An Exploratory Study in Liberia


Both my intellectual curiosity as a doctoral student and my practical experience in the human rights field led me to gauge the role memories of trauma related to political conflict, oppression or war have on social value creation. I believe that a story of post-conflict nation building from the lens of victims/survivors and/or witnesses of atrocities has not yet been told.

My goal for exploring traumatic memory in social value creation in post-conflict Liberia was to understand how they, my study participants, understand it themselves. This is a proposition I wanted to explore and experience through their histories. In my findings and understanding, they do not necessarily see their work, their doing and their “everyday-ness” as social value creation, but it nonetheless is a healing strategy for personal and societal healing.  If we as readers and observers only focus on the deficit component of Post-Traumatic Stress and wars then we neglect resilience. Which do we need to heal? Miracles imply that it is extraordinary and this study shows that it is ordinary to pick up the pieces.


I began my career working with Liberian refugees under the auspices of one of the affiliates of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), an international Human Rights NGO. It was during my four-year (1997-2001) tenure with LIRS that I listened to Liberians share countless horror stories of victimization/survivorship of persecution, rape and torture as I prepared and vetted their political asylum claims and reunited families that had been divided due to forced migration and refugee resettlement.  Learning Liberian geography, political history and tribal relations enabled me to understand the complexities and intricacies of life in Liberia during the last two civil wars (1989–1996 and 1999–2003), which in this study is described as the “Liberian Civil War”), and the current landscape for starting businesses after the conflict. Through these concomitant processes, I witnessed a certain type of hope rooted in the resiliency of victim/ survivors of traumatic life-altering events, however fragile the hope may be, which lead me to the second reason for choosing Liberia.  From 1989 to 2003, Liberia became “a byword for savagery as up to a quarter of a million were killed in a civil war, while thousands more were mutilated and raped, often by armies of drugged child soldiers led by ruthless warlords” (Reuters, 2011).

In September 2012, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf discussed the Liberia RISING2030 national vision, a long-term Action Plan for responding to job creation, infrastructure betterment and economic opportunity for all Liberians.  The five-pronged United Nations Development Program (UNDP, 2012) Action Plan includes the areas of youth empowerment and national visioning, jobs and education, infrastructure and economic development, governance and transparency, and security and rule of law. President Johnson Sirleaf believes this Action Plan “will pursue a healed and unified nation and an open, accountable and transparent democracy” (The World Bank, 2012).

Study Overview

My research on entrepreneurs in post-conflict Liberia illustrates the seismic role that traumatic memory has in identifying, seeking and creating tectonic shifts in positive value after suffering from life-altering events in the context of political persecution, conflict and war. This study provides new perspectives by which to view the integration of Post-Traumatic Stress as a value-add element of success in the context of post-conflict nation building and individual healing among victims/survivors and/or witnesses. The findings from this study invite a reappraisal of the competing theories of deficit-based post-traumatic stress disorder only. At the core, the convergence of the role of traumatic memory in the development of an entrepreneurial mindset is fundamental to our understanding of post-traumatic growth and meaning, particularly the relationship of trauma and healing in positive value creation. It is anticipated, therefore, that this analysis will generate groundbreaking debate among academics, trauma experts and business developers, but also in the general public.

My dissertation aimed to present, from the literature on entrepreneurship and traumatic memory in relationship to social value creation, a selection of current models and findings that encompass entrepreneurial activity in post-conflict emerging markets, with a particular focus on competences, characteristics and/or traits shared among those entrepreneurs who are victims, survivors and/or witnesses of traumatic life-altering events related to political persecution, conflict and war.

Entrepreneurship in emerging markets is perhaps the “least studied significant economic and social phenomenon in the world today” (Lingelbach et al., 2005, p. 1).  Notwithstanding the myriad challenges facing post-conflict emerging markets, foreign-direct investment dollars continue to pour into post-conflict emerging markets as multi-national corporations and entrepreneurs seek to increase profits by expanding global consumer market-share. Emerging markets accounted for more than half of the world GDP on the basis of purchasing power (World Bank, 2014). From 2003-2011 the share of world output provided by emerging economies grew at more than a percentage point each year (Ibid., 2014). Sustaining momentum and annual growth GDP growth projections in post-conflict emerging markets requires the creation of new businesses and entrepreneurial activity.

