This summer, I am a cultural bridge fellow at the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs of Liberia. I will be assisting the Government in the development of the country’s Medium Term Growth and Development Strategy, which will define development priorities and guide the government’s policies over the next five years.
Last week the founders of Arab Development Initiative (@ADInitiative), a student initiative out of McGill, came and pitched their project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
The idea is simple: connect Arab students among themselves at the Envision Arabia Summit and facilitate the creation of a network of youth interested in challenging development issues in the Arab world.
Another initiative specific to Egypt is happening later this year in Cambridge: Egypt NEGMA (@EgyptNegma). (Negma means “star” in Egyptian Arabic). This conference will bring together social entrepreneurs who would compete for seed funding to implement their project in Egypt.
Unpacking and reminiscing over the summer by replaying the Liberian Hit song “Dumyarea” by Junior Freeman and African Soldier, two young Liberian musicians part of a new music genre called Gbema (Liberian music gone through electronic treatment).
Odd statistic that gets cited a lot: the rate of unemployment is said to hover around 80-85%. I couldn’t find the sources of the figure, but 80% seems hard to swallow. In this town, if you don’t work to scrap some living, there are few safety nets to fall back on – you will go hungry. The rate of formal employment is definitely low (around 15-20%) and that of underemployment definitely high – but until the census data (collected in 2009) is made public (ehem, LISGIS?), the numbers remain speculative.
Meanwhile, Monrovia bustles with a sense of optimistic chaos created by all the micro-businesses that line up the narrow bumpy streets – some with colorful, self-aggrandizing banners. Never a dull moment walking through this city!
Gift of a well-intentioned regional development agency. They incidentally forgot to include a toner – the kind of toners that cannot be found in-country.
The printer has been moved around so much since, that its manual and a power cord have long been lost.
Meanwhile, we shall continue to use this beast’s minuscule distant cousin – the one that spits single-sided papers as fast as if it was digesting them first.
Silver lining: printing is so painful that we’d rather save the trees.
“Liberia is the only country in the world to have gained its independence not from a colonial power, but from an NGO. Imagine the implications this has in terms of statebuilding?”
Hon. Amara Konneh, Liberia’s Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs
After claiming independence from the American Colonization Society in 1847, it sometimes seems that modern Liberia is battling to re-claim its independence from being an “NGO Republic”.
During the war’s 14 years, in the absence of a strong legitimate central government to report to, international NGOs were the ones calling the shots; their emergency relief services much needed by a population fleeing their burning villages and pillaged homes. Continue reading →
“We like the Chinese. At least they don’t interfere in our internal affairs.” Liberian Public Official
Last week, on our way back from Buchanan (Liberia’s third largest city) our car broke down. We stopped by a nearby village, asking for a mechanic. On the other side of the road, some dozen children gathered, screaming and waving: “Chinee’ woma’! Chinee’ woma’! Come come!” It took me an elbow from a colleague and a translation to realize that the cheers were directed at me. The road we were parked on links Monrovia to Buchanan, and was built with Chinese funding a couple of years back. The Chinese workers on that project were the only non-Liberian people to have stopped by these villages.
560 kms of sandy, mostly unexploited coast, dotted sparsely by fishermen villages. Coconut trees and dense, deep-green vegetation. California-standards surfer waves. 5 hours away from Europe, and a summer season that stretches from December to May.
This, too, is Liberia.
Photos are of Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount County (Surf town- Piso Lake on one side, the Atlantic on the other) and CeCe’s beach (and a nearby fishermen spot), Montserrado County.
If the situation remains stable, one day when the world hears Liberia the first thought to come to mind won’t be that of Charles Taylor, crimes against humanity, or helpless refugees – but rather that of a bonfire by the beach to the sound of African drums.
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:
“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.
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.