Whether they decide to return home or stay in exile, Liberians in the Diaspora will play an important role in the reconstruction of the war-devastated country they left behind. Over the years, as governments stopped providing the basic necessities Liberians in the Diaspora somehow managed to keep the country going, through remittances and sometimes, through small economic ventures. Schools and clinics mostly remained opened because those who went to work relied on funds they received regularly from relatives “abroad.”
Since coming to the helm of the government about two years ago, President Ellen Sirleaf has paid keen attention to this very important segment of Liberians, who, collectively, account for the greatest portion of Liberia’s wealth. The entire educated middle class, that is, anyone who could afford a visa and a plane ticket, with a very few exception, left the country and the greatest majority headed for the United States. Mr. Sam Mitchell, the president of the Liberian Business Association says that if Liberians in the US alone could put work as a collectivity, they could jump-start the economy.
When he came to Washington, in 2004 as Liberian Ambassador to the US, Mr. Charles Minor was quick in establishing working relationship with the Diaspora, by organizing the first ever symposium on the future of the country that brought government and the Diaspora in the same room. It was a novelty, because throughout the years, Liberians in the Diaspora mostly went to their embassy to demonstrate against one government or another. Getting them together to discuss the way forward towards the reconstruction of the nation was a rare success.
These efforts, by both the President and the Ambassador culminated in the holding of a very successful Private Sector Forum in Washington, DC that brought together more than 400 participants, with a great number of Liberian expatriates, longing either to return home or to undertake some type of economic venture. The economic potentials of the nations are well known to the people but government policies are essential in turning those potentials into wealth.
As a follow-up to the February 2007 Forum, the Embassy decided to organize a series of conferences throughout the United States
, in cities with a large concentration of Liberians. If major corporations, like Coca Cola, Mittal Steel, Firestone, and others are important in the development process, it is undeniable that the bulk of the economy will be sustained by small and medium enterprises and in that light, Liberians in the Diaspora will have an essential role to play.
In the next few weeks, and starting in Minnesota on September 8, going through California on the 13, Atlanta on the 22, Rhode Island the 27 and ending in Washington, DC on October 1, 2007, Liberians in the Diaspora will have ample opportunity to put forward their suggestions, listen to government and private sector representatives from Liberia and map out a strategies as to how to undertake investments ventures at home.
Every year, Liberians in the Diaspora send home tens of millions of dollars. Unfortunately, that money goes through a revolving door, spent mostly on buying imported commodities such as rice, fuel, and clothing and therefore never makes its way in the local economy. The government needs to find a creative way, such as in Ghana or other Latin American countries where remittances strengthen the local financial market by becoming a pool of hard currency. The Finance Ministry and the Central Bank must put in place much needed creative monetary policies so that the country would stop being porous when it comes to exporting hard foreign currencies.
The government has been working on plans to restructure many of its ailing state owned enterprises, which could all provide profitable investment outlets for Liberians in the Diaspora. If going home to start a new business may not always an option, Liberians in the Diaspora must be provided with alternatives where they create wealth at home without risking losing their hard-earned monies. The conferences in the various cities across the US must therefore be more about reflecting on new ways of transforming Liberian market rather than the usual talk shop on how to send home second hand cars and used clothes.
From agribusiness to gold, diamond and to education through the production and sales of local textbooks Liberians in the Diaspora have an opportune time to rebuild their country’s economy on new foundations. For example, with the inclusion of Liberia in AGOA, the country qualified for the exportation of more than 5,000 different products to the US. Packaging Liberian potato and cassava leaves, as well as its plums and papayas that rot year in year out could lead to a new economic boom for the farmers at home. The market is here, just among the 300 400 thousands Liberians in the US who now buy those same products originating from other countries.
Now that government has somehow significantly increased civil servants salaries, remittances can find a new use in the development process.
Investing in the new Liberia should not be limited to importing cheap products from around the world, sometimes at the detriment of local labor markets. For example, recently, a young Liberian entrepreneur had to shut down his toilet paper factory because he could not compete with the same product made in China. The nation is at a turning point and could go into either direction, and as more money becomes available, it could be a market for junk or it could be a wealthy country exporting its goods, after satisfying local needs.
With their wealth of knowledge and financial capital as well as the business contacts that they can establish in this giant market that the US represents, Liberians in the Diaspora can turn things around in their home country and look at retirement from a different perspective. Working with a government that is committed to the development of the private sector, there is no better time than now.
The various symposia will constitute a great starting point.
© 2007 by The Perspective
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