Liberia And New Beginnings

Remarks by D. Elwood Dunn
At Visions 2006, A Liberian Village Meeting
Crowd '50 and National Investment Commission
Maryland, USA, August 25-27, 2006

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
September 5, 2006


I would like to thank Crowd ' 50 and the National Investment Commission for the opportunity of the invitation to participate in this important forum. My remarks will focus two things: (1) the international donor-driven agenda for the development of post conflict Liberia, and (2) the role of Diaspora-Liberians and the making of an auxiliary donor. I will attempt to weave these two concerns into the topic "Liberia and New Beginnings". I will address in sequence "new beginnings in Liberia's past", "the imperative of new beginnings in today's Liberia", and "the fundamental issues before us as we imagine new beginnings".

In a class in France in the 1960s I heard a professor remark that France was too heavy with history to content itself with being a passive or neutralist Switzerland [Trop lourd d'histoire pour se contenter d'etre la Suisse]. As I reflect upon our national experience I am also inclined to view Liberia as too "heavy with history" not to be cognizant of its peculiar past.. Even if we wanted to, we cannot wish away our past. It helps define who we are, though against the dynamics of change. As such we must be open to embrace some features but as well be courageous to repudiate others. Especially at this time when history can be manipulated for good or ill, we must study well the past and draw from it lessons to rebuild on a firmer national foundation.
In this regards I want to touch briefly three themes - the ethos of the 19th century founding of Liberia, a critique in the 1860s of this 19th century ethos, and the "golden age" of the era of African independence (Tubman era).

The world of the early 19th century during which Liberia was founded was a most peculiar world. Africa and Africans were abased and debased. Those touched with a bit of European culture were considered charged with elevating the "culture-less African". A prominent Liberian characterized the option of the first Liberian leadership as one of merging "the comparatively small advanced elements of the population into the mass of those who... were at a more primitive stage of development.." And so while the wonderful notion of popular sovereignty is in our founding state papers, the original political community was not inclusive, philosophically or otherwise.

Edward Wilmot Blyden who showed up in Liberia from the Virgin Islands at age 18 and was remarkably educated in the environs of Monrovia, became one of the foremost intellectuals of his time. His biographers have dubbed him a Pan-Black Patriot. A prolific writer, he saw Liberia as the nucleus of a modern, progressive nation - a synthesis of the best in African and Western cultures. In one moment of constructive criticism he likened Liberia to the "Life-Everlasting" leaf. Plucked from the parent plant and tacked on to a wall the leaf remained fresh for days. But eventually it withered and died. So said Blyden was the Liberia in which he lived -- a leadership, a people removed from their cultural bearings with the appearance of surviving, but soon would wither and die like the Life-Everlasting leaf plucked from its roots.

The third thing as we consider "new beginnings" in our past is the era of African independence which coincides with the administration of President Tubman. This is a most fascinating period in our history. Many of us tend to view this period as a point of essential reference - the imperial presidency, and economic "growth without development" as characterized by a group of Northwestern University economists. Tubman left us the legacy of his Open Door and National Unification policies which, in my view, we have yet to critically analyze.

The ethos of our 19th century founding, the national self-criticism advocated by Blyden, and the legacy of Tubman were all among "new beginnings" in our past. Each represented a way of "breaking with the past"

In the aftermath of a quarter century of political instability and fourteen years of civil war, we face today the challenge of yet another new beginning. What is the relevancy of the past new beginnings for the present new beginning? I suggest that peoples and nations evolve on the basis of continuity and change. And so as we confront the imperative of change it is our duty, our national duty, to contextualize that change, to make relevant that change to our collective national experience and aspirations.

As some of you may know, the World Bank issued in 2003 a study that addresses post-conflict societies such as our own. Titled "Breaking The Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy", it suggests that in order to escape the cycle of war, peace, and then war (conflict trap), there must be a coordination of "external military peacekeeping for the first few years [following conflict] with a build up of large aid programs during the middle of the decade". The study continues: "Both military peacekeeping and aid could be made conditional on the rapid reform of government policies and institutions, so that by the end of the decade the society is reasonably safe from further conflict". I read this as the precise recipe in place for extricating our country from conflict and placing it on a path to sustainable peace and development.

