Reflections on a Liberian Summer
In a slightly longer post, our summer resident Joseph reflects on how his MBA training has come in useful while building accountability in Liberia.
I was fortunate enough to spend my summer in Monrovia, Liberia to explore a possible career path in development and governance issues. Building upon my nonprofit sector background, I wanted to apply the skills and lessons learned as an MBA candidate at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School – where business is taught with humanity in mind – to an international setting. So in April, I accepted the offer to serve with the Accountability Lab, a startup social enterprise, to work on business development.
The Accountability Lab empowers citizens to build the world’s best tools for integrity. It currently operates in two post-conflict contexts, Liberia and Nepal, with its headquarters in Washington, DC and a presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe. The Lab leverages this synergy created from operating in multiple global contexts and facilitates knowledge sharing of best practices.
Among other challenges, Liberians endure a startlingly high rate of poverty and inequality, inadequate infrastructure, exploitation, endemic corruption, and lack of access to healthcare (which is of particular concern during the largest recorded Ebola outbreak). After more than a decade of civil war, for most life is a daily struggle for survival as the country seeks to rebuild itself.
But Liberians also demonstrate an immense hope, kept alive by the country’s innovative and passionate changemakers. They are inspired by the local saying ‘L-I-B,’ or Life Is Beautiful – no matter what comes your way. Rather than blind optimism or naiveté, the mantra is emblematic of visionary goals and objectives. And this vision for a better Liberia provides a critical foundation for a unique and effective value proposition to improve the livelihoods of all Liberians.
The Accountability Lab tackles the root causes of poverty – specifically corruption, a major cost driver and drag on long-term economic development. By providing seed funding and technical assistance to innovative civil society organizations, the Lab helps to build sustainable tools for new and innovative approaches to bolster accountability. That is, in the value chain of social and economic change, the Lab creates lasting shared value by targeting the sources of social injustice by empowering multi-sector stakeholders. Through high-impact, low-cost support, the Lab partners with social entrepreneurs who are also focused on accountability issues by helping to develop and scale-up effective and sustainable models. To date, the Lab and its partner social entrepreneurs have collaborated with more than 40 community groups, trained over 1,500 people on accountability and integrity, and engaged with 20,460+ citizens in accountability initiatives. In other words, the Lab’s projects have excellent ROIs with regards to social accountability. Moreover, the Lab’s sustainable and strategic positioning for social change lies in its bottom-up, community-based strategic approach.
One of the sources of the Accountability Lab’s competitive advantage lies in the fact that it is a startup social enterprise that supports community-based solutions to Liberia’s most pressing development challenges. Interventions are swift and flexible, unencumbered by the bureaucracies and reporting requirements of large organizations. Value creation is maximized through a focus on lean cost reduction and efficiency. Social vertical integration is achieved by empowering citizens, rather than imposing preconceived concepts and proposals that ultimately result in poor design and wasteful spending. In terms of game theory, effective citizen-based initiatives create effective incentives and punishments to keep power holders accountable.
Additionally, I learned firsthand that working for a startup means increased responsibility, and thus more opportunity to refine MBA skills in many ways. When I signed my contract, I thought that my main responsibilities would be to work on operational process and long-term sustainability improvements. It never occurred to me that I would be utilizing such marketing concepts as bundling, price discrimination, and multi-channeling, or that I would witness the extent of the relevance of Michael Porter’s framework for industry analyses, especially in my social sector internship. Moreover, through the Accountability Lab, I also learned in-depth about design-thinking, building organizational accountability, and agile development. As my summer experiences far exceeded by expectations, it also became clear to me that this was the point of my business education in furthering my intellectual and professional development – exposing students to a toolkit replete with frameworks and methods for engaging with a variety of unforeseeable problems, as well as to train them to recognize and develop new, effective approaches.
Another benefit of working for a startup was extended networking opportunities. The Accountability Lab shares office space and projects (including the Social Impact Tour) with the Business Startup Center Monrovia, a business incubator, and also partners with other organizations. I had the chance to engage with innovative investors, ideas, and entrepreneurs involved with micro- and small-enterprises (MSEs), which comprise some of Liberia’s most important economic growth drivers.
Lastly, one of the most invaluable aspects of my summer was the privilege of witnessing social change from the ground floor, from a grassroots perspective as well as on a societal level. For all of its challenges, Liberia also has a tremendous amount of opportunity. One of the first cases we encountered in business school was Southwest Airlines, where we learned that it was near impossible for companies to change culture midstream in attempting to imitate Southwest’s foundational focus on cost reduction and effective management of human capital. Similarly, Liberian citizens have been capitalizing on their context of reconstruction by demanding and working for a culture of integrity and accountability from the onset.
I am grateful for the kindness and generosity from the many Liberians I have been fortunate enough to encounter. The sacrifices in their time and their lives to improve and scale-up equitable development are things that I hope to emulate on a long-term basis. As my time wraps up in Liberia, I am left with one final lasting impression: in an overwhelmingly cruel world, humanity is still universally united through glimpses of hope and the struggle for justice and equal opportunity, transcending such artificial boundaries as nationality, class, and status. As the Liberian national motto puts it: “The love of liberty brought us here.”