Rebuilding Liberia's middle class

MONROVIA, Liberia — The community of New Kru Town lies just beyond Monrovia’s port. Like much of this capital city, the neighborhood is characterized by crowded zinc shacks, packed tightly on sandy ground.

Only a few concrete houses dot the community, most still bearing the scars of the 14-year civil war that ended in 2003 after tearing the country’s infrastructure to shreds. The war also dismantled Liberia's middle class.

Davidetta Togba-Cassell, 26, survived part of the war in an Ivorian refugee camp, and the rest in the chaos of Monrovia.

Despite these massive hurdles, she succeeded in obtaining a university education and today keeps a room with her new husband in one of the New Kru Town houses. They share the rent for the house with friends and it is spacious and clean with a fenced-in yard. They own a small generator for electricity that they use when they can afford the gas to run it: like most of Liberia, the house has no electricity and no running water.

With a degree in political science and economics from the University of Liberia, Togba-Cassell has a job as a special assistant to a senior member of the senate that earns her about $300 a month. Though not a competitive salary on the international market, in Liberia, this is an upper-middle salary, more than four times what policemen or entry-level civil servants earn, and 10 times above the "dollar-a-day" that more than half of all Liberians are said to live on.

While she enjoys her job and realizes she is fortunate, Togba-Cassell does not see those in her income bracket enjoying many amenities associated with the term "middle class." She doesn't have a television or a car or other means of personal transport. Vacation travel is out of the question as the couple have hardly any money saved. Togba-Cassell worries about lacking money in case of a medical emergency for her or her immediate family.

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“There is no middle class in Liberia,” she emphasized from her porch. “You either poor, or you got something to eat.

“In Liberia here, we work full time — from morning until 6 p.m. or whatever time boss has to leave — and at the end of the month, you get something that cannot support your family,” she said.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first woman head of state, is struggling to build a middle class, according to her cabinet ministers.

“We don’t have a strong middle class yet, but we consider the middle class in Liberia to be people with university degrees, people who use their skills to earn money, people in small and medium businesses,” explained Liberia’s Minister of Labor Taiowan Gongloe.

While income often fails to match the experience or expectations of educated citizens such as Togba-Cassell, Gongloe reinforces that this skill set is necessary to make Liberia’s recovery a strong one.

Gongloe is optimistic about Liberia's future, as the country’s large diaspora increasingly sees the signs of stability needed for a healthy economy to function, and trickles back home, strengthening Liberia’s return to peace.

“Because of increased security [in Liberia] they will come back. The more they invest, the more they provide great opportunities for the young people who are needing jobs, those who are getting degrees,” said Gongloe.

Liberia’s representative to the World Trade Organization, local entrepreneur Amin Modad, points to specific benefits of this trend bringing people like himself back from refuge in the United States, Europe and larger regional economies such as Ghana and Nigeria.

“Liberians returning from the West are bringing with them formal education and experience. They are bringing in technological savvy that you won’t find here, exposure that you won’t find here,” said Modad.

This, Modad believes, helps fill a crucial void in the local professional skill set left by a generation forced to focus on wartime survival instead of professional advancement, and grows both skills and ethics in the workplace.

With much of the resource-based economy controlled by foreign interests that — outside of cheap, unskilled labor jobs — rarely train or hire many Liberians, Modad hopes incoming skills and values from the diaspora will help build up a Liberian-owned private sector, and in turn grow both the middle class and the economy of Liberia.

Like Gongloe, Modad sees a small middle class that does only marginally better than those with no official employment. Besides, he added, “the margin between the middle class and the elite is still too far.”

Today, as Liberians return home and share their skills and a continuous stream of graduates emerge from the six increasingly competitive universities, overall capacity in Liberia holds great promise for future growth. However, wages will have to meet expectations to keep these skills in the country.

“If things don’t change,” Modad noted, “[the amount of skilled returnees] will plateau very soon, and after that, it would likely decline.”

While optional travel is currently only affordable to an upper elite class, work abroad attracts young Liberians across the country. Togba-Cassell often considers benefits of a move to a more valuable market for her experience.

“Sometimes I think that maybe when I work out there, if I work three to four years I could [make a] better life, whereas I work 20, 30 years, no improvement in Liberia,” Togba-Cassell said.

This brings obvious discouragement to those working in this economic class. But for Togba-Cassell at least, it is up to this same class to move Liberia forward.

“If we want a middle class, we got to build a middle class, and we cannot build a middle class by depending on government’s money. We gotta build a middle class by our own labor," said Togba-Cassell. "We gotta work, we gotta learn that we have to take our country’s economy, that is how we are going to build a middle class. The people that call themselves the upper class, they have to invest in the country. ... The best way to move Liberia forward is to invest in the country.”

Africa's middle class is a GlobalPost series to highlight the continent's key but under-reported population including South Africa's growing class of "black diamonds," education opportunities in Ghana, the challenge to Kenya's middle class, the struggles to rebuild a middle class after years of civil war in Sierra Leone and the diaspora of thousands of Africa's ambitious in the U.S. and Europe.