Monday, July 2, 2012

'Chop my money'...

…is Monrovia's most popular song at the moment. The list also includes 'Enter my Center', 'Money not Problem’, ‘She do Me’ among others. My new song list on I tunes kind of embodies part of my everyday life in Monrovia: in the office where Brenda (the Minister’s assistant) listens to Akon inspired ‘chop my money’ in full volume that the rickety radio allows… and when the Harvard interns bond with the Columbia SIPA interns at Big Tree, a local bar on 9th Street, Singkor. (incidentally the incidentally has tasty grilled and slightly smoky chicken, fish and maize).

The last few weeks have been a flurry of random and hilarious moments peppered with hearing President Sirleaf speak at the installation of the Women’s Legislative Caucus in the Legislature and Laymeh Gbowee talk at the graduation of EPAG (Economic Empowerment of Adolescents and Young Girls) at Painsville City Hall. Listening to the witty ‘tough love’ speeches of both these Nobel Peace Prize winners and the feisty atmosphere in the city hall reminded me of my motivation to work with the Ministry of Gender in Liberia. Both events strangely reflected Sunday morning church where pastor (i.e. the speakers) were met with nods and grunts of loud approval and reaffirmation from the audience. Progress of the 5 year strategic plan you ask? Pretty good I would say. Over 50% response rate on the internal MoGD survey that helped us to ‘almost’ finish the capacity assessment report; while we progress on the prioritization of goals and objectives for the strategy report.  

I tried to explore more of Liberia in the last weekends. This includes Robertsport Round II, Kpatawe waterfalls in Gbarnga in Bong country (Gbarnga was Charles Taylor’s base during the civil war when other competing factions held Monrovia). Also managed to watch a couple of movies of the 12 movies-in-a-DVD collection I bought for 70 Liberty (~1USD). 

Some pictures of these varied experiences in my Picasa photo stream!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

WAPPP Wire: Sujoyini in Liberia: A bit about work

WAPPP Wire: Sujoyini in Liberia: A bit about work: WAPPP summer fellow, Sujoyini Mandal (MPP 2013), is interning in Liberia's Ministry of Gender and Development this summer. She's been a prol...

The last leg

This entry features the last leg of my internship in Liberia. This week has meetings lined up with senior ministers at the MoGD to understand their aspirations and objectives for the MoGD in the next 5 years. Having Lauren as a colleague in the MoGD is a huge boost and am confident to get two solid deliverables –(i) internal capacity assessment report and (ii) 5 year strategic plan in by the end of our internship.

Last weekend, I made some progress with Stephen Ellis’ ‘Mask of Anarchy’. The book is informative and factual – so much so that it’s difficult to absorb all the little conspiracies and intrigue that played out in Liberia and broader West Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. Liberia was definitely not isolated in its politics under Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson, but rather was part of a larger web of West African interests that included Nigeria, Cote d’Voire, Guinea and Sierra Leone. 

Liberia continues to fascinate me and one of my favourite places in the country is Margibi county, the pit stop to go fishing or take a boat out to the river. Sunday’s excursion included going to chimpanzee island (the 32 or so chimps spread out over 13 small islands were used for research by US medical research who are now enjoying ‘retirement’ in these islands). Photos from random excursions around Liberia as below. 

                                      Dirt cheap movie DVDs: Sustenance for rainy evenings
 Canoeing on Ducor river on a hot Saturday afternoon
 The locals who did the actual canoeing
 Expat haven #3: Firestone rubber plantation with its very own golf course
 Liberian local dish #4: Jollof rice (a mound of spicy fried rice with fried chicken at the side and hot pepper sauce)
 Chimp island near Margibi: better and closer pictures will be in the photo-stream

Saturday, June 9, 2012

'Bong' county (because I love the name)

The days are now flying by. Just when Liberia starts to feel like home..

This week, I accompanied the Danish donor agencies, UN Women and UNICEF (technical partners for a number of MoGD programs) for two field trips – Grand Cape Mount County and Bong County to meet beneficiaries of various programs. Driving out to the counties comprise my favorite moments in Liberia and visiting one called ‘Bong’ added to the fun J

The road to Grand Cape Mount is fairly smooth, but the road to Bong is  not. The latter takes at least 4 hours (twice the time to Grand Cape Mount) and is ridden with potholes. But the lush green misty scenery and visiting the women beneficiaries of a food and nutrition project (fish farming) was well worth it. 
Two stories:
Unfortunately as I understand more and more the complex and interdependent web of donors, technical partners and MoGD involvement, I am convinced that the development aid initially received primarily through the Danish and Spanish governments in Liberia has been spread too thin and has not benefited as much as it should have. E.g. the FSN (Food, Security and Nutrition) pilot project initiated 2 years back to impart fishing and farming skills to rural women has resulted in a profit of 4040 Liberian$ for 27 women. After 2 years of time, energy and money spent on UN and local vehicles, staff, logistics expenditure etc - that's about 2US$/ woman.

