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Leveraging Liberia’s Expats

“Awesome!” is the common reaction when I explain what I spend my days at Peace Dividend Trust (PDT) doing. How could working to improve the lives of people recovering from conflict and disaster by building marketplaces not be awesome? It’s important and goes to the heart of what everyone is talking about today: jobs and the economy. But I can tell that most people don’t understand what this means in practical terms. But there’s an app for that.

Liberia Expats is a Google group that illustrates perfectly what building marketplaces in war-torn countries means. I stumbled upon it while doing research on the country after we received an amazing challenge grant from Humanity United, a philanthropic organization committed to building peace and advancing human freedom.

Liberia Expats  sprouted organically in September 2007 by an expat who had just come from Abuja, Nigeria where a similar Yahoo group had existed. It is a forum for questions about living and working in Liberia and a platform to exchange ideas about the country. Posts vary widely, from discussing cultural norms, to announcing a newly created kickball team in need of members, to soliciting opinions on which hotel offers the best accommodation in Monrovia. Interestingly, most posts center on connecting people who need goods and services with those that are offering them.  That’s exactly what PDT’s marketplace program does.

The PDT marketplace is a yellow-pages meets Match.com. Small businesses and entrepreneurs are approached by PDT to be included in a massive database that acts as a virtual yellow pages. Once PDT reviews and verifies them they then wait to be connected to buyers or to hear about notices that the buyers put out in the form of tenders. That’s the matchmaking and tender distribution process that has led to over $650 million in USD back into Afghanistan’s economy. Awesome indeed.

The Marketplace directory is divided into sectors, each with a detailed listing of contact info, size and goods and services provided. Due to the rapidly changing business environment in developing nations’ economies, regular confirmation of each business is a major part of the Marketplace’s success. The directory is a simple tool that helps people easily find what they are looking for.

The Liberia Google Group has over 700 members, and within one month – between Jan. 4 and Feb. 4, 2011 – the group received almost 150 posts. People in search of telecommunications services and equipment, household services like nannies and cooks, health and medical care and transportation were among the most popular categories for this month.  That is just from individuals alone. Imagine the needs companies, NGOs and international organizations based in Liberia have.

Imagine if the members of this Google group would utilize the PDT Marketplace, search for local businesses who could meet their needs, use these local services and buy their local products, put money into the local economy, and in turn spur more people in Liberia, both expats and locals, to use the service, thereby stimulating and strengthening the Liberian economy. That is what the PDT Marketplace was set up to do. Awesome, right?

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4 Comments

  1. John Palmkvistt says:

    I do not agree that the Liberia Expats Google group illustrates the building of a market place that helps people recovering from conflict and disaster. This google group primarily serves to help expatriates in Liberia with their little problems in life. I’m a member of that group and today’s posts had the following:

    -An expatriate who wants to buy a car.
    -An expatriate posting a news link.
    -An expatriate seeking a package delivery service.
    -An expatriate who was ripped off by a concert promoter.
    -Somebody stole my friend’s (expatriate) bar.
    -An expatriate looking for a filing cabinet.

    All of these posts are important to the user making the post, but none of them rise to the standard of promoting a market for goods and services produced by Liberians, or can any way improve the Liberian economy. Most of what is seen in this group is expatriates promoting other expatriates.

    The site is unregulated, and has some problems. It is regularly used as a forum of controversy and intolerance among some members who post negative comments about other posts and members. There have even been fake members created for the purpose of mocking posts that run contrary to the views of certain expatriate social cliques. It’s not a bad website when you consider the adapting issues of its users, but I don’t think it serves your organization well to tout it as a good example of the sort of thing you aspire to. If PDT is taking grant money from legitimate donors you should project a much higher standard than the Liberia expats google group.

  2. Dear John,

    While some of your points are fair, I don’t find your critique of the Google Group relevant to the points made in this post. The marketplace discussed above would connect different sorts of buyers and sellers than those who post to the Google Group.

    As an aside, I do regulate the group. I removed from the group the fake individuals you mention soon after the incident. And while I agree that the forum often reveals intolerance, often other members call people out on these posts. This does not always happen, of course. And I wrestle a lot with what, if any, role I should play in highlighting intolerance. If you have suggestions, I welcome them. At the moment I believe these issues are outweighed by the services the Group provides. While a plurality of posts are of the sort you mention, other posts highlight relevant news articles or events. Also you might recall the discussion about the Vice documentary, which I found very valuable.

    But bringing things back to the proposed marketplace, the writers bring in the Google Group simply to show that there is a demand for forums that connect buyers and sellers of goods and services. The Google Group does this for things like filing cabinets. This proposed marketplace would do so for different things.

    Best,

    Shelby

  3. John Palmkvistt says:

    Dear Shelby,

    I never meant to put you on the defensive. The Liberia expats google group is very good for what can be expected of an informal web based site. But its mission is not to build markets or link expats to Liberian businesses. Which is the point of my comment. If PDT wants to strengthen communities with a web based marketplace, they need to aim for a much higher standard.

    All the best,

    John

  4. […] article originally appeared at PDT’s Building Markets blog on March 23, […]


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