By Abm. Nathanial Barnes
The Liberian Diaspora is as unique and peculiar as Liberia itself. Its genesis, unlike many other Diasporas, can be traced all the way back to the founding of Liberia and its uniquely close historical ties with the United States.
The Liberian Diaspora in the United States can be categorized into at least three broad categories reflecting the age, circumstances and general disposition of the group. These categories are:
The Historical Diaspora – This category is difficult to track because, in many instances, they are completely integrated into the American Society having arrived in America over a protracted period of time long before the more recent crises in Liberia beginning in 1980. In many instances, these Liberians came to the U.S. as students. Upon completion of their studies, many eventually changed their status and became absorbed into America’s economic and social fabric as immigrants. Personal reasons were the most likely motivating factors that led to their becoming American citizens. Apparently, this category, as with many other Diaspora groups, clung to their Liberian heritage resulting in close empathy with the Liberian nation because of family connections and historical ties.
According to a study done by Emmanuel Wettee, a former President of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), “As Liberia and U.S. relationship began to form a strategic partnership as it related to the national security interest of the United States during World I and World II, in the 1900’s and onward, the next path of migration started through diplomacy, scholarships and normal visitation. The friendly relationships between the US and Liberia provided more opportunities for Liberians to receive scholarships and to study in the United States. At the end of the 1950s there were about 10,000 Liberians living in the United States. These were mostly students, including their relatives and families, in addition to few members of the diplomatic mission, their families and staff.” (Wettee)
Mr. Wettee’s study indicates that the lion’s share of these early immigrants lived on the East Coast of the United States particularly in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Maryland. It was not until mid-1960 that significant numbers of Liberians started to migrate to the South, Midwest and West. According to Wettee, Liberians from Montserrado, Sinoe and Grand Bassa counties dominated the early Liberian migrant population in the United States due to their relationships with missionaries in Liberia, government scholarships and governmental appointments to the Liberia’s diplomatic mission.
The Crisis Diaspora – is the largest group within the Liberian Diaspora in the U.S. These are individuals and offspring of individuals who fled Liberia during various periods of violent conflict.
Armed insurrection in Liberia was sparked several years after the military coup d’état in April 1980. Over a protracted period of war and civil insurrection, casualty estimates exceed 200,000 while over a million Liberians were displaced and became refugees. This period of war and instability witnessed the first significant mass migration of Liberians out of Liberia. While the Historical Diaspora represents the genesis of the Liberian Diaspora, the Crisis Diaspora created a stronger, closer and more palpable tie to the plight and prospects of Liberia between Liberians at home and those living abroad than any other of the diaspora categories.
By the end of 1990, estimates of approximately 60,000 Liberians had migrated to the United States as a direct result of the war. This new contingent of migrants included Liberians from all the subdivisions of Liberia significantly expanding and creating a more diverse Liberian community in the United States. These individuals were generally categorized as refugees seeking a safe haven in the United States.
According to Wettee, “As a direct result of Liberians creating their own families in the United States through family reunification and the refugee resettlement program due to the 1989 civil war there are now about 300,000 Liberians currently living in the United States representing all ethnic groups in Liberia including those born of Liberian parentage in the U. S.” (Wettee)
The Liberian Diaspora is spread across the entire United States. Significant concentrations can be found in Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Texas, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan and California. There are also relatively high concentrations of Liberians from Grand Gedeh County that live in Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota.
While a sizable number of this group remain in a temporary immigration status, some have successfully transitioned into permanent resident status and, significantly, many are now American citizens. Whatever their status, this group of Liberians makes significant contributions to the Liberian economy.
The Special Diaspora – is characterized by non-Liberians who have a special affinity for and interest in the welfare of the Liberian nation often because of personal relations with the country or nationals of the country. Examples include active members of the Friends of Liberia Organization, former Peace Corp volunteers who worked in various parts of Liberia, missionaries and other non-Liberians who lived and worked in Liberia and developed special relationships and sincere interest in the wellbeing of the Liberian nation.
The total numerical strength of the Liberian Diaspora is difficult to ascertain. This is due largely to the uncertainty of their status. However, estimates run between 300 thousand and 350 thousand spread across the entire United States.