As post-conflict emerging markets are fast becoming the driver of global growth and expansion, so too, is the desire for the private sector development (PSD) community and entrepreneurs to participate in, and benefit from, the economic activity. Those entrepreneurs able to adroitly identify, address and manage post-conflict emerging markets challenges, possess supply-chain competitive advantages potentially enabling them to benefit from robust profits and, in return, provide a strong incentive for additional entrepreneurs to participate in the growing post-conflict emerging markets (McMillan & Woodruff, 2002, p. 159).

Liberia’s Emerging Markets & Entrepreneurship

To situate traumatic memory in the context of the social value creation model, it is imperative to contextualize how the civil war has unquestionably brought devastation to this nation and its people. Study participants have endured life-altering traumatic experiences and are making their lives better, as well as moving Liberia forward, completely on their own through their entrepreneurial business ventures, which are adding to social value creation.  The war has truly wreaked havoc on Liberia’s physical infrastructure, economic welfare, human capital, and the entire social fabric of the nation. In a 2012 World Bank study on social inclusiveness in Liberia, the World Bank concluded that the program there “is more challenging than most country programs.

The war’s destruction on human and physical capital was so profound that it was difficult to formulate a strategy” (p. 38).  Therefore, even development experts like the World Bank admit that the destruction they have seen in Liberia as a result of the war has shaken their strategies and strategists to their core.  Second, study participants, for the most part, have become entrepreneurs out of necessity to create jobs in an environment lacking an investment climate, business development incubation and governmental support – financial, legislative, and even strategic, thus far – for the private sector.  Therefore, in support of this finding addressed in the World Bank Report titled Developing Public-Private Partnerships in Liberia (2012), The World Bank stated:

Job creation is an imperative for the new government of Liberia. Fourteen years of civil conflict have not only destroyed the social and economic infrastructure base but they have also ground the economy to a vital halt and have consequently resulted in large scale unemployment and significant poverty (p. 125).

Emerging markets account for more than half of the world GDP on the basis of purchasing power, according to the International Monetary Fund (World Bank, 2014). In 1990, emerging markets accounted for less than a one-third of a much smaller GDP total (Ibid., 2014). Yet from 2003 to 2011, the share of world output provided by the emerging economies grew at more than a percentage point a year. The rapid growth in emerging markets’ GDP output experienced in the world in these two decades denotes the largest economic transformation in modern history (The Economist, 2013).

Liberia witnessed unprecedented growth during comparable periods, seeing annual GDP increase from -32.8% in 2003 to 10.2% in 2012 (World Bank, Social Development; 2014). Much of the annual GDP economic output can be attributed to the end of its 14-year civil war (1989–2003). Liberia’s future economic forecast is “bullish,” promising continued foreign direct investment and growth of domestic “home-grown” entrepreneurs contributing to GDP output, but there are potential downside risks that must be considered. The economy is projected to grow at an average annual rate of about 6% during the next five years (2013–2017), reflecting strong inflows of foreign direct investment in the natural resource-based sectors (World Bank, 2014).

As more foreign direct investment projects are undertaken in Liberia, several questions may arise about the lasting impact of years of violence, devastation of infrastructure, and new democracies among disparate groups on the determination of investment in post-conflict environments.

Anticipated increases in foreign direct investment in Liberia requires a new paradigm to explore the reasons behind the post-conflict private sector development and whether victims/survivors and/or witnesses of traumatic life-altering events arising from its civil war involving political persecution, conflict, and war are informed directly their experiences and the memories of these experiences to create, launch, or lead entrepreneurial ventures that lead to social value creation (defined below).

