75 %

This is the percentage of Liberian women that are said to have been victims of rape during the country’s civil war.

On the street in Monrovia

While this may be an overestimation courtesy of Nick Kristof, gender-based violence is a serious concern in Liberia. The latest (and most reliable) data on the subject has just been released by the Initiative for Vulnerable Populations at UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, showing that both women and men are frequent victims of domestic violence. Extract:

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Latex (the not-so-sexy kind)

“To you, Firestone is just a brand. Where I come from, it is someone’s life – everything they will ever know”
A Liberian friend

Firestone Tire and Rubber Plantation’s history is painfully enlaced with Liberia’s.
In 1920s, the Liberian government was on the verge of bankruptcy and under severe pressure from international creditors for repaying a US$ 2 million debt.
Along came Firestone. It bargained with the government for a lease of one million acres of land for one hundred years. The price? 6 cents an acre, plus 1% in tax on the value of the exported rubber, giving the company unlimited control over 10% of Liberia’s total arable land. Included in the contract was the infamous Clause (K), which conditioned the deal on a loan from Firestone to the government of Liberia of $5 million at an interest rate of 7% (that was 2% higher than the interest rate on any of Liberia’s other debts).
Cornered and careless, the government signed.

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Favorite Quotes from the International Dialogue Forum

A collection of remarks made by participants at last week’s high-level International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding that I found to be thought-provoking.
See previous post for what the Dialogue is all about.

Emilia Pires, Minister of Finance, Timor Leste:

  • In response to donors’ concerns about corruption: If we put in place all the auditing measures recommended by donors, we won’t even be able to spend the money that’s given to us. That’s what’s happening in Afghanistan today. We must first relax the rules, to let the money flow into the economy.
    Donors should be a little more patient with us, and give us time to learn things step by step. First, learn how to spend the money. Second, learn how to spend it well. Third, link our budget to performance. Speaking of performance budgeting – I just found out that most developed countries don’t even have that!
  • To development partners: You don’t trust us! What happens if we stop being fragile? Does it mean you guys lose your jobs? Isn’t there a conflict of interest here? I don’t blame you – I, too, was a consultant one day.
  • In response to concerns that the expression “fragile states” is stigmatizing: I like the word fragile. Fragility is beautiful; it is real. My Ministry of Finance is fragile. That’s why I’m asking you to take good care of it. Don’t put too much pressure on it, or it will break. Like this glass. (holding up a glass of water)

Brian Atwood, Chair, OECD Development Assistance Committee, and former USAID Administrator:

Brian Atwood and Bella Bird

  • Developing countries played the aid game for a very long time, serving donors very well – without always serving their populations. This created dependency. Today, developing countries have stopped playing the aid game, insisting that donors align their strategies to their priorities. Development has changed, but it has not changed enough. You must insist that you want to take control of your own destiny. Tell the world what you need. Progress needs to be measured against what you need to achieve.
  • We often ignore the needs of fragile states until they become news stories. And aid usually ends as soon as the country leaves the front-page. It doesn’t do enough to create a transition to development stages. We leave too soon, before helping solve the problems that created conflict in the first place.
  • The donors sitting in this room know that what you are asking for is right. What they don’t know is whether they can generate political will at home to do what is right. You need to help them. When you can speak as one nation it is difficult to hear you. But when you speak collectively you are and will be heard. I can’t promise you every donor will change one day to the next. But what you are asking is not only realistic; it is also in the interest of every nation on the face of this earth. Peer pressure will produce political will. Speak collectively on behalf of your nations. We will listen – eventually.

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Thoughts from the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding

L to R: Hon. Min. Konneh (my boss), H.E. President Johnson-Sirleaf, Hon. Min. Pires

Last week I had the chance to attend the g7+ high-level International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding in Monrovia.

The g7+ (not to be confounded with the G7) is a group of fragile countries (including Liberia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and others) advocating the placement of peacebuilding and statebuilding at the core of international development.

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Participatory waste of time?

“You ask a woman in the bush what she wants – I can tell you what she wants. She wants to survive. She wants safety, water.. and education for her children. But we spend time and money that we don’t have organizing focus groups.”
A colleague, speaking of the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) process *

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The Road Less Traveled

Main road in Monrovia


An asphalted road is an easy thing to take for granted.
In Liberia, less than 10% of all roads are paved – compare that with 49% for India and 21% for Niger (2008 WB data).
Roads were Liberians’ most desired request during the consultation process that preceded the development of the national poverty reduction strategy of 2006.
And rightly so.

Roads connect people. They facilitate access to clinics and schools.
Roads maintain peace.
In a post-conflict setting, they are crucial for improving the effectiveness of security forces.
Roads increase income
. They’re essential for creating jobs and economic opportunities, connecting markets, and reducing prices.

Most Valuable Purchase

For the electricity cuts and the walks back home after sunset.

It gets pitch dark around 7:30 pm. A combination of lack of public electricity on the roads (less than 30% of Monrovia, home to 1.1 million, has access to electricity) and the heavy clouds of the rainy season (starless sky!)

Liberian-Lebanese Relations

On my 2nd day here, I found it hilarious that I could chat in Lebanese to the supermarket owner in Monrovia (he, on the other hand was completely unfazed). It turns out there are thousands of them all over this place. They own hotels, restaurants, drycleaners, construction companies – you name it. They first came during the 19th century, as part of a wave of immigration fleeing the rough conditions of the Ottoman Empire. Their number reached 10,000 before the Liberian civil war and is estimated at 4,000 today.

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Identity

In the early 19th century, the US abolitionist movement designated Liberia’s coast as the spot to resettle freed American slaves. It is said that officials of the American Colonization Society forced a treaty upon a local king at Cape Mesurado (present-day Monrovia).
And so Liberia was founded in 1847 by Black American settlers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given their own brutal past, the former slaves enslaved the autochthones and went on to monopolize Liberian politics for two centuries. This layed the groundwork for inequalities so deep, that they triggered the 1989-2003 civil war.

Some Liberians think that reconciliation should start where it all started – by revising the symbols of the nation.
“Do we want an emblem that represents only 10% of our population? Do we want a flag that looks like the 52nd star of the flag of the ‘colonizers’?”

Liberia’s Governance Commission is tackling some of these issues as part of developing Liberia’s National Vision 2030.

How can policy makers help heal some of the deep wounds inflicted by the civil war without rekindling explosive tensions?

In Lebanon to a large extent, we’ve adopted the Ostrich policy. The reconciliation process “mousalaha” has been scattered and incomplete. As an illustration of the lack of collective memory, our official history book taught in public schools omits to mention the civil war. Given the persistent tensions and lack of common national vision, I’d say the Ostrich strategy does not work so well…

Curious and hopeful to see what would come out of the introspective work that Liberia is doing!

Sustainable Peace

“The real test is this October [when the elections are scheduled]. Then we will know if peace and security are real. Now with UN troops everywhere*, it could be artificial.
You have all these ex-combatants, who’ve done war longer than they’ve been to school – that’s the only thing they know how to do. It’s hard to integrate them and easy to arm them.
But with the successful elections in Guinea and Ghana, we’re hopeful that the outcome will be positive here too.”

A public official on the sustainability of peace in Liberia

* UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia) was established by UN Security Council resolution in 2003 and holds a 14,000 men strong peacekeeping force across Liberia.