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Society and the Growth of the Modern Sector

Technological advancement has, in Liberia as in other similar societies, brought about an erosion of its tribal culture. Among the most important of the factors responsible for social change has been the development of the country's rubber plantations and mining sector by foreign companies operating with government approval as concessionaires. These industries began developing in the 1920s, although they reached full productive potential only in the 1950s and 1960s (see Economic Growth, ch. 3). With the Firestone Plantations Company's development of rubber growing, tens of thousands of indigenous Liberians participated as wage earners in the market economy for the first time in the country's history. Economic developments, in combination with considerable United States investment during World War Il, stimulated the construction of roads into the Hinterland, allowing large elements of the rural population to come into contact with coastal Liberians. Accompanying the access afforded by improved transportation facilities, schools were built throughout the country by missionaries, the government, and the foreign concessions. Thus, many Liberians of tribal background were provided access to a Western education (see Education, this ch.). Enriched by economic growth, the small Americo Liberian enclave for the first time had something significant to offer rural Liberians, and migration to the urban centers, the plantations, and the mines increased. In this way, the restructuring of the economy stimulated by Tubman's Open Door Policy helped to encourage the fulfill ment of goals set forth in his Unification Policy.

As the social order was reshaped by the forces of economic modernization, the Americo Liberians continued to be the wealthiest, most favored group in the couptry. The elite of the Tubman and Tolbert years benefited from their control of the state system through which the revenues from the foreign commercial concessions passed. The incomes of many prominent AmericoLiberians were also augmented by successful private business ventures that prospered during the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. The prominent members of the Americo Liberian elite were known colloquially as the "big shots" of the country and were characterized by their generous patronage and conspicuous consumption. The concept of the "big shot," however, was not confined solely to the society of the Americo Liberians. In most of the tribal cultures, a man's status had long been determined by the number of people who were dependent on his generosity or who were otherwise under his influence (see Tribal Structures, this ch.). But on the national level, the wealthiest and most influential "big shots" in the country were members of the AmericoLiberian elite.

After the 1980 coup the Americo Liberians were displaced as the country's "big shots" by the enlisted men who had overthrown Tolbert. Although they lived less ostentatiously than their predecessors, Doe and his colleagues engaged in the same public displays of power and generosity that the leading True Whigs once had. Doe, for instance, was well known for his contributions of medicines to hospitals and for his cash donations to schools, charitable organizations, and individuals (including Tolbert's widow). In the early 1980s other wealthy Liberians, including some Americo Liberians, may have had the resources to be "big shots" (even if they did not have access to the national treasury),; but none displayed their wealth in a manner that could be construed as a political challenge to the Doe regime.

Developments within the national economy and the expansion of secular and religious educational opportunities contributed to the growth of a new class of educated, technically trained Liberians. Educated for employment as managers in the burgeoning bureaucracy or, in some cases, as officials with the foreign concessions, they soon constituted a class of bureaucrats and technocrats that was valuable to the national leadership.

The ethnic backgrounds of people within this stratum revealed less homogeneity than had been present in the country's elite. Many of the new order had a least one Americo Liberian parent, some had been wards of Am erico Liberian families, and a few were of tribal background who had managed to acquire most of their education without Americo Liberian sponsorship. These

Liberians, including some of those linked to the erstwhile old guard elite, remained prominent in the national life after the 1980 coup. Serving as senior administrators, engineers, managers, high level health specialists, educators, and ranking officials in the security forces, this educated stratum had become something of an elite group in postcoup Liberia. Few of them were considered to be "big shots," but that could change, depending on future political conditions.

Growth of the modern economy led to the development of a wage labor force whose members were unskilled or semiskilled. These laborers plantation hands, mine workers, enlisted soldiers, dockworkers, and unskilled office workers included Liberians who received regular salaries but who had few skills and little or no education. The overwhelming majority of this group was of indigenous background, although in the early 1980s a few who might be classified as Americo Liberians or Congoes also were included. The number of Liberians working in the monetary economy was estimated to be about 160,000 in 1977. This contrasted with the 1950 figure of 30, 000, of which 20, 000 worked for Firestone. Until the mid twentieth century the Kru, the Vai, and the Bassa were the only tribal people who,involved themselves in the national economy, but the development of the mines and plantations and the growth of Monrovia spurred the entrance of people firorn every ethnic group into the monetary economy.

Sociologists, as well as managers at the Firestone rubber plantations, noticed a change in the attitudes of workers at the concessions during the 1960s that may have reflected changing perceptions regarding wage labor in the country at large. In the early part of that decade, Firestone was hampered by a large turnover of its unskilled wage labor force. Laborers were migrating to the plantations and were working only long enough to achieve a certain level of remuneration before quitting to return to their home areas. Increasing their wages, it was noted, only hastened their day of departure. By the late 1960s, however, the turnover at the plantations had slowed considerably, and something akin to a permanent wage labor force was developing. Moreover, larger numbers of relatives were living in or near plantation housing and sharing the salaries of the workers. The growing popularity of steady wage labor may also have been demonstrated by the increased passivity of the workers. After serious worker led strikes in 1963 and 1966, observers noted a subsequent lack of labor disruptions. This was probably the result of a realization by laborers and managers that there was a large pool of jobless people, both unskilled and semiskilled, eager to take the place of dissatisfied employees.

The urban centers, particularly Monrovia, attracted a steady stream of migrants from the rural areas. From a population estimated at 12,000 in 1940, the capital city grew to some 82,000 residents in 1962 and to over 200, 000 in the early 1980s. Most of these tribal Liberians were younger males. The migrants were faced with the need to adapt to social patterns radically different from those to which they had been accustomed. On the one hand, they found themselves freed of traditional social responsibilities and patterns of behavior that some had felt stifling. On the other, hand, they were forced to adjust to the unfamiliar rhythms of urban life an environment where English had to be mastered; property was owned, wages were paid, status was accorded on the basis of occupation and education; strict work schedules were enforced; and codified rather than customary tribal law governed social behavior. Attractive consumer goods were widely available, but everything had a purchase price, and little was shared. Even if they had some education, new immigrants specially if they were unskilled found jobs difficult to obtain in an economy that by the mid 1970s was stagnating.

The phenomenon of urbanization led to the establishment of voluntary tribal associations that helped to protect these members from the general insecurity of life in Monrovia. One of the earliest of these organizations was the Kru Corporation, formed in 1916, which served to mediate disputes among the Kru and to act as a sort of union in the interests of Kru dockworkers. By 1959 there were approximately 200 of these voluntary associations in the national capital that were organized for the mutual aid of their members. Most of these groups, such as the Organization of Grebo Market Women, attracted members from specific elements of the population and served as political and economic interest groups. Not all of the bodies organized around common interests were tribal in character. Members of these multiethnic associations, usually consisted of persons higher on the socioeconomic ladder and those who had been living in Monrovia for a number of years. Membership in one voluntary association usually did not preclude attachment to others; consequently, many people joined several of them to cope with personal needs.

The urban savings cooperative, usually referred to as susu, constituted another kind of tribal association. It appeared to be an outgrowth of a practice common among rural societies where the members of a clan would periodically gather to donate their combined labor to the needs of each member on a rotating basis. In the Monrovia savings groups, the savings of susu members were invested or lent at interest; at the end of the year the money was divided among the entire membership. Another arrangement called for all members to contribute regularly a small amount of money into a fund established by the group, and the entire amount was then given to each member in turn.

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