The week ends with interviews with the Procurement and Personnel divisions within the Ministry to assess their capacity. Whilst an intern like me can access fast internet (by Liberian standards), the Procurement office staffed with 4 officers serving a 200+ MoGD staff does not get internet. At all.    

Below are pictures from the field trips (family planning and cassava production for economic empowerment projects)...more details on a 10 year girl talking about abstinence from sex to follow soon. 

Now the obligatory tourist update:

Last Sunday, we went to Ducor Palace Hotel as part of a city tour conducted by Barefoot Safaris. Initially operated by the Intercontinental Hotel chain, the now devastated building overlooks a blue-green Atlantic Ocean, the Saint Paul River and Monrovia’s West Point slum. With its 300 rooms, rooftop restaurant, swimming pool and tennis courts, the hotel was the only 5 star in Monrovia, hosting guests from Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and professionals from US, Europe and Asia. The hotel closed in 1989, just before the first civil war during which the hotel was looted, rampaged and stripped of any signs of its former glory.

Fun fact: The Liberian government gave the contract for the hotel renovation to the Libyan government in 2008. Needless to say, certain events in Libya made sure renovation has not even started in this beautiful and ruined structure.

Below: HKSers being tourists (more like the MPA IDs being tourists with the first chance they got in the open air outside of Taubman computer lab).

Friday, June 1, 2012

The rest arrive...

And so... this week, the Harvard presence creeps into Monrovia as the other interns arrive in one's, two's and at times three's. 

Our crew now has Lucera, Nick (MPA IDs), Diana (HBS), Rana (fellow MPP) and myself. Ellen has us working at the National Investment Commission, Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Gender, Ministry of Public Works, Philanthropic Department and the National Port Authority (as far as I know). So keep tuned to hear about us various experiences in this weirdly strange country that seems to growing on me. I have a home opposite the Ministry of Gender, twenty brisk steps away from lunch and a growing network of friends in a small but fascinating community of locals and expats from all around the world; all meshed together. Weekend road trips are also being planned to Monkey Island, Ducor Palace and canoeing in the Paul river.

The obligatory work update :) - Yesterday, I attended the monthly meeting of the Gender Based Violence (GBV) Taskforce within the Ministry of Gender. Chaired by the Deputy Minister of Research and Technical Services and an expected attendance of 30 representatives from various UN agencies, NGOs, IGOs and other ministries to talk about progress on various issues like the 3 week old initiative by the Ministry to take young prostitutes off the street. 

What is this initiative? Last week, 16 girls were 'arrested' (age: 11-24 years) and currently being housed at the local YWCA...till the Minister decides the best way to deal with them. I wonder how these girls were identified, why the pimps were not identified and arrested along with them....and if this will help in an environment lacking capacity of peer counseling, peer support and at a base level, safe houses for these kids. 

As I progress...ever-so-slowly in my research paper on 'economic empowerment and business entrepreneurship' for Liberian women, I feel this is the only concrete way forward in a country brimming with entrepreneurial opportunities and money to be made. This, and increasing women's participation in politics could just be the killer combination. 

...just like $2 Club beer and 10$ lobsters (5 pieces) @ Robertsport.



Monday, May 28, 2012

Bomi County

Last Friday was my first trip outside Monrovia to a county. I went to Bomi County where the Social Cash Transfer program is being piloted since 2009. Funded by the EU, partnered with UNICEF, the SCT project targets the poorest of the poor and labor constrained households.
The Social Cash Transfer office that was destroyed during the war and reconstructed by UNMIL (UN Mission in Liberia) Quick Impact Project.
With Jerry Godu, acting National Coordinator for the SCT program and one of the brightest Liberians I have come across so far.
With officers from the Ministry of Finance who are commissioned there on rotation (3 months). They check the payrolls prepared by the SCT program (housed in Ministry of Gender) at the different pay points in Bomi. Beneficiaries come to them with their ID cards and get the money (standard is US$10/ month) from these officers. They appeared to be quite disinterested doing this job and reaffirmed my concerns on staff motivation and interests within the Liberian government, especially at lower administrative levels. 
A female headed household by Hawa Kromah (see ID on the right). A single mother with six children, she is a beneficiary getting more than than the standard cash. She has rebuilt her house over two years and is trying to do farming (below is a cassava plant) to feed the family and possibly, sell to the market. The nearest market is at least 10km away.
 Below is the SCT car gifted by the UN.

Another beneficiary, Abou is taking care of a 11-person household. The cash allows him to buy a 25kg bag of rice to feed the family and the Norwegian Refugee Council has built a 2-room mud house for him. This is just enough for survival, but not to make things better for him and his family.
Weekend update: Robertsport, a beach town about 2 hours drive from Monrovia...detailed blog on Robertsport to follow soon. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures :)