Monday, September 1, 2008

My Liberian Habits

After my internship came to an end, I left Liberia for London. For a while, the habits I had picked up in Liberia remained with me.

I would subconsciously check restaurant taps to see if there was running water before putting soap onto my hands, and at home, I would plug in all chargeable electronic devices before I went to bed in preparation for the eventuality that the electricity supply would cut out in the morning. Of course, the London water and electricity supply turned out to be as reliable as ever. However, all this made me realize how much I had taken for granted before my trip to Liberia.

Another habit I have managed to pick up is the Liberian handshake. The Liberian handshake is your usual Western handshake combined with a little click of the fingers as you let go of the other person’s hand. It was only when I saw the look of amusement my London friends gave me that I realized I was still doing things the Liberian way.

These little habits reminded me both of the things I missed and the things I did not miss about Liberia. I definitely did not miss the lack of running water and electricity, the mosquitoes, the mouse sharing my bedroom, the potholes in the roads and the chaos in the streets of Monrovia. However, I did miss the lush forests, the dramatic rainstorms, and most of all, the wonderful people I have met during my stay there. The determination, strength and humility of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her Iron Ladies will remain a lasting inspiration for me. My colleagues at the Ministry of Finance have shown much kindness and patience towards me, and I shall miss them and that little click of fingers when they greet me and each other in the mornings. Last but not least, I shall miss the ordinary Liberians we have gotten to know, who despite their hardships, did whatever they could to make us feel welcome and at home in their country.

Left: Colleagues from the Ministry

Right: Dolo, our friend and taxi driver

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Happy 26!

The red carpets are out, the brass band is playing, the performers are getting ready, ladies with glamorous dresses are trooping in and cameras are flashing. The whole event felt a bit like an African Oscar party. Craning our necks, we spotted the arrival of the special guests for this occasion – one by one, former presidents of various African republics, including Monzambique, Benin, Namibia, Botswana and Ghana, appeared. Finally, the President of Liberia also arrived and kicked off this big ceremony consisting of speeches, prayers, cultural performances, bestowment of honours, football games and cocktail receptions.

Independence Day Ce
lebrations kick off in Margibi County

Why this extravaganza? Well, on 26th July each year, Liberia celebrates its Independence Day. Liberians take this occassion very seriously, and this year marks the 161th anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Liberia. A different county is in charge of hosting the official celebrations each year, and this time, the festivities are held in Kakata in Margibi County. These celebrations consist of a full week of events, starting off with an intercessory service, then visits by the President to various development projects in the county, culminating in a big ceremony held on the 26th itself. On this day, it is customary for Liberians to spend time with family, dress their children up in new clothing, exchange gifts with friends and attend social gatherings and entertainment events. Liberian food, needless to say, plays an important role in the celebrations. These typically include dishes of rice, palm butter, potato greens, fufu and dumboy (both of which consists of pounded root vegetables), accompanied by palm wine and bottles of Liberian Club Beer. Although it was a privilege to be able to attend the formal ceremony, the informal celebrations which my colleagues described to me definitely sounded more fun and relaxed.

Aside from providing a good excuse for throwing big fufu parties, Independence Day is more importantly, an opportunity for Liberians of different counties, ethnic origins and religions to come together to celebrate. In her speech, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf half-jokingly commented that this is the first time in recent years that there has been sunshine on Independence Day. This must signal brighter days ahead for this 161 year-old nation.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Rubber Republic

We had been hearing a lot about the Firestone rubber plantation since arriving in Liberia, so we decided to go and see it for ourselves.

The plantation was founded in 1926, and is the largest single natural rubber operation in the world. It is situated in Margibi County, around one and a half hour’s drive from Monrovia. The journey there was a mini adventure in itself. It took us along winding roads and rolling hills, past the new Liberian army training camps and the ‘ambush curve’ (a sharp bend in the road where rebel groups used to hide during the war to ambush unsuspecting vehicles).

It was only when we reached the plantation that I fully comprehended its size. The plantation is organized into 45 ‘divisions’. Each worker is allocated to a division, where they work and live with their families. There is a quasi bus system transporting workers from one place to another. In particular, under the agreement between Firestone and the Liberian government, the company has the social obligation to provide schooling and healthcare for workers and their dependents, so the buses help to transport workers to these services. At the entrance to the plantation is a bustling marketplace, the centre of life in the plantation.

Inside the Rubber Republic

However, it would be mistaken to think that life as a worker in Firestone is an easy one. The little red cups hanging on the rubber trees tell the story of the daily life of a rubber tapper. A tapper gets up in the early hours of the morning and makes a small cut in the rubber tree, and the white latex is left to run down the tree for about five hours to collect in the red cups. The tapper repeats the same procedure for around 500 to 550 trees each day. The rubber collected from all the little cups are poured into large buckets, and handed in at a nearby collection station. A tapper can collect up to 6 buckets of liquid latex per day. The latex is then exported to the United States mainly for processing into tires. The tedious and labour-intensive nature of the work means that tappers often draft in their family members to help with the collection process. There have been various protests from international groups against the use of child labour in the plantation, and concerns that the management pays little attention to the general welfare of women living in the plantations. Living conditions for many of the workers are also unsatisfactory – as we drove around the plantation, we saw crowded huts lacking electricity and other basic services.

