The unexpected benefits of bureaucracy


As chief executive and founder of a Liberian enterprise, Chid Liberty knew he would encounter hurdles. Liberty & Justice makes clothing for export to the US while providing jobs for Liberian women. But in a country emerging from the violence and destruction of a civil war, Liberty expected to face everything from corruption to power outages and failing infrastructure. Overcoming one hurdle, however, had unexpected benefits.

Within the first month opening the factory in Monrovia, the capital, Liberty was preparing the paperwork needed to obtain Fairtrade status. This would mean that the workers would receive above the average local wage.

He came to the section of the Fairtrade audit relating to the creation of human resources records. “I thought, no problem – everyone just needs to bring in a birth certificate, social security card or even a passport,” he recalls.

But when he put this to the workforce at the next meeting he was greeted by expressions of dismay. None of the women had birth certificates or any kind of official identity documents. “It was one of those ‘working in Africa’ moments,” he says.

Liberty’s next announcement was to elicit an unexpected reaction. He told the women he would get them all birth certificates – something that to most people is an uninteresting but necessary form of ID.

However, his promise was met with elation. “The room erupted with happiness – I didn’t realise exactly what I’d just offered them,” says Liberty. “People were so excited about the fact that they were going to be entering the public record for the first time in their lives. It was something they’d never had.”

As he did more research, he found that there were, in fact, ways of creating employment records that would meet Fairtrade standards without obtaining the birth certificates. “But I though getting them was a really beautiful thing to do because of the excitement the women had.”

The next six weeks, working with the Liberian minister of health, the company got down to the business of registering all employees registered. It wasn’t easy. Each certificate required the applicant to obtain affirmations from two residents in the town where they were born. With no phone or internet connections, the women had to travel back to their family villages.

When it finally came to handing out the certificates, the excitement among the workers was intense. Singing and dancing broke out and the room was filled with smiling faces.

For Liberty – a Liberian raised in Germany who worked in technology and finance in California before return to his birthplace to set up a social enterprise – it was another lesson learned about working in a different culture.

“We take for granted the fact that we are part of the public record – it’s seen as this bureaucratic mess that you don’t want to deal with,” he says. “I never thought about it from the point of view of never having it.”

THE GOOD STUFF

This is where I invite my interviewees to name a favourite charity and – in the spirit of Mixing It Up – a favourite cocktail.

Charity: Face Africa

Cocktail: an Old Fashioned or a Vodka Gimlet

 

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