War is a significant cause of income poverty, disrupting economic activity and destroying livelihoods (Mac Sweeney, 2009, p. 14). In many cases, poverty and inequality help to cause and maintain conflicts, as different groups fight for control over resources or seek to redress socio-economic inequalities through violence (Ibid., p. 14). The international community is increasingly recognizing this, and there have been many new policy and program initiatives recently focusing on post-conflict economic development (Ibid., p. 14). Foreign investors and the international development community have an opportunity to integrate these policies into their decision-making process as they undertake investments in emerging markets.

Private Sector Development (PSD) is generally unified only by the fundamental aim of developing a productive, sustainable, and market-oriented private sector by including a range of programming options, such as: (a) targeted services traditionally thought of as PSD, which support individual entrepreneurs and firms; (b) making systemic improvements to market or sectoral structures; and (c) the reform of the business enabling environment and economic institutions (Ibid., p. 14). It is now widely recognized in new policy papers, practice guidelines, and research white papers by the international community that PSD has a crucial role to play in post-conflict, and other conflict-affected, situations by focusing on the economic aspects of conflicts that have often been overlooked and re-examining previous programming approaches to post-conflict intervention (Ibid., p. 15).

While the importance of post-conflict PSD is now generally accepted, there is still considerable uncertainty and limited literature that explores the role that victims/survivors and/or witnesses of traumatic life-altering events related to political persecution, conflict, and war play in the economic development goals of post-conflict nations and the international community. In most post-conflict environments, the minimum requirements for security, independent activity, and political authority are typically met (Mac Sweeney, 2009, p. 14). Equally important are the wider social and psychological factors that represent powerful elements at work in post-conflict situations, ones that can be better understood and even capitalized on – resiliency and hope (Ibid., p. 15).


To situate traumatic memory in social value creation from the perspective of victims/survivors and/or witnesses of life-altering events related to political persecution, conflict or war in post-conflict development, two research questions were identified for this study. Research question one focuses on, “To what extent, if any, are Liberian victims/survivors and/or witnesses of traumatic life-altering events related to political persecution, conflict and war engaging in social value creation ventures?” Research question two focuses on, “To the extent that Liberian victims/survivors and/or witnesses of traumatic life-altering events related to political persecution, conflict and war are engaging in business ventures that may lead to social value creation, does a relationship exist between the experiences of these traumatic life-altering events and social value creation?”

There were four findings to the research questions. This study’s four findings, can be categorized as: (i) shared traumatic experiences – telling the story of Liberia; (ii) situated traumatic memory in “push and pull” entrepreneurial factors; (iii) role of business in post-conflict rebuilding; and (iv) social value creation as a healing strategy are explored and analyzed.

  • Finding 1 explores shared characteristics among victims/survivors and/or witnesses of traumatic life-altering events as they create, launch, or manage entrepreneurial ventures leading to social value creation can be translated to economic factors that could positively influence foreign direct investment decisions and private sector development in post-conflict environments.
  • Finding 2 examines how an entrepreneur’s exposure to external “pull and push” factors and environment shapes her attitudes and actions.
  • Finding 3 argues that post-conflict rebuilding will be most effective when integrated with a greater understanding of traumatic memory and the experiences of victims/survivors and/or witnesses of traumatic life-altering events as they create, launch, or lead entrepreneurial ventures leading to social value creation.
  • Finding 4 advocates for inclusion of traumatic memory of life-altering events as an additional type of assessment methodology used in post-conflict investment and programming decisions and, by doing so, to provide a baseline toward a more standardized application to assessment criteria for not excluding this group when considering nation-building investments in post-conflict environments.

These four findings are discussed and thematically aligned with participant excerpts in order to bring to meaning of traumatic memory to situate it in social value creation. Further, this study’s findings are supported by literature to connect the corresponding theories to these findings.

