take questions from Liberians who live in the area. Speakers included Liberian Ambassador to the United States Nathaniel Barnes, Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs Amara Konneh, the Director General of the Civil Service, Dr. C. William Allen, and Honorary Consul for Georgia Cynthia Blandford Nash.
It was a fascinating process of community engagement. The government hosted several of these events all over the United States in hopes of gaining backing for the PRS and other initiatives from Liberians living here. All of the speakers repeatedly referred to the diaspora as "Liberia's sixteenth province" and Allen noted that no country has successfully rebuilt from state collapse without strong backing from the diaspora.
I can't possibly cover everything that was discussed at the meeting, but here are a few highlights and pieces of information that came out of the meeting:
- Konneh gave a clear and coherent explanation of the connection between institutional weakness, violence, and economic collapse.
- Of Liberia's 4,600 teachers, 3,000 have a secondary school education or less. This is just one facet of the country's need for human capital development. Dr. Allen noted the fact that Liberia is rich in natural resources, but that its population by and large lacks the skills to use those resources to their fullest potential.
- There was a strong focus on asking members of the diaspora to invest in and return to Liberia. All of the speakers noted that the diaspora is Liberia's middle class.
- There was also much discussion of the problem of centralized power in Monrovia, and an expression of the commitment to decentralization.
- Using data from the U.S. government's Millennium Challenge Corporation, Konneh noted that corruption is improving in the country. The audience responded with guffaws - clearly everyone in the room had experienced significant issues with corruption and did not believe for a minute that things have improved. Rather than denying the problem, the minister encouraged the diaspora to help think of ways to combat corruption.
- We also watched a film which included footage of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf discussing development, in which she noted that one of the biggest problems the state faces is donors who refuse to align their priorities with the government's development priorities.