28 July 2008

Liberia: the process is on

Every time I visit Liberia, there are a few new buildings going up, a few more roads resurfaced, more private cars on the roads (and fewer UN LandCruisers, it seems) and another airline that has just started flights to Robertsfield.

It's slow progress, but it's progress. The atmosphere in Monrovia still feels tense, thanks to rising food and gas prices and continued problems with violent crime; but Liberia has so far been spared the 'rice riots' that have rocked Côte d'Ivoire this year or Liberia itself in 1979. Indeed, my former boss Minister Toe was instrumental in getting the World Bank to cough up $10m in response, including $3m to increase domestic food production.

Most positive accounts of Liberia begin with the government and that is my usual starting point too - but on this trip I tried hard to look for signs of life in the private sector.
On a road trip to Bong County, the graded roads and repainted schools are obvious - but also building materials stores sprouting everywhere. For now, this is mostly a reconstruction boom; but the service sector is growing too. More and better snacks available at the side of the road; more and better telephone, internet and printing services (though there are still no landlines); and best of all, insurance.

Why am I excited about insurance? I'm not, really: I have never worked in insurance and I hope I never have to. But my friend James, an old colleague at the Ministry of Agriculture, had just left his job to become a manager for an insurance company. I went to visit him and he introduced me to a colleague, who launched into a 20-minute sales pitch for their products. "Home and contents? We have it! Life? We have it! Automobile theft, collision damage, goods in transit, goods landed but not cleared, we have it! Liberians have grown to expect theft, flood damage, even losing their homes - no more!"

When he paused to catch his breath, I patiently explained that I was only visiting for a few days and my travel insurance policy was adequate to cover my few possessions. I wished them all the best in their quest to sell Liberians insurance and hoped that their brand-new office and freshly tiled floor would soon be ringing with the footsteps of risk-conscious clients.

Somehow, the very mundanity of this exchange encouraged me. Insurers may thrive on risk, but are naturally a risk-averse bunch. If African multinationals are investing in Liberia, they must believe the risk is manageable. If people buy their policies, they must believe that their claims will be taken seriously.

Over-eager insurance salespeople are tedious company. They are also an encouraging, a vital sign of capitalism. On my next trip, I hope I will be pestered by telemarketers and double-glazing salespeople. Now the post office is open, direct mail could be next. Liberians beware . . .

1 comment:

A said...

I was listening to "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" the other day, and thinking how lucky a society is to reach the point where lawyers (and therefore the rule of law) are just as threatening as guns and money. I suspect insurance is the same way.