Excepts describing shared life-altering traumatic experiences found in the data were narrated through vignettes to augment conceptually clustered elements across participants and extracted to develop a collective network that represent common and unique features in meaningful sequences and paths to illuminate suggestions that position traumatic memory in social value creation. Again, the use of a phenomenological approach to “look at the data thematically to extract essences and essentials of participant meanings” (Miles et al., 2013, p. 8), illuminated participants’ most salient points and thematic patterns emerged related to the participants’ salient points, which were then grouped for comparison and inter-relational characteristics. As such, codes, memos and quotations were assembled to synthesize pieces of data into an evidential chain for developing meaning and insight to the study research questions.  Once the rudiments of networks were found they were translated into directions of influence, through ranked frequency between dependent and independent variables, by triangulating the data by age, education level, business leadership function and number of staff.

From Research to Practice

This exploratory research study investigated traumatic memory in social value creation in an effort to understand whether a relationship existed between life-altering traumatic events related to political persecution, conflict and war and business ventures founded, managed and/or lead in post-conflict environments. Examination of the data emerged from field research in Monrovia focused on 25 participants looking at the following: (i) the types of atrocities experienced, heard about and/or heard, (ii) Memory, (iii), Education, (iv) Ease of doing business in Liberia, (v) Social Value Creation, (vi) Development, vii) Religion/Spirituality, (viii) Justice/Injustice, and (ix) Forgiveness/Lack of Forgiveness. As discussed in depth in Chapter 4, the examples and stories from the field interviews were coded and thematically analyzed in order to provide meaning through phenomenology.

As a result, this study contributes to the literature on entrepreneurship and traumatology by adding data based insight about the details and types of atrocities associated with traumatic memory in relation to social value creation in post-conflict Liberia. The findings of this research study have implications for multiple audiences. Foreign investors seeking new business opportunities and expanding into new markets generally and, in particular, Liberia will benefit from learning the role that victims/survivors and/or witnesses of traumatic life-altering experiences can play in mitigating economic risk.  The general trauma victim/survivor and/or witness community will benefit by identifying potential competitive advantage through their life-altering experiences that can be leveraged into economic growth and development promotion nation-building and global social value creation. Additionally, the post-conflict development sector can use these findings to adopt programming deeply-rooted in both the fields of venture management and trauma to narrowly tailor its economic development policies and investment strategies into its stakeholder model in order to increase the likelihood of programmatic success in the future.

One of the most powerful takeaways from this data in terms of making sense of these shared experiences is the participants’ sense of normalcy in terms of life and its challenges.  Similarly to Holocaust survivors, part of the miracle of life is trust in it. There is a rudimentary trust in life present among participants that is not miraculous in nature; it is organic. One of the most basic and challenging questions framing this dissertation was, When you survive victimization, what do you do then? This study and my own narrative tell me that it is not just about resilience but also about creativity and resourcefulness. These study participants are not just being resilient. They are creating value in society. They are not creating it simply for themselves; they are rebuilding Liberia and they are pushing their life forward not just theirs but others’ lives as well.  There is a tremendous amount of love for country. It is home.  It is all about that voice and capturing the love of country participants felt toward Liberia.


Independent Evaluation Group. (2012). Liberia country program evaluation: 2004–2011—A World Bank study. Washington, DC: The World Bank

Kaplan, Z. A., Kyle, P., Shugart, C., Moody, A. (2012). Developing public-private partnerships in Liberia—A World Bank study. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Lingelbach, D. C., De La Vina, L., & Asel, P. (2005). What’s distinctive about growth oriented entrepreneurship in developing countries? UTSA College of Business Center for Global Entrepreneurship Working Paper No. 1.

Mac Sweeney, N. (2009). Private sector development in post-conflict countries—A review of current literature and practice. Cambridge, UK: The Donor Committee for Enterprise Development

McMillan, J., & Woodruff, C. (2002). The central role of entrepreneurs in transition economies. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 16(3), 153–170.

Reuters (2011, Nov 11). Timeline: Liberia: from civil war chaos to fragile hope.

United Nations Development Program. (2012). National Reconciliation and Conflict-Sensitive National Long Term Vision for Sustainable Development (Liberian Rising National Vision 2030). Annual Work Plan.

The World Bank. (2012, Oct 23). A new dawn for Liberia’s entrepreneurs.

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