Yet I believe that this essentially "one size fits all" program, this international donor-driven agenda, will need philosophical modification as we confront peculiar Liberian issues. In the interest of time I will rapidly list and highlight some of those issues for our collective consideration here and hopefully beyond this room. I refer to the issues of national identity, national purpose, national mind-set, and a developing social cleavage involving diaspora Liberians and homeland Liberians.

1. National Identity: Do we really know who we are? Are we one, two, or three Liberias uneasily co-existing? What has been our actual experience, yours, and mine? Have we learned our history comprehensively and integrally? What has been the role of scientific research and analysis in the interpretation of our history. The USIP in Washington recently sponsored a forum on teaching history in post-conflict societies, suggesting how interpreting the past can aid the reconciliation process. Might we avail ourselves of this national soul-searching opportunity?
2. National Purpose: Why do we exist as a people? How would we characterize our national purpose? Our founding leaders imagined "creating a state in order to regenerate a race". If we created a small commission to study and recommend a national purpose statement, how might it read? Might it incorporate Blyden's suggestion that Liberia be seen as a means to an end, the end being the blending of what was brought from the West with elements of indigenous socio-political values? And what might be the content of these latter values?

3. National Mind Set: Do we see ourselves as a people who value, at all levels of our society, the qualities of accountability, tolerance, critical inquiry, respect for the rule of law and fundamental human rights? In my work I have been reading from the U.S. National Archives declassified correspondence from the decades 1940s through 1960s from the American Embassy in Monrovia. You ought to read what American diplomats reported about us Liberians. The issue, of course, is more what we think of ourselves, how we self-define..

4. Cleavages of Homeland Liberians and Diaspora Liberians: First, there is a broader socio-historical context to cleavages in our society. I refer to the things that make us a diverse people - ethnically, religiously, regionally, and in terms of socio-economic class. To these traditional divides (or opportunities for collaborative living) have now been added the stark difference in opportunities between homeland and Diaspora Liberians. As has been the case with other cleavages, some have trumpeted the virtues of one to the denigration of the other. "I have greater entitlement because you ran away and I stayed and endured the war". Or, "I provided remittances" . Such posturing is to no avail. We must come in humility to the national rendez vous to serve the common good. Liberia today can no more be build by the exertions of one set of Liberians to the exclusion of others than Liberia of yesteryears. If the effort is not collective it will falter and fail. In addressing all manner of our cleavage challenges we must build overlapping relationships. We must structure win-win (as opposed to win-lose) conflict resolution mechanisms.

There is room in Liberia to accommodate our diversity. We must celebrate each level of our identity - family, community, ethnic, religious, county, etc. But these must all feed into a Liberian national identity.

Allow me to address a bit more the issue of Diaspora Liberians in the restoration, renewal and development of the country. We have here the potential for both spoilers and builders. To our sorrow we have come to know all too well the spoilers in our recent past. The time has come to stand up the builders! And that means you and me! Diaspora Liberian builders remain an untapped strategic asset to the nation. They are a repository of huge financial resources, vast transnational networks, and high human capital. The challenge is to harness and integrate these assets into the foreign and development policies of our Liberian homeland.

What then is our role in this enterprise? I believe that we can all serve Liberia taking into account our various circumstances. Some of us will pack up and return home for good immediately. Some of us will straddle between here and there. Others of us will remain here for the duration.
Regardless of the category we identify ourselves with we will, all of us, find ways for positive political involvement, civic-oriented involvement, as well as involvement to the end of promoting peace through development. A host of activities fit the purview of each of the categories.
Political involvement might entail the sponsoring of media projects to educate and raise awareness about wholesome paths toward social harmony, channeling financial resources and innovative thinking into activities designed to upgrade capacities of public institutions, as well as lobbying activities in this our host country. Civic-oriented involvement should lead us to assist the widening of civic society space. Among the innovative ways of advancing this goal is the involvement of public personalities such as poets, writers, musicians, prominent scholars, and sport stars, people with moral authority that command respect across ethnic, religious and other cleavage lines.