The Liberian Diaspora has, over the years, evolved into a potent force to be reckoned with in the Liberian national existence. This factor can best be characterized in two specific ways.
First, the demographics of the Liberian Diaspora nearly mirror that of Liberia in terms of ethnicity, gender, age etc. Political dynamics within institutions and associations in the Diaspora, like Liberia, are generally driven along tribal/ethnic lines and interests. There are as many tribal/ethnic organizations in the Liberian Diaspora in America as there are ethnic groups in Liberia. On close observation one could easily conclude that the Liberian Diaspora in the United States is a microcosm of Liberia from a social and political perspective. Liberians in the Diaspora continue to demonstrate unprecedented enthusiasm (to some extent anxiety) about political and social developments in Liberia. In this regard, the Liberian Diaspora has evolved socially and politically, into Liberia’s sixteenth county (Liberia is comprised of fifteen administrative and geographic subdivisions called counties). Of course this “sixteenth county” is not subjected to the organic laws and jurisdiction of Liberia, however the singular impact and influence this group has on the social, political and economic dispensation is undeniably as strong (if not stronger) than many of the “true” fifteen counties in Liberia. This phenomenon is manifested in the well-organized and orchestrated initiative for implementation and passage of appropriate laws supporting dual citizenship in addition to the significant leverage the Liberian Diaspora brings to bear on the political electoral process in Liberia.
The second characterization is that, economically, the Diaspora has emerged as Liberia’s Middle Class. The history of Liberia is fraught with disparities which cover nearly every aspect of the Liberia experience; economically, socially and politically. This fact is historically demonstrated by the non-existence of a middle class in Liberia for many generations. Liberia has always harbored two distinct social and economic classes, a miniscule wealthy class and a huge desperately poor class. Countless reports emanating from the World Bank and other credible institutions rank Liberia among the five poorest countries in the world. This dire poverty is manifest through stark symptoms of at least three of what economist Paul Collier describes as “Poverty Traps” in his brilliant book entitled The Bottom Billion. Collier’s three Poverty Traps which has ensnarled Liberia are The Conflict Trap, The Natural Resource Trap and The Trap of Bad Governance in a Small Country. (Collier)
Generations of “wallowing” in these poverty traps have resulted in a paradigm of non-existent or very weak institutions; massive pervasive corruption; societal moral degradation and inconceivable social, economic and political disparities. All of these malaises will require not only significant time, but the existing paradigm will literally have to be turned topsy-turvy in order to attain a trajectory of sustained economic, social and political stability, growth and prosperity.
The Liberian Diaspora, in all of its unconventional uniqueness, has emerged as an integral part of the change factor in Liberia. The fact that this phenomenon exists outside of Liberia provides the opportunity to Diaspora Liberians to leverage the political and economic power of their adopted home countries in affecting change in Liberia. More importantly, however, is the significant clout inherent in the financial prowess and potential of the Diaspora.
According to a recent survey conducted by the World Bank and the Monrovia based Liberia Institute for Statistics and Geo-Information Services (LISGIS), Liberia ranks first in Sub-Saharan Africa with the highest percentage of remittances as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The survey indicates that remittances to Liberia expanded from US$360 million in 2011 to US$549 million in 2016, representing 27 percent of Liberia’s GDP.
According to this report, approximately 75 percent of remittances from abroad to Liberia came from immediate family members. It also shows that 60 percent of transfers received were done through the informal sector. In 2014 and 2016, only about 40 percent of the total transfers received were done through traceable methods such as the financial system (i.e., Western Union, Moneygram, Mobile Money, etc.).
The survey showed that the United States easily ranked first in the inflow of remittances to Liberia constituting 70 percent of the total inflow to Liberia in 2014 and 61 percent in 2016.
A critical finding of this survey is the fact that in the absence of these private transfers, the poverty level would more than triple, especially in the urban areas.
The source of remitted funds is comprised largely of disposal income of individuals in the Diaspora. The most important “take away” from this circumstance is, if nurtured and managed effectively, the Liberian Diaspora has the potential to be a major source of developmental funding for Liberia.
