From afar, it is easy to think that Liberia’s problems are easy to solve. It is not until you come up to close to the problems before you begin to see and notice the varied challenges and nuances of the problems that confront the country.
This is not to say that there are no solutions to the problems. This is only intended to highlight that the problems are not as easy as they seem from afar. Let me quickly point out that this essay is not intended to categorize as naïve and ill-informed those who think the problems are easy because I once had similar viewpoint until I came up close to where the “solutions” were being discussed. It was only through experience and close observations that I realized that the problems are multi-faceted, complex, nuanced, and gradated.
I remember vividly in February 2016 at one of the cabinet retreats in which I had a meaningful role to play, I represented to the Cabinet that Liberia can be compared to a “mechanically challenged” vehicle that we are driving to get to a certain destination. I opined further that the conditions attending the challenges are such that: (1) we cannot stop this vehicle to undertake a full repair because too many people are anxious to get to their destination and some sick people on board the vehicle might die; and (2) we don’t have the resources to undertake a full repair of the vehicle.
Because we MUST keep moving, I further informed the Cabinet, it means that we have to make some tough decisions along the way. I was trying to drive home a point that we will not be able to do everything at the same time. We have to find a way to prioritize. I contended that while everything (sector or program) is important, there are some that are more important than others and if we try to fix everything at once, we might not be able to fix anything properly.
I furthered in that presentation by way of an example that what if while we are driving the car (Liberia), the “fan” belt cut and at the same time the “seat” belt cut. What would we do? I insisted that both belts are important but the “fan” belt is more critical to our continued movement than the “seat” belt. By fixing the fan belt properly doesn’t mean that the seat belt is not important but that we must focus on the critical things to keep moving ahead. I then made similar comparison with the “radio” and “breaks” of this mechanically challenged vehicle. I thought we should focus on the “break” and not the “radio”.
Well, I am sure that most people at the retreat got my point of trying to “prioritize the priorities.” During the lunch break, it was the most mentioned topic of the day. While most people understood the analogies, no one felt that they were the “seat” belt or the “radio.” And so we got back to the same situation in which everything was a priority and that we had to spread our resources so thin to the point where the impact is minimum in every facet and we really don’t solve any of the problems in a meaningful way.
To make more picturesque my point, I encouraged the Cabinet to think in terms of having a dollar. Now, lets decide on how we want to spend that dollar. Once we have apportioned that dollar, bearing in mind what is more important to us now and what we might be able to do later, then we can all own the process and deliver. This is easier said than done because everyone believes that their sector is very important, if not the most important. I encouraged colleagues that just because we are not focusing on that sector today doesn’t mean that it is not important. It only means that we don’t have the resources today to do everything at once. Maybe once we deliver on some other sectors, there might be spill over impact in other sectors and yours could benefit. But that argument is a very difficult argument to sell to a cabinet minister who wants to make an impact in his/her sector.
With limited resources and no one prepared to see the value in prioritizing the priorities, it becomes extremely difficult to make significant impact in any one area. So you can see that a little is done here and a little is done there but no major dent is observed in any single area.
The major challenge that I see is that the problems are too many and affect too many people all at the same time but we don’t have the capacity to deal with them all at once. The quintessential question therefore is what do we do first, next and last? Important to bear in mind is that there are varied actors and each actor has a different understanding of what is important and what can wait. For some, health is more important than education. For others, physical security (state security) is more important than others. And still for others, economic security (security of the state) is more important.
Depending on whose sitting at the table, these debates can continue without resolution and meanwhile, we have to keep moving and by moving, we keep digging deep into areas that we might realize we should not have venture into in the first place.
Maybe someone has a magic solution but trust me, the problems are enormous and nuanced. Even in the area of health or education, there are a number of solutions depending on how one understands the problems. Or even in agriculture, which nearly everyone agrees is the ‘lowest hanging’ fruit or our major comparative advantage, the solutions are not easy to find.
And like I tell people, it is easy to talk loosely from the sideline when your comments have no direct or indirect impact in the solution but when you are sitting in the seat whereby your actions or inactions have real life consequences, only then would you know that the problems are not as easy as they seem.
Don’t get me wrong, they can be solved and they will be solved but oversimplification will not help. Development actors need to be given space and time.