Pushing Up Fire: Why Catholic Relief Services Is Wrong


The first week of January 2017, Catholic Relief Services released the results of a survey citing deep concerns for peace in Liberia ahead of elections.

The survey that was carried out almost a year ago with 1,500 respondents in 15 counties, indicates that more than half of the respondents fear a return to widespread violent conflict fueled by politicians (78.2% believe so) or unemployed youth (59.8% believe so).

Within hours of the press release, others in the international press had spread the story but with even more alarming headlines: More than half of Liberians fear a return to war, new study reveals …this one by no less than the very reputable Thompson Reuters Foundation. But the one that really raised my hackles was by the Herald from Zimbabwe: Civil war fears grow in Liberia.

And when I googled “Liberia news” today January 8th, guess which of the headlines made it to the ‘front page’ of my screen? Certainly not the original “deep concerns” piece issued by CRS, or subsequent posts by various news houses.

The one that rises to the top of page views is the one marking Liberia as imminently returning to civil war. This is what the international readership expect of Liberia; this is what ‘they’ want to hear.

As far as I can tell, this looks like an international “Charity”, using their global platform to “push up fire”, as we say in Liberia, to fan any embers of conflict. And, unfortunately for Liberia and Liberians, it works for them. By releasing in January 2017 the so-called findings of a rather scant study conducted from March-May 2016, fully eight months ago; by calling it a “new” study, CRS can plant themselves firmly on the conflict prevention platform ahead of the Liberian elections.

The release gives CRS and other international charities credibility to raise funds in plenty of time for the elections in October. But, and this is important, it paints Liberia back into that corner of conflict-prone fragility that we have worked so hard to get out of.

What is fun to the little boy is death to the frog. CRS is raising their profile by putting us down.

Liberia is no stranger to this kind of treatment. While we were suffering through the darkest days of the Ebola crisis, few of us will have forgotten the “One million people will die by November” statements.

At the time, we wailed and cried at the sheer terror that it invoked in us. Because even if we didn’t want to believe it, there is always that niggling voice in your head saying ‘but what if it is true?’

We saw, almost immediately, that it wasn’t true for Ebola. President Sirleaf got on the air and forcefully rejected the prognosis. Many thought it was bravado because the predictions were backed by the great American Center for Disease Control, not by an embattled leader whose people were dying. But thank God, she was right and the cases of Ebola petered out within weeks, or even days.

Not everyone realized at the time what the predictions had managed to do though. We were so happy to see the number of cases dropping quick-quick that we didn’t really pay attention to the bigger story.

When the CDC and the US military and USAID, MSF and the UN testified to the American Congress using these dire predictions, several billion dollars were freed up almost immediately to fund the activities of the experts and their organizations.

And guess what? Even when the numbers started dropping, the money didn’t go back. Once given, it was gone. The American institutions and the international community had secured the funding they needed. And since Ebola was finishing so fast, organizations are still spending Ebola money.

Fast forward to last week though and my good humor is less flexible when I see CRS set their great fundraising ball to roll.

CRS did not share the original study, and it took me some digging to even find the press release. My initial reaction upon reading it was to say in my best Liberian accent “I bet you!! I bet you, CRS, that it is not true.” But I don’t want to stop at a smug statement when after the elections nothing happened.

“See? I was right!” This time, I want us to discuss this article as Liberians and get to the bottom of whatever may be out there causing apprehension, even if it is the apprehension that comes from listening to “experts” rather than to our own common sense. Without seeing the original study, its results, its sampling methodology, I can already point at areas that ‘smell bad’.

The sample is 1,500 people from “all fifteen counties”. Was it 100 persons per county? What weighting was given to urban and rural residents? What weighting was given to Monrovia?

Other ‘conflict flash points’? How was the survey sample determined? Was it all CRS employees and their families? Was it friends? Was the polling done randomly and if so, what is the confidence interval that emerges?

Then there are the questions. Were they open-ended or close-ended questions? How far did the survey “lead” respondents to provide answers that suit CRS’ purpose?

With such a small sample of 1,500 people, CRS had ample time to have analyzed open-ended questions where people could really voice concerns if they had them.

And this brings me to the biggest no-no. The survey was carried out in March-to-May 2016, but the results are only being released now. Why now? If CRS was so concerned about Liberians’ genuine fears, why did they sit on the survey for 8 months?

Regardless of the ‘why’s’ of CRS behavior, the press release and all the other articles that it has spurred, fail to understand just a few things that debunk this survey.

There are some aspects of this context that I will call “Peace Enablers” or things that lean towards peaceful elections, rather than a return to war.

Five Peace Enablers in Liberia

  1. Liberians do not want to fight. Period! If Ebola taught the international community anything, it should be to not underestimate Liberian resilience or determination. Liberians do not want war anymore. Not because of UNMIL; or the international NGOs; or the Human Rights organizations but because of ourselves. We had our fill of war and we will not fight.
  1. Liberians are enjoying the ongoing political campaign, are actually hugely entertained by it. Although the survey cited politicians as the most likely to trigger conflict, the campaigning thus far is not sufficiently polarizing to predict violence. There are too many candidates and too few articulated platforms, or ethnic divisions, or even socio-economic hardship to provide the fuel for violence, even less for civil war. From its base in Baltimore, Maryland, CRS has had a good dose of hate speeches and ethnic-baiting in the American elections. This may be why they feel qualified to recognize it in others. The truth is that there is not even close to that level of acrimony or divisiveness happening in Liberia.
  1. The informal economy is robust and thriving in Liberia with up to 85% of working-aged people being engaged in informal sector activities, according to statistics from 2015. The “boogooman” or bogeyman if you will, of youth unemployment, cited by CRS as conflict trigger, is more myth than reality. Look closely around Monrovia and other Liberian cities, the places where you’d expect to see critical masses of unemployed youth, and you will see the vast majority of young people are out there “hustling”, not idly sitting waiting for war.
  1. There is no critical mass of protagonists convening around land rights and/or unresolved reconciliation issues, which CRS suggests would trigger conflict. For civil war or civil unrest to emerge from these social issues, there has to be some measure of common cause. It is not there in Liberia. There are plenty of individual stories but none of them important enough to trigger mass violence on an appreciable scale.

What now?

The CRS press release quotes Pilate Johnson, the acting Director of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission:

“We all have a responsibility to act. Both the Liberian government and the international community cannot afford to be complacent about peace in Liberia.”

Mr. Johnson is right. All Liberians have a responsibility to build on the peace we enjoy; and the international community can work with us to make sure it stays this way.

There is no need to invent conflict that isn’t there; focus on the peace that is there. Pushing up fire and praying for a self-fulfilling prophecy in Liberia is not helpful and it is wrong.

Jeanine M. Cooper, Contributing Writer