While I served as Liberia’s Ambassador to the United States, high-priority initiatives involved serious and sustained engagement with the Liberian Diaspora in America. This intervention was primarily driven by our belief and vision of two critical factors namely the immense potential source of human capital and capacity, and the underutilized reservoir of funding sources waiting to be effectively tapped. Both of these cardinal qualities could be instrumental in achieving the quest for stability, growth and prosperity for Liberia.
The Liberian Diaspora is relatively well structured across a variety of ethnic, scholastic, religious and social institutions or entities in America. All sixteen ethnic groups in Liberia are represented by their respective association in the United States. Most Liberian educational institutions, including high school and college alumni associations, have U. S. based affiliates. The same is true for religious, social and athletic organizations. This fact provides a readily identifiable Diaspora with functional institutional structures (membership, leadership, agendas, etc.).
Armed with this knowledge, the Liberian Embassy in Washington, D.C. officially reached out to these organizations across the United States with the proposal to establish a Diaspora Advisory Board.
The concept of organizing an Advisory Board to work closely with the Embassy of Liberia through the Ambassador of Liberia to the United States grew out of compelling data which suggested that the Liberian Diaspora has the potential to play a crucial role in resolving some of the most pressing challenges facing post-conflict Liberia particularly with regard to The Government of Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy as articulated in a published document under the direction President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
In addition to the significant financial remittances to Liberia, the Diaspora has continually demonstrated a strong desire to help their homeland. In many ways, members of various groups have demonstrated a sense of moral obligation to give back in the face of their good fortune in America. Members of the Diaspora, in addition to money, often ship consignments of clothing, medical supplies, food and other in-kind donations to Liberia. Some groups have even organized visits to Liberia by skilled professionals to volunteer their services in Liberia.
Given this goodwill, the role of the Diaspora Advisory Board could be to coordinate efforts from the Diaspora such that the Government could maximize the impact of Diaspora participation in addressing the Poverty Reduction Strategy. The underlying assumption was that a concerted, well-orchestrated, collaboration among the entire Diaspora would be infinitely more effective than the unilateral, isolated, inconsistent, though significant, contributions of disparate individuals and groups within the Diaspora.
Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) articulated the Government’s vision and strategies for moving toward rapid, inclusive and sustainable growth and development during the period 2008-2011. The strategy was implemented between April 1, 2008 and June 30, 2011. The significance of this period is directly linked to the fact that during this timeframe, Liberia was expected to shift from post-conflict stabilization toward establishing the foundation for inclusive and sustainable growth, poverty reduction and achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. The Poverty Reduction Strategy grew out of the Government’s plans for the first 150 days in office and the Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy which were organized around a framework with four basic pillars upon which the PRS was also based: (1) expanding peace and security; (2) revitalizing the economy; (3) strengthening governance and the rule of law and (4) rehabilitating infrastructure and delivering basic services.
Although some progress was made within the first three years of the initiative, there are a number of factors which affected the Government’s ability to successfully implement the entire PRS. Among these obstacles were: (1) the unavailability of requisite funding coupled with the absence of coordinated disbursement of available financing; (2) inadequate leadership, administrative and technical capacity; (3) external instability and economic contagion effects; (4) internal security; and (5) the shortfall of attaining economic growth projections.
I was convinced that coordinated contribution of the Liberian Diaspora directly targeted towards several of these potential barriers to implementation of the PRS, could have positively impacted the outcome.
We developed a model that would facilitate sustainable Diaspora Direct Investment. In addition, we engaged the World Bank and other Multinational entities that we believed would bring significant value to the initiative. The World Bank runs a functional group which focuses on how Diasporas from developing countries can positively impact growth and development in their countries. The group provides advisory services, research services (economic and financial indicators/statistics) and some funding.
The Advisory Board was comprised of representatives of each sector of the Diaspora including Special, Crisis and Historical. The board reflected diverse perspectives and experiences and each member carried a high level of credibility and respect within the Liberian Diaspora Community. They garnered the support of the greater Liberian Diaspora in fulfilling their mandate which was to expand, enhance and operationalize the basic plan to fully engage and utilize the Diaspora in implementing the Government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.
