"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


diaspora engagement

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.
Overall, I found the evening to be a remarkable event. What other African state sends out top-level officials to answer questions from its diaspora population? When is the last time you heard an official in charge of economic issues freely admit that his country has a corruption problem? The situation in Liberia is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I was very impressed by the Johnson Sirleaf administration's transparency, commitment to outreach, and realistic evaluation of its own limitations. I'll be interested to see how the diaspora responds to this effort.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What other African state sends out top-level officials to answer questions from its diaspora population?"


Thursday, May 13, 2010 6:54:00 AM

Blogger Michael Kevane said...

Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) routinely sends delegations to U.S. to meet with diaspora and activist constituencies.

Thursday, May 13, 2010 9:59:00 AM

Anonymous Nathan said...

I have a personal experience that complements your own in an interesting way.

I'm a student at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Our college received a few complimentary tickets to see Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf speak at the University of Minnesota this fall when she visited to receive an honorary degree--an opportunity I readily took.

There was a large diaspora community at that event as well, and there were several moments when President Johnson-Sirleaf seemed to consciously decide to forge ahead with her narrative of Liberia's progress despite audible guffaws and a general air of tension emanating from the members of the diaspora in the audience. However, it wasn't talk of corruption, but rather of the consistency of Liberia's economic progress and the opportunities this afforded for members of the diaspora contemplating return, that elicited the most obvious response. Moreover, there was a dialogue portion to the event, and it came off feeling like a promotional session for Liberia (with substantial talk of how donors need to do more to align with the Liberian government's goals) and her presidency.

In any case, I don't know that there are any firm conclusions to be drawn from this, and some of the positive gloss to the event was no doubt due to the fact that she was receiving an honorary degree rather than hosting a town hall. I was also struck by the effort at outreach, however: most of her speech was directed to the diaspora community, which perhaps made up 15% of the attendees. In general, though, hosting public appearances and open dialogues in the US is a striking approach.

Thursday, May 13, 2010 4:13:00 PM


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