The Future of Race Relations in Post-War Liberia

By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 16, 2007


Often times, it is something very inconsequential that triggers an important awareness, raises your suspicion, and/or shed light on the occurrence of a profound social change. At a certain level, these kinds of moments are not unexpected. Rather, you have recognized them before, and even talked about them to friends or neighbors. This is an article about such a cultural change – race relations in post-war Liberia. I was reading a blog written by a White female that had gone to Liberia to do some work and the “hot flash” hit me. I could not believe what I was reading about my country of origin. A friend also traveled to Liberia thereafter, and in our conversations, he could not stop confirming every word this woman inscribed on paper. Subsequently, I returned to the computer and started looking for the woman’s blog. I read it several times and digested it. Here are her exact words from the blog that triggered the consciousness.

The streets are filled 24/7 with only black women, men and children walking, usually carrying items on their heads or behind a wheel barrel. Some have a little money to take a taxi, which is usually stuffed with 8-10 people. There are supposed to be a few buses but, I have only seen them once. If you have no money, you walk. I have yet to see a white person walking on the street. We all travel in white SUV’s – all identified: UN, ARC, IRC, UNAIDS, CARE, UNICEF, Medicin Sans Frontiere’s, etc. My security briefing for this years as well as last year was to never walk on the streets at any time. Our complex is on the main drag, Tubman Boulevard. It is not considered safe for us to walk even during day.

She added:

We have numerous drivers available to us from 8:00 in the morning until 11:00 at night. They become your best buddies and know where everyone is and what is going on. We are all connected by radios also. Everyone has a cell phone, they cannot be turned off for security reasons. My cell phone is permanently attached to my right hand – I go nowhere without it. I’ve been practicing text messaging.

This article describes features of the political economy of Liberia that make the prospect of race relations grim. It also probes those aspects that provide hope of possible brighter future. At the crux of this paper is the question of how Liberians can regain and retain control over their homeland, their personal and collective dignity, and have some ability to be “self-determining” in the nation building process. If Liberian leaders show that they lack hope and are powerless in their interactions with UN and International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) working in Liberia, they should be mindful that the despair and powerlessness they demonstrate, would transfer to ordinary Liberians, and feature prominently in the lives Liberian youth who constitute the future. Liberian youth might just acquire the belief that they have absolutely no control over their future, but foreigners do, and the inequities are normative. Hence, this article is about restoring our dignity in our own homeland; because dignity and personal capacity are not inseparable. If people control their own destiny, they control the structural anchors of transformative social change and their future. The “steps, platforms, and ladders” that move human beings toward meaningful opportunity and better quality of life cannot be divorced from self-respect; and demanding that respect even when you are at the lowest ebb of stature and resource. It is in compelling one’s dignity from the “bottom of the well,” (proverbially) that when you get to the top, you are able to sustain gains made and appropriate opportunities for the downtrodden. Self-aggrandizement is fleeting.

We have a democratically-elected government and change is taking place, although some would argue otherwise. Would democracy translate into an economic windfall and social progress for the ordinary Liberian, amidst the sentiments described above? Liberians walking in droves and their White counterparts in white jeeps, side stepping their miseries in some quarters? Expatriates are instructed to avoid Liberians like a plague. These consciously created representations, stereotypes that lump all Liberians, produce specific effects on the psyche of the White people that come to work in our country. It would have been a profoundly different feeling, if those images were being depicted by a Liberian. Perhaps, I would soothe myself in the feeling that the Liberian writer is bias only to overcome my humiliation. But I was reading the information and drawing my intellectual stimulation and emotional senses through the lens of a White American woman. The presence of the United Nations and the host of other affiliate aid agencies are ushering in a new/old mutation of the colonial era. Liberians were being put back into a “colonial” or prehistoric mode of thinking. Locked into the printed words on those pages, I saw the tightly knit systems of dominance that have profoundly shaped our society and the global landscape. They were functioning simultaneously in our country: structural or institutionalized racism and capitalism. Maybe a sprinkle of sexism was embedded in the blog, which I have elected to ignore for now to enable me to focus specifically on the subject at hand.

A Racial Caste System
A racial caste system is playing out in Liberia. But worse, could there be collusion between our government and structural racism and imperialism? It might not be that at a personal level, some of our leaders are sinisterly joined with the White imperialist system. But as a nation state in dire straits, our needs could be putting us in bed with institutionalized racism and imperialism. People can participate in structural racism unwittingly or even ignorantly. It behooves us to examine the question of structural racism as it plays out in Liberia more deeply, seeking to understand its subtle nuances.