My work with the Liberian Diaspora initiative is well documented in Jack Mangala’s (PhD) book entitled Africa and its Global Diaspora: The Policy and Politics of Emigration. (Mangala)
My engagement with the Liberian Diaspora Advisory Board also entailed developing innovative strategies and initiatives that would exploit and leverage opportunities inherent in the vast financial potential of Liberia’s “16th County”; it’s global Diaspora. One concept (as depicted in the above diagram), exhibited tremendous promise. This approach comprised a Tripartite Financial Investment Paradigm. Simply, the thrust of the initiative was to channel Diaspora based investment to Liberia thru a foreign-based fund manager. Our studies indicated that remittances to Liberia mainly comprised a portion of disposal income of the Diaspora. The findings also revealed that a significant number of those in the Diaspora possess some form of a saving/investment instrument (i.e., interest bearing account, IRA, stocks, bonds etc.) coupled with a relative level of sophistication of investment concepts and trends. The basic approach was to convince the Diaspora to “divest” a small portion of their “portfolio” to a special investment fund focused on development in Liberia. This would be done through an investment house or fund manager in the Diaspora country. This action would mitigate risks by insuring transparency and accountability inherent in the reliable regulatory framework existing in the Diaspora country.
The concept was built around a tripartite scenario as it involved three interdependent stakeholders: Diaspora investor; Professional Investment Institution (Fund Manager); and the Government of Liberia including its Private Sector. The success and sustainability of the paradigm would be driven by how effectively each stakeholder performed and delivered their specific mandates.
The requirement of the Diaspora Investor would be solely to divert a portion of his/her investment portfolio to an investment institution specifically selected to participate in the scheme. The Investment Institution’s (Fund Manager), fundamental role and responsibility would entail matching the Diaspora investor’s investment, researching, selecting, and investing in profitable development projects in Liberia and oversight of the projects. The basic role of the government would address two essential functions. First, provide a stable political and economic environment and second provide an investment-friendly environment.
Several benefits were identified with the effective implementation of this initiative. Six of the most prominent benefits include 1. The program would send a strong and positive signal that Liberians abroad are investing in Liberia. This could serve as an impetus for encouraging others to follow suit; 2. The program could lead to a more consistent and sustained flow of investment resources into Liberia yielding better predictability and planning for national growth and expansion; 3. The initiative did not involve government borrowing (increased debt) leading to more prudent fiscal planning and management; 4. Significant mitigation of risks due to enhanced research and analysis of potential projects, predictable environment, and improved transparency and accountability; 5. Provide a perquisite boost to the private sector – the Engine of Growth & Development; and 6. Increase employment opportunities and training for the populace.
This initiative could be reasonably perceived as a true Win-Win arrangement for the tripartite as there are also several stakeholder-specific benefits which could be derived from its successful implementation. For the Diaspora Investor, there is the intangible reward of patriotic satisfaction gained from one’s role in national development. The more tangible benefits however would be the financial returns on his/her investment paid by Investment Institution. The Investment Institution would benefit directly from profits generated by the investment. As for the Government of Liberia, there would be the plethora direct and indirect economic and social benefits associated with national development.
Having accomplished the establishment and official launching of the Liberian Diaspora Advisory Board, much of my formal and informal time with Liberians residing in America was focused on creating buy-in and fostering a strong sense of ownership, attachment and commitment to rebuilding and developing Liberia. The rhetoric of many of my speaking engagements and interactions focused on raising consciousness of Liberians in the Diaspora and their obligation to their native land especially in its time of dire need. Additionally, I consistently reemphasized the importance of the Diaspora in determining the future of Liberia – essentially a message of constructive inclusion.
About the Author
Nat, as he is best known, grew up in Harper, Maryland County and Monrovia, Montserrado County, Liberia. He completed high school at the College of West Africa in 1972 and worked for a short time as a clerk at Bank of Monrovia/Citibank. Nat traveled to the United States to pursue his college education at Rider College (now Rider University) in Lawrenceville, New Jersey earning his BSc Degree in Finance in 1978. In 1979, Barnes matriculated to Pace University in New York City where he earned an MBA in Finance and Banking.
Nat has served as Director-General of the National Social Security Corporation (NASSCORP), Minister of Finance, Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and Liberian Ambassador accredited to the United State of America.
Nat is married to Dr. Dawn Cooper Barnes, a university professor/administrator and professional performing artist.