Investing in the private sector: in deeds; not words

Dr. James F. Kollie, Jr.

Way too many times we have deceived ourselves that government is creating the policy environment for the private sector to thrive. We have only said these in words and they have never been backed by real policy actions.

There has to come a time when we really mean that the “private sector is the engine of growth in Liberia” and truly begin investing in it. The lessons learned from the ebola crisis are sufficient to instruct us that we must invest in the Liberian owned domestic private sector. I remember vividly that the economy nearly collapsed because all the foreign merchants and investors fled the country and reduced their financial exposure. That is what any foreign person would do, right?

During those ‘dark’ days in 2014, my colleagues and I kept awake doing everything so that while our people were dying from the ebola virus disease, the economy would not collapse and increase the death toll. This was indeed a teachable moment for us. 

I remember in 2009 when I returned home and started managing Liberia’s first generation Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), it was clearly mentioned under the Economic Revitalization Pillar that growth was going to be private sector driven. And again in the Agenda for Transformation, we repeated the same thing in the Economic Transformation Pillar but still nothing. 

I am aware that it is not easy to develop the Liberian driven private sector but I am arguing that unless we do that, the economy will continue to be fragile. I know all too well that in a country like Liberia, actions to develop the domestic private sector come with a lot risk and constraints. Those who attempt to develop and empower the Liberian driven private sector will be accused of a number things but I believe that it is risk worth taking. Of course the it might turn out that most of the ventures will not succeed but unless we take risk we will never develop the Liberian owned private sector. 

Of course again there is constraint of access to capital for Liberian owned private sector. Most Liberians are financially challenged and considered unbankable. Most of them do not have collateral and without collaterals, banks are not willing to loan them money. And without money, they cannot invest. On the other hand, the foreign merchants (largely Lebanese and Indians) have the capital to invest and so they continue to control the market. In many instances, these merchants take deliberate actions to frustrate Liberian owned businesses simply because they do want Liberians to prosper and take charge of the local economy. 

With the recent announcement by the President that under his administration, Liberians will not be bystanders in their own economy, I think the pace is set to change the course of history. I think that Liberians deserve to take charge of the local economy and benefit from its wealth. What is now required is that those charged with the responsibilities of ensuring that the Liberian driven domestic private sector is empowered, begin to do their what is required. I am not saying it is easy; all I am saying is that we begin to make some efforts. During our time, did we try? I know we tried in several respects but these are easy undertakings. 

The first thing that I think should happen is that bureaucratic bottlenecks should be removed from the path of Liberian owned businesses and they should be given preferential treatment in every facet of economic life. For example, there is a Bill before the National Legislature for the empowerment of Liberian owned businesses. It has been there for 10 months. The Lebanese and Indians have vowed to kill the Bill and it seems they are winning. 

I believe that if we are serious about creating Liberian millions and taking charge of our economy, these deliberate steps should be taken and yes they come with some level of risks. But do we not want to risk anything? I am told that “nothing ventured; nothing gained.” 

It is hard time that we begin to take risks and empower our Liberian driven private sector. Some of the businesses that we will invest in will fail. No doubt! But the fear of failure shouldn’t prevent us from trying because unless we try, we will never win. And yes, failure is an option but we begin to invest in the Liberian private sector in deeds and not just words.

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