How many Liberians are qualified to do the kinds of jobs that are being done by White people in Liberia? How in the world can White women be hired to teach Liberian women about breast feeding? What happened to the multiplicity of nursing school graduates of Liberian descent, who can teach the subject matter without first struggling to decode cultural nuances and/or overcome linguistic barriers? How in the world is it possible for a young White man or woman to be the optimal choice for teaching Liberians interethnic and intercultural communication skills when the crux of such training is knowing the historical context, the cultural context, at least some of the indigenous languages that embed the tentacles of the tensions and polarization at issue? How is it possible to be hiring international clerical staff and personal assistants amidst the high unemployment in the country? These are some of the kinds of jobs for which White people are being paid handsome salaries, given white jeeps to drive with Liberian drivers assigned to them (8:00AM -11:00PM), and also given hazard pay because they are working in high-risk environments. The alternative strategy could be active recruitment of nationals in Diaspora and the homeland, which is a more optimal utilization of human capacity. The trigger down effects of incomes that nationals receive could also curb some of the country’s unemployment problems.

We ought to be “enlightened witnesses: when we observe oppression being performed. When we fail to be “critically vigilant” about events happening in our presence, our sense of human agency, our dignity, is assaulted. True, a higher degree of consciousness and literacy is required to fully decipher the complexity of our circumstances. And when the White woman who wrote these words carved them in black and white, she perhaps did not think it would evoke the kinds of response that I am laying down as historical record. We cannot over value enough the importance of the information that this woman was conveying in her blog. Liberia is a spectacle and it appears that our government is forced to collude with our exploiters.

Affirming and Perpetuating Racism and Imperialism
My friend who is visiting Liberia noted: “There is nothing substantial to see for the investments that are being made in Liberia.” “Maybe he has not been back to Liberia for a long time, and might not be able to appreciate the contrast with what Liberia was like before the United Nations arrived,” someone retorted. Clearly, that is one of the ways that imperialism “affirms and perpetuates” itself – through internalized oppression. We see a reality and in allegiance to imperialism, we search for an alternative explanation to justify the exploitation. The exploiters do not have to do their own public relations. They can transplant people who utter uncritical valuations of their wrongdoings. There has to be a complex accounting for why Liberians will be treated as if we are second class citizens within our own country. Our government has sanctioned White people to teach us how to breast feed our babies and to resolve our differences. These circumstances have deep ramifications for the future of race relations in Liberia. The White takeover of our country’s rebuilding with very little regard for our capacity to contribute might sound like spreading hysteria for those who lack a sense of the future. But for those of us who look into the future with a critical eye, we see that it is not healthy for future race relations.

In her own testimony, the blogger, a White woman, however limited her role, tells us about the internal dirty secrets of the system of which she is a part, hoping that it would not conjure up images of paternalism and patronage. She tells us this hoping that we might not be sophisticated enough to discern the degree of our subjugation. Others might argue that she tells us this because she is an “enlightened witness” to exploitation and is making sure her colleagues are made aware. One wonders! “What’s her purpose? Is she positioning herself for detachment from the imperialistic culture that pervades Liberia in very dire times? Is she a revolutionary? Should Liberians respond to these depictions with an outrage given the very disgusting revelations?

Engendering “Racialized” Fear
One of the tragic dimensions of this blog is the “racialized” fear that the policy or practice in question engenders. All White people must carry their phones on them 24/7. This reminds me of the experience that people of color in the United States encounter in their everyday lives in relations to some of their White counterparts. Young White boys encounter people of color in hip hop music, and assume their postures and cultures, even reenacting their experiences in their daily lives – at least among White peers. They listen to hip hop music, wear the baggie pants, and large shirts. Yet, when those same youth encounter Black people at suburban malls, they recreate their “racialized” fear hidden into their sub-conscious mind, by acting as if they have just encountered a serial killer. This is the same condition being played out in Liberia. Here are personnel of the UN and other non-governmental organizations who made the obvious choice to go to Liberia to be a part of the solution to our problems, and now are told that we are “edgy and dangerous.” They must now reinforce the interest of capitalism and imperialism by negating our identity and personhood. Their smog and disrespectful depictions sends the wrong message. Sadly, you hear no protesting voice because this is happening under the auspices of saving a suffering people, and we must accept insults because we are a poor country bereft of dignity. Hopefully, this is not true. Liberians are farsighted and will stand up against racism and imperialism, even when it means asserting ourselves against those who have resources to help us address our malaise.

The Future of Race Relations
What are the implications of the situation described by the blog for the future of race relations in Liberia? If you are only concerned about those expatriates who come to Liberia to provide short-term services (six months or less), the issue at hand might not worry you as it does those of us with futuristic mindset. If you look further into the future more than six months, those expatriates living in Liberia much longer would suffer the brunt of this kind of policy or practice. To fuel “racialized” fear, even xenophobia is totally different from expressing genuine concern for safety. Where discrimination, degradation, and destitution come together, you have just manufactured a potent mix for intolerance to thrive, leading down the road to polarization and outright hatred. It is virtually impossible to deliver humanitarian service in a place where social cohesion is lacking among the providers and recipients of the service. The brains behind the policy or practice alluded to in the blog have yet not thought through the corrosive effects on social relations between their employees and nationals or other non-UN expatriates that might come to work for private investors.

