By Cecil Franweah Frank
As Liberia continues on its post-civil war reconstruction, one of the relevant questions that have bedeviled Liberian policymakers is developing effective policies to engage the diaspora. Since coming to office, the Johnson-Sirleaf administration has made some efforts at engagement by creating such mechanism as the Senior Executive Service, and making several calls to members of the diaspora to return home to contribute to national development and reconstruction.
However, there has been clear failings in these efforts. For one, the SES has been tailored to a specific narrow group of people and has not been transparent in its work thereby failing to attract many Liberians. At the same time, the government has not put in place any mechanism to embrace Liberians wanting to heed its calls to return home, and has not even been able to integrate these returning Liberians, except those that have had the contacts through the “who-know-you” mechanism that exists. Overall, government’s policy seems to view the diaspora as “cash cows.”
There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to engaging the diaspora. In a recent policy paper published by Dovelyn Agunias and Kathleen Newland, four elements for successful engagement with the diaspora were noted, all of which are lacking for Liberia and make it difficult if not impossible to engage the Liberian diaspora:
(1) The lack of identifiable goals and capacities;
(2) Lack of knowledge about the diaspora;
(3) Lack of trust;
(4) Inability to effectively mobilize the diaspora for development.
These four elements are deemed as very crucial for diaspora engagement. The article examines each of these elements as they relate to engaging the Liberian diaspora.
Identifying goals and capacities is the first element for successful engagement of the diaspora. Up to this point after almost twelve years in office, the Jonhson-Sirleaf administration has not been able to identify its goal in undertaking diaspora engagement. Government has not identified the necessary internal tools and mechanisms for diaspora engagement (i.e. administrative, financial, etc.). Government’s focus on relations with the diaspora has mainly been on remittances.
Since coming to office, the Johnson-Sirleaf administration identified several goals. Chief among these goals has been poverty reduction. The diaspora has a role to play in accomplishing this role through business investments, but this has not been the focus of government. By focusing on remittances from the diaspora, there is sufficient justification to say that government has basically viewed the diaspora as “cash cows.” The Liberian Investment Commission and administrative agencies have not had any incentive-based strategies for dealing with diaspora-owned business initiatives.
Another post-conflict goal set by government with an equally urgent character has been developing the country’s economic capacities, and eventually improving economic competitiveness. The government has not sufficiently attracted and tapped the knowledge and skills of the diaspora to address this goal. Key obstacles in the way of government engaging the diaspora on these goals are lack of transparency in employment practices and the “who-know-you” institutional mentality. Government needs to reorganize the SES and Civil Service Agency with the focus on promoting transparency and “what-skills-and-knowledge you have” mentality in Liberia.
The likely success of this element is conditioned upon the government first having reasonably clear goals to engage the diaspora. Knowledge of the characteristics of the diaspora is very essential to any successful engagement policy. Important ways of getting to know the diaspora are the collection of comprehensive data, mapping of the locations of diaspora organizations, and the creation of inventories cataloging the skills and experience of members of the diaspora.
The key focus of this effort in having a clear knowledge of the diaspora involves coordination within government and capacity building. Liberian consulates and embassies may play important roles in coordinating the collection of information on the diaspora. The sources for this information are data from countries in which Liberians live, professional organizations, alumni associations and diaspora social organizations like ULAA. The lack of reliable data on Liberian diasporas in Africa, Asia, Europe and America is a huge obstacle in developing effective diaspora policies.
Partnerships between the Liberian government and the diaspora should be viewed as a long-term project. This means doing away with the mentality that diasporas are “cash-cows.” The success of the partnership projects depend on the degree of trust between the partners – government and the diaspora.
There exists ample reasons for the diaspora not to trust the Liberian government, and all of these reasons are rooted in historical experience and present realities. In order for trust to take hold between the government and the diaspora, the Liberian government MUST first take the necessary steps to include creating a welcoming and conducive environment for the diaspora to engage in development activities, improving the business climate, encouraging greater transparency in regulations and licensing requirements, and consistent application of property law.
The creation of different types of programs may help develop a partnership of trust with the diaspora. For example, in pursuit of the goals of encouraging joint decision-making and consolidating confidence, the government may create a department within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs task to coordinate and ensure coherency to communicate and provide services to the diaspora using a network of consular offices. Liberian students in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are currently cut off and have no means of having their needs met by the Liberian government. Such department within the Foreign Ministry may prevent this alienation and serve as a mechanism to reach out to these students.
Another step that the government may undertake in the interest of building trust is to set up a program that will match on different levels the contributions of diaspora organizations to infrastructure projects in their communities or origin. Also, the government may set up a consultative body consisting of representatives of the diaspora to air issues, criticisms and disagreements on policy matters as they affect the diaspora. These steps are extremely important to building trust and confidence with the diaspora.
This element entails the mobilization of the diaspora to render productive help to Liberia’s reconstruction and development. Mobilizing the diaspora is only possible after establishing trust with the government, clearly defining the goals of partnerships, and a clear understanding of the characteristics of the diaspora. In order to effectively mobilize the diaspora, government may either need to create a new institutional entity or ensure re-adaptation of current existing entities. The overall objectives for this element are to create an institutional framework at the national level to communicate with the diaspora, coordinate policies, and provide support for and follow-up on diaspora engagement.
Some specific strategies in this regard may involve the creation of an independent and accountable body consisting wholly or partly of diaspora members to handle a pool consisting of funds transfer from the diaspora to Liberia. Another strategy is organizing high profile events to recognize the services of members of the diaspora to the country or their communities of origin and to recognize the work of diaspora organizations in their communities of origin. The government may also create a program with the help of the UN, European Union, and the United States to encourage the return of qualified Liberians, not only senior executive Liberians.
Finally, yet another forum for mobilizing the diaspora is to create and support platforms in conjunction with donor governments and international organizations with the involvement of civil society to facilitate diaspora involvement in Liberia’s development. Such forums or institutional mechanisms will not only encourage systematic sharing of ideas and information, but may also serve as vehicles for capacity building.
Partnership between the Liberian Government and the diaspora is very vital for the successful post-conflict reconstruction and development of Liberia. Such partnership needs to be viewed as a long-term project and MUST be based on goals that are first and foremost paramount to all Liberians – poverty reduction and building economic capacities and competitiveness. This means government must first match its goals to diaspora resources both in human and financial terms by not only encouraging remittances, but also investments and knowledge transfer based on consultations and research.
Next, government needs to identify opinion interlocutors with the diaspora and “listening exercises” in order to get to know the diaspora. The key focus of this efforts should be based on coordination within government and capacity building. Building trust with the diaspora should include services to the diaspora, favorable privileges to non-resident Liberians and their descendants, and promote a more robust consular engagement.
The granting of dual citizenship as demanded by a small segment of the diaspora leadership is important for building trust but not a “do-or-die” priority for the reconstruction of Liberia and should not be a mono-issue in developing policies of engagement with the diaspora. Finally, the government may mobilize the diaspora by integrating the diaspora into development planning and policy implementation, facilitating investments by diaspora through the creation of a welcoming, conducive and open business climate, transparency in regulatory policies, and consistent, fair implementation of property law, and through high-profile events.
Cecil Frank already holds master degrees in International Relations and Public Administration. He is a Law and Public Policy PhD candidate at Walden University, and fluent in several languages including Russian and Ukrainian.