He looks very frustrated behind the steering wheel of his SUV. He is making his way over the sandy road; crisscrossing between the people walking from the beach. There are many close escapes as his car skids in great speed and nearly out of control. Indeed when he reaches the junction he has angered enough people. Traffic is now blocking his way forward and as he tries to make his way around yet another car he must slow down. He is very intoxicated. Maybe he has been fighting his girlfriend? He is forced out of his car. An argument starts and within soon he starts to fight. A bottle cracks on his head and the situation looks ugly. The air is tense. It is in the late afternoon and a national holiday. The whole area is packed with people. Down the road riot police has just entered an area where the beach hotel holds a show. Young people are feverously trying to jump the fence and there is a scrimmage on the inside. The commander of the riot police tells me he will clear the area so we can enter in safety. There is still tension hanging in the Liberian air, but it is a different kind than during the years of civil strife. Liberia has moved on.
It is not really the violence of Liberia that I want to focus on here, but rather the hordes of people who take their cars from Monrovia to the beaches outside the city to enjoy a national holiday. The official fee to enter the secluded beach area of the hotel is five US dollars. How many can afford this? One may add that this is the VIP section and that the other secluded part may well be cheaper and that other beaches charge no fee. But still. If we add the cost for transportation, food and drinks and the fancy clothes many are donning then we can conclude that a small family of four may easily spend half the monthly salary of a police officer in a single day’s outing to the beach. And Monrovians have turned up in thousands on the strings of beaches lining the ocean shore from the city towards the airport. With my seventeen years of experience from Liberia I have never seen anything like this. This is the proof of money in Liberia and the emergence of a middleclass. Clearly beach parties is part of a conspicuous consumption rather than the everyday, yet still where does the money come from? As I said, a day on the beach may cost half a monthly salary for a police officer, so if we consider working for the police as a middleclass occupation then the beach splurge I witnessed does not include ordinary civil servants, unless they also partake in the informal economy not to say part of the Liberian bribe industry. Furthermore although Monrovian business-life has been given a boost in recent years there are still questions of how much it really renders. Local production is also still rather low. The government has cut up the country, given huge concessions to international companies, but Liberian income on production is inappropriately limited. Certainly foreign aid is still something of the blood line of the Liberian economy and although many Liberians complain about ministers and senior civil servants carrying double citizenships – some of them say that they are going “home” when they leave Liberia for the US during the Christmas break – and thereby implying that a lot of moneys are going out of the country, it is quite obvious that some of this money is staying in Liberia. The question is how and with whom?
How much of the beach splurge is funded by international aid money? I am not an economist and I do not think ordinary research methods of economy could measure this, but I would love to see relating statistics. And furthermore I would like to know how much of the economy of the beach crowds in their SUVs is formal income? I suspect not much. I am not putting a moral grid on this, but just want to state that much of Liberian grand consumption beyond everyday expenditure comes from the informal sphere – and partly corruption. No doubt corruption is part of the Liberian system and should not just be viewed as evil: it is also the oil that upholds many social relations. But on the other hand it is a social divide: bribes tend to move up in the state system, not down. Except for businessmen bribing their way to contracts, tax evasions and other advantages (eventually making more money), bribes are taxing the poor and most significantly increasing salaries for those in the upper echelons of the state. For instance within the police, although the corruption most visible is bribes taken by officers on the street, the real profits is by senior staff as they levy fees on street side bribes. Bribe money is typically “seeping up” the system, not down.
Direct theft of state and aid money is another important income of the SUV middleclass. Substantial amounts of money are directly misappropriated. This means that the aid effect on post-war Liberia is far from what it could be if used as designated (another problem is the incompetence of the international aid community to do good aid). When I did fieldwork in Liberia during the Taylor years I asked many of what the benefits of foreign aid were and most simple said that UN and the INGOs employs us – aid is our salaries, nothing more nothing less. I believe that if we look at the relative limited progress of Liberia this is very much still the case. Some infrastructural progress may be seen in Monrovia, but in the interior painfully little has happened. We should then recall that Liberia will never again get as much foreign aid money as they have received from wars end up till today. An infrastructural hike dependent on foreign aid should have been visible by now. At the same time we must acknowledge that the amount of aid money to Liberia is far from sufficient in lifting Liberia out of poverty by itself even if efficiently spent.
Returning to the SUV middleclass spending their holiday on the beach my worry is that they are in no way representative for the kind of middleclass that researchers and policymakers rather schematically deem as necessary for democratic progressing states. Quite the contrary, ordinary Liberians indeed look with envy towards this emerging SUV middleclass, but are also quick pointing fingers at their corrupt means of gathering resources. Could they work as role models? I doubt, and is that what we want? Is it amongst this group we will find growing democratic values? It is far from obvious, for reasons stated above. In the meantime anger continuous to boil among poor Liberians standing on the roads just watching the SUVs driving by, their roads are not fixed, if they can afford to send their kids to school – the quality of education is lousy, and their sense of social and economic security is as limited as it was prior to the civil war. This does not mean that Liberia is going back to war, but many Liberians are ready to crack a bottle on the head of the SUV middleclass at any given moment.