The international community likes to define Liberia’s recent history primarily through two events: its fourteen-year civil war, which ended in 2003, and the work of the country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first democratically elected female leader in Africa. The chart below illustrates both. On my recent trip to Liberia, first with a group of Bay Area philanthropists hosted by the government and then as part of a small group of Googlers on a country visit, I learned more about how terrible the 1980s and 90s were in this small West African nation. GDP -- a crude measure of the health of a nation, but an indicator nonetheless -- dropped 90% as the country endured brutal dictatorship after brutal dictatorship. That decline is the largest in any nation since World War II, and nearly twice the percentage drop that Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and other states experienced during their crises. The good news is that although Liberia essentially had no economy at the depths of the war, GDP has almost risen to pre-conflict levels during Johnson Sirleaf’s tenure, and foreign direct investment has returned.
The numbers also tell a third story. Throughout the 1960s and 70s Liberia’s economy grew at a steady pace in a way that most other African economies did not. The growth was inequitable -- but real -- and the ingenuity and entrepreneurship that drove it are on full display today, albeit in ways that can sometimes puzzle a visitor to the country.
During the ten days I was in Liberia my colleagues and I always had a driver; it’s the only way for foreigners to get around. The first day we reserved our car for 9:00am but when I looked out the hotel window at 9:02am I noticed the car speeding off with three other passengers. When I frantically called the driver he responded, “My man, don’t worry -- I will get you to your meeting on time.” And he did. Then there was the night a local friend suggested dinner by saying, “Come on -- this place has a nice outdoor patio at the base of Sniper Hill. . . wait, that didn’t quite sound as inviting as I meant it.” When we arrived our waiter was Frankie, a cheerful eight-year old sporting an Alex Rodriguez Yankees jersey who delivered our food and drink on the jog. At the local family restaurant, everyone pitched in.
Like most of Africa, cell phones are ubiquitous in Liberia and are the technology of choice for the vast majority of the population. Our meetings with the mobile providers there could have taken place anywhere in the world. They’re making money but are fiercely competitive with one another, slashing prices and offering new products to gain market share, and desperately trying to expand into new markets like broadband. Their activities are far from philanthropic, but they’re arguably having a more positive affect on Liberians’ day-to-day life than any other segment of society. The mobile penetration rate is 40% and rising, particularly in rural areas where phones are often the first “big” purchase a Liberian will make.
The country’s trademark ingenuity is of course noticeable here as well. Liberians will often carry SIM cards from different mobile carriers and switch back and forth depending on coverage and prices (a noticeably nice option that’s not available in the locked-down U.S. market). Since unanswered calls don’t incur a charge and the person who initiates the call pays more than the receiver, Liberians will also occasionally call and hang up, meaning, “I want talk to you but you can afford this more than I can, so call me back.” Scratch cards, which give you twenty or thirty minutes of talk time, are practically used as cash and are sold virtually everywhere.
The past thirty years have been difficult ones for most Liberians, and with an 80% unemployment rate and known war criminals still occupying high government offices, there are still huge problems to address. In the next two years the country will hold elections and most of the UN peacekeepers will withdraw. Watch closely: if both go well, a stable Liberia may finally be back.