Reinventing the United Nations System
The reputation of the United Nations and its allied agencies for maintaining an insulated, some would say, incestuous environment is hard-earned. Worse, they have shown a seeming resistance to including nationals of the countries in which they work on the senior in-country staff. Liberia is no exception. International Governmental Organizations (INGOs) are also operating in the same mode. This is not to say that the UN and its satellite organizations are not providing essential services around the world or in Liberia. But it undermines its credibility when the UN fails to control one of its greatest excesses – the lack of inclusive practices for hiring. The UN undermines national sovereignty, which it seeks to promote when it fails to invest in the capacity of nationals to create change on their own behalf. If nationals are unable to build confidence in the UN or INGOs, it certainly makes for an ineffective social development paradigm. We should not wonder why their personnel are subjected to the kinds of insular policies that the blogger described. It is perhaps time for the UN system not to be reformed, but reinvented completely, specifically its recruitment and engagement practices. The obsolete nature of the current UN structures is evident in the ways in which it treats nationals of the nations that are member nations, although in dire straits needing their intervention given the clout that the international banner gives the organization. Rather than the continuing efforts aimed at improving the UN system, particularly its service delivery strategies, the time has come to fundamentally rethink how personnel are recruited, what skill sets are primary, and secondary and how to develop and evaluate benchmarks for achievement.

As a first step, the UN needs to abandon the convenient excuse that a new employee ought to have experience within the international system, which automatically excludes lots of nationals when they apply for in-country positions. I am not suggesting that their hiring practices should not be rigorous because many nationals possess 21st century competence in their respective fields and can compete globally. What many lack is the networks (social or otherwise) to gain a foot into the doors of those international organizations. Many have worked abroad in competitive environments, but might not have worked in an international organization. Up and down the breadth of the Liberian workforce, you will find qualified Liberians who not only have 21st century globally competitive skills and competence; but have the added advantage of having a thorough knowledge of their culture; which is a major pathway to successful engagement and sustainable social change.

Next, the UN must significantly rethink the professional development opportunities that it organizes for its expatriate staff, especially as it pertains to building intercultural competence. The world that UN staff work in is dramatically different each time they move from one country to another. It is true that certain skills are likely to transfer from country to country, but there are certain skills that do not. When such instances arise, the international system experience, which equates to previous experience with the UN system or international non-governmental organization seem to be light weigh in its substance. In essence, the success of the UN system and its intervention in countries like Liberia will be determined by how well it maximizes the intercultural skills of nationals in order to customize and even personalize citizen-engagement. It has to move away from the experimentation paradigm, whereby nations like Liberia become the place for young European and American professionals to gain experience or test their theories. If humanitarian service is an applied practice, requiring real world experience that is tied to the live experience of a people, there should be no room for trial and error.

As the UN system recasts its hiring practices for the social worlds of nationals of the countries in which they work, its goal has to be to present a shared and collaborative posture rather than the xenophobic response that this blogger depicts. This alignment between high recruitment standards and culturally-sensitive practice is in my view kernel to enhancing the appeal of the UN system. Eventually, this will lead to public relations dividends for the UN. If the intercultural skills of UN staff are inadequate and not adjusted to foster respect for and mutuality with nationals, then the obvious conclusion would be that the UN is doing the bidding for some Western nations that have structural racism baked into the consciousness of their leaders, public/foreign policies, and thus wish to maintain racial hierarchies. Policy modifications are needed within the UN system to examine and unearth how structural racism and imperialism are embedded into their interactions with nationals. If they want to build alliances with nationals, they cannot do it by being condescending and paternalistic, even racist at times.

Unfortunately, the global community, the UN and its affiliate organizations included as well the nation states that support them do not seem to know how to build a framework for governance that is inclusive, and not just democratic. Nor do these systems know collectively how to communicate across racial and ethnic divides without regarding one group, in this case nationals as subservient. The question that this paper poses is how can UN and their expatriate staff live and work alongside with nationals in ways that are reciprocally respectful and satisfying? The answer to that question lies within the engagement strategies and inclusion of qualified nationals in positions of trust. The main problem is learning to appreciate the points of views of nationals, giving weigh to their accumulated indigenous knowledge even if it is not the dominant mode. The universe of knowledge that constitutes determinants of decision making has to be inclusive, because it is in so doing that equity is fostered. The world community has yet not exhausted its creativity in terms of fashioning a more responsive and culturally-appropriate humanitarian assistance institution. The UN and its satellite organizations will impel reinvention when they re-evaluate long-held colonial assumptions about people in nations like Liberia that find themselves in peril.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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