Fortune has not always worked in Mr Konneh’s favour. Born on a mud floor in the twilight years of a peaceful Liberia, his family struggled to send him to school. He helped his father dig for diamonds in their village each morning to keep finances afloat. When Konneh was 18 Liberia was plunged into civil war, which lasted over a decade. He lost his father and three siblings to the fighting before finding sanctuary across the mountains in a Guinean refugee camp.
What is fortunate, however, is that he has never left his success to odds. He set up schools for refugee children, which brought him to the attention of the International Rescue Committee, who helped him go to study on a scholarship in America. When war ended in 2003, he returned from the US to his country to manage its economic rejuvenation, as Minister of Finance. In Liberian public service for ten years, he dealt with the Ebola crisis, a crash in global commodity prices and an attempt by the Liberian legislature to imprison him.
His previous experience hence makes his new job managing the World Bank’s Fragility, Conflict and Violence (FCV) Hub in Nairobi seem like a walk in the park. I spoke to Konneh just after he finished a conference in the Blavatnik School of Government, on global fragility. It featured experts from all over the world, discussing problems faced by states recovering from conflict, and how to stop them relapsing.
Konneh sees his work in Nairobi very much as part of an international political picture, “today we have more countries on the fragility list than there were in 2006, you have more refugees now than there were in 2000; we need to ask what is going on.”
His leadership has a clear goal; to bring the World Bank back to grassroots level, to the people it serves. “My vision for the hub is to bring the World Bank closer to the clients, to reduce the time from initial commitment in the boardroom in Washington to results on the ground. We will have to engage, we will have to be there with our colleagues who are managing the country.”
Fragile states is Konneh’s new currency, and he works as much as a political strategist as an economist: “when a country is classified as fragile it speaks to the inability of the government to deliver basic services to the people, to provide fair and adequate security, to provide the space for equitable justice and rule of law.”
A textbook case of fragile statehood, then, was the Liberia he returned to after 14 years of bloody civil war. The control exerted by central government was flimsy. The GDP had dropped by 90%, electricity and running water were non existent. Mr Konneh had his work cut out.
His logical, pragmatic approach to reconstructing Liberia mirrors his undergraduate background in computer science, “think of post-conflict state building as a computer. You have the hardware which is the computer itself, and then the software, the programmes that make the computer work.”
“In most post-conflict countries, infrastructure is missing. You need infrastructure to get the economy going, to create the jobs to attract the private sector. So roads, energy, airports, seaports; you have to rebuild everything to rehabilitate, that’s the hard part.”
“But, you also have to address the “soft” issues around human conflict. Issues of governance, for example. You have to create a civil service for the public when most civil servants will have been fighters in the war. You need the correct form of human capital for the hardware to work.”
“The other software component is extending government to the interior of the country; people after war will still feel the exclusion from the government that made them participate in the conflict in the first place.”
After ten years of peace and recovery, West African states were knocked double by the Ebola crisis and a dramatic fall in global commodity prices. Konneh campaigned to have the economic effects of Ebola recognised, setting up the Ebola Trust Fund. The Liberian economy is only just getting back on its feet. What can developing economies learn from this?
“Diversify, diversify, and diversify”, Konneh’s voice echoes across the spacious fifth floor of the elegant new Blavatnik building. “This is the first lesson. And this requires a lot of tough decision making to decide which sectors you want to grow. In the case of Liberia, the economy is run mainly by extracting raw materials, rubber and iron ore, and any exogenous track leaves your economy very insecure to crises like Ebola. So you need to diversity using sectors like agriculture to withstand an external shock, as we saw in Côte d’Ivoire.”
But Konneh’s optimism and clear-cut, neatly packaged economic solutions hide the fact his journey as a Minister in the Liberian government has not always been smooth. In February the Liberian senate attempted to jail him for proposing a $1.2 million budget cut, clamping down on politicians salaries. His imprisonment was blocked by the Supreme Court, but Konneh left government soon afterwards.
He chuckled when I brought up the event, politely refusing to comment on the current political situation in Liberia. He did, however, point to a wider problem in the refusal of politicians to accept expenses cuts.
“What is absent [in politicians] in most post-conflict countries is that sense of commitment to the people, commitment to deliver. They do not recognise that you can’t receive a large salary with all the perks when the roads are bad, when the garbage cannot be collected, when the schools are failing.”
As we spoke, Theresa May was attending the UN summit for Refugees and Migrants, where she argued the refugee crisis must be tackled at its “root”; the unstable war-torn countries that Konneh deals with, rather than by taking more refugees. Mr Konneh was inclined to agree. “We need to invest in the prevention…increasing investment in fragile states but targeting the investment so that the benefits reach the people.”
One of the most challenging parts of being a refugee, he argued, is maintaining their dignity. “You want to make sure that they are productive contributors to the economies of the countries that welcome them.” He cited his own experience as a refugee, including the killing of his family “[it] shaped me into who I am as a professional and also as a human being”.
“The parcel of land that was given to me by a chief in Guinea changed my life, so if we’re putting money into activities like those, so refugees don’t feel that they are dependent on hand-outs but can become productive citizens, it will change their very composition.”
We ended the interview setting out his ‘vision for Africa’ in his new book, Amara Konneh: An African Journey. He laughed, “I don’t want to sound philosophical, Africa is a big continent.”
“That said, I really believe Africa is going to be where the action will be in the 21st century. There is a lot of potential; a lot of smart, young Africans are returning to Africa.”
He paused. “There are so many aspects that we don’t see on television. So the vision I have for Africa is an ability to harness that massive capacity rather than watching people drown in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe for opportunities instead.”
Hours after we parted a boat carrying over 500 migrants from African states capsized in Egyptian waters, killing 162. Wars in Sudan, Somalia and Libya rage on. Africa remains the poorest continent in the world, and Konneh’s vision, at the moment, appears unlikely. But he has a habit of defying odds.