And finally, we help promote sustainable peace through development at grass roots levels - setting up community and welfare projects at local levels, re-habilitating health centers, re-building schools, supporting rural farmers, etc.

Let me quickly add here that I am not talking about re-inventing the wheel in all these vital opportunities for service. I am fully aware of the large number and variety of Liberian associations already in existence and busy working for Liberia at many levels. I read regularly about the activities of county associations, school and other types of associations here and elsewhere in the industrialized world.

I see here a tremendous potential for the making of an auxiliary donor community in aid to Liberian development. Not a community that replaces international donors, but one that complements our traditional partners in development. The two are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing. But as donors you will have the clout to lay down conditionalities. You will impact if not be a part of public policy making in your homeland.

I would therefore would like to call upon all Liberian associations already in existence and those yet to be created to seize the moment, get into high gear, exploit the opportunity to become a donor to the country of your birth. We can do for Liberia what other Diaspora communities have done for their homelands. This will entail major re-programming on the part of such organizations as ULAA, UNABOA, other county and school associations. They will need to re-program to deliver specifics - ambulances, fire trucks, school buses, a steady supply of medicines to hospitals, as well as technical assistance (the volunteering of intermittent professional services).
Public and private leadership must then coordinate the multifarious activities to a common developmental end. At the public level, for example, our consular and diplomatic services could make identifying Liberian human and material resources a routine part of their responsibilities, in addition to their traditional duties.

We could do even more. We could form financing entities similar in organization and intent to the Stettinius Associates-Liberia Inc, a corporation organized in 1947 by former American Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, with the object of investing and stimulating others to invest in Liberia. With only $200,000 of his personal resource the corporation delivered in time the Liberian Merchant Marine scheme, a continuing source of revenue to our country. The efforts of Stettinius and his colleagues resulted also in the Cocopa Rubber Plantation in Nimba County, the Liberian Mining Company, and other establishments. I mention this fact of history because I read of a Liberian from Sinoe County, I believe, who recently pledged $500,000 to development and has already delivered $150,000 to the government. I know not the details. I see here tremendous potential A healthy interaction between the children of Liberia at home and those of us abroad could redound to the restoration and renewal of our land.

What I am saying in all this is that we recognize that there is precedence to our present "new beginning". We are a people "heavy with history" and that history has and will continue to shape us in numerous ways. Past virtues we must retain; past vices we must excise. The international donor community has laid before us a vision for reconciliation and development. It suggests how to escape "the conflict trap" and develop. We should modify this some by adding "peculiar Liberian issues" - national identity, national purpose, national mind -set, and bridging cleavages of homeland Liberians and diaspora Liberians.

I urge us here, and beyond here, to ponder these things as we seek to work out our own salvation. In the end my greatest dream is to witness the initiation of a STRUCTURED NATIONAL DEBATE designed to accomplish nothing short of RE-LAUNCHING THE LIBERIA ENTERPRISE. .I am thinking of a series of national commissions that will engage us all on some of the things I have mentioned. How can we ignore the problems of our current Constitution, the 1986 Constitution when we recall the 1980s circumstances of its making? How can we fail to recognize the non-inclusiveness of some of our foundational state papers? How can we pretend that our national symbols are in fact national? How can we ignore our problematic official history? How can we ignore the need for rethinking our education system in reference to content? In all these things emergency and intermediate measures have been undertaken or contemplated. They must now cede soon to deliberate and systematic measures designed to place the nation on permanent footing. This could yet be the best way of escaping the conflict trap.


D. Elwood Dunn
Professor of Political Science
University of the South, Sewanee TN 37383
© 2006 by The Perspective

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