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Liberia's elites leave American comforts for war-torn home

By Matthew ClarkStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 2006



MONROVIA, LIBERIA

Africa's best and brightest have long flocked to rich countries for opportunities unavailable at home. Brain drain costs the continent millions of dollars per year, depriving it of thousands of sorely needed professionals.

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But the reverse is now true in Liberia, a country of 3-1/2 million that is trying to pick up the pieces in the wake of a debilitating civil war.

"It's crazy – everywhere I go here, I meet someone else I knew from the States who's just come back," says Gama Roberts, a Web designer who recently left a lucrative job and comfortable life near Atlanta, Ga., to start a Web-development business in a capital city where few have running water or electricity.

Since 1990, Africa as a whole has lost some 20,000 professionals per year, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration. The cash-strapped government does not have records on the number of skilled Liberians who've moved back from developed countries in the past year. But anecdotal evidence indicates that highly educated professionals who, like Mr. Roberts, left decades ago and found success abroad, are coming back in droves to help rebuild a country they've long seen as too dangerous or underdeveloped.

"It's a concrete manifestation of the confidence people have that peace is here to stay," says William Allen, director of Liberia's Civil Service Agency. "There's clearly a reversal of the brain drain going on, and it's a validation of the confidence Liberians in the diaspora have in the future of the country," he says.

"If you use the current cabinet as a microcosm, you begin to get the picture," he adds, listing government ministers who left six-figure salaries and top slots in the UN, the World Bank, business, and academia.

Indeed, the trend is "positive and critical for Liberia now," says Robert Rotberg, an expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "It would be precedent-setting for sub-Saharan Africa if it is sustainable."

Liberia's loss of intellectual capital began in 1980 with military intervention in politics and intensified in 1989, when former leader Charles Taylor – now on trial for war crimes – invaded the country in a violent coup, says Mr. Allen. Nearly 30 percent of Liberians with tertiary education left in 1990, and nearly 40 percent left in 2000, according to a World Bank study.

But some two years ago, a trickle began to head home, when a transitional government took power after Mr. Taylor's ouster. That trickle became a wave with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's election as president last year.

Roberts, a polished individual with stylish plastic-frame glasses, says Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf's victory played "a huge role" in his return after 20 years in the US. "I don't think I'd be back if [international soccer star and challenger] George Weah had won the election."

Indeed, most recent returnees interviewed say they probably wouldn't have come back had the Harvard-trained Johnson-Sirleaf not won in free and fair elections last November. To many here, this – coupled with Taylor's arrest – has led to a tangible sense of a fresh start for the country. "Johnson-Sirleaf has done a critical thing: She's given Liberia hope," says Mr. Rotberg.

Roberts left Liberia at age 10. After years of feeling left out when relatives and friends who'd been living in Liberia traded stories, he decided last year that he'd visit after completing business school.

When he did so, in January, Johnson-Sirleaf's inauguration inspired him to register his company in Liberia. He wrestled with options for a few months. Then his employer, Bell South, offered a generous voluntary severance package. That, along with the house he sold, was a sign, he says, that he should make a permanent jump.

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