Left: Rubber trees with red collection cups

Right: Tapper making cut on rubber tree

Following the amendments made to the concession agreement between Firestone and the Liberian government earlier this year, there seems to have been some improvement in the workers’ welfare. However, given that the company has already been in the country for over 80 years, one cannot help but feel that they could have done more for the people living in their Rubber Republic and for the people of Liberia.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Perfect Storm

There are spectacular storms here in Liberia. One minute, you are out walking in the streets, shielding your eyes from the sun. The next minute, a loud clap of thunder, and the rain comes pouring down. There is no escape - even with big umbrellas and raincoats, you are bound to get wet. Since the roads in Liberia are littered with potholes, pedestrians have to start hopping from one island of concrete to another, as the rain comes down and potholes start to turn into mini lakes.

In the United Kingdom where I have lived for years, the sound of drizzling rain outside my bedroom window acts as a comforting lullaby. In Liberia, I am often woken up in the middle of the night by the drama of rain, lightning, thunder and wind outside. Maybe it is in my imagination, but once or twice, I have even felt the whole apartment shudder in the middle of the storm.

When the storm has passed and morning starts to dawn, I sometimes get out onto the balcony of our apartment to survey the surrounding neighbourhood. There is a pleasant freshness in the air and one can smell the earth and vegetation all around. Further out in the distance amongst the fields are clusters of small huts. During a walk around the neighbourhood one afternoon, I had seen that many of the huts were constructed of simple materials, some have thatched roofs, others have rusty tin roofs. The whole family often sat outside of the hut – since space is limited and there is little or no access to electricity, the interior of the hut is often shrouded in darkness on a cloudy day. Given that we live in a concrete building and are still affected by the dramatic weather, I can’t help but wonder how those huts and the families living in them survive the storms here in Liberia.

There is rumble of thunder in the distance. Another one of those perfect storms is drawing near.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Mob Justice or Mob Violence?

We were in the Team Liberia minibus on our way to work when we noticed a large crowd of people standing on one side of the road in Sinkor Fish Market. In the midst of the crowd were a couple of policemen and some UN patrol vehicles. We drove past quickly. I thought it might have been a road accident. It was only when I got back to the office that I learnt from my colleagues what had happened. A man had reportedly tried to steal something from one of the houses in the area that night, and as a result, the community had descended upon him and had beaten him to death.

This type of mob justice is all too common in countries where there is lack of trust towards formal institutions of law and enforcement. The community sets up their own informal system of retribution in fear that the criminal, if handed over to the police, would end up paying a bribe and walking free.

However, mob justice has its costs. There are numerous instances where innocent men and women have been subjected to mob ‘justice’. When I got home from work, my friend said that she had heard a different version of what had happened at the Fish Market that day. Apparently, a Liberian had returned from America and was trying to locate his fiancĂ©e. Because she had moved house since he left, he was knocking on a couple of doors in the area to find out where she was staying. An unfortunate misunderstanding occurred, he was mistaken as a thief, and was killed by the community as a result.

Whichever the true version of the story, it serves as a reminder of the fragility of peace here in Liberia. When people continue to live on a daily basis by the mentality of ‘an eye for an eye’, a sustained improvement in the formal institutions of law and justice will be crucial in guaranteeing long-lasting peace in the country.
Left: The Temple of Justice in Monrovia

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Aggressive Self-Rescue

Earlier this year, I was whitewater rafting with some classmates down Kennebec River in Maine, when our raft hit a huge wall of water and threw most of us overboard. I did not manage to catch hold of the side of the raft in time, and was soon swept far away from the raft. I panicked. The water was freezing, and I was barely able to keep my head above the relentless surges of whitewater. Suddenly, I saw the end of a rope landing close to me, and I grabbed it in relief, expecting to be pulled back to the safety of the raft. Seconds went by and nothing happened – no tug from the other end. I realized then that whoever had thrown the rope must somehow have let go, and I was just holding onto a floating rope that was going to take me nowhere. I struggled to remember what the guide had said in the 5-minute safety talk at the beginning of the rafting session, and a single phrase came to mind: aggressive self-rescue. In that instant, I realized that I couldn’t wait passively to be rescued, and that the person who cared most about my own safety was me myself. I started swimming towards the raft, and eventually my friends reached me and pulled me to safety.

Currently, Liberia is heavily dependent on aid and assistance from the international community. There are around 14,000 UN military personnel stationed in Liberia, and if you took a casual stroll down any one of Monrovia’s busy central streets, you are guaranteed to spot at least a couple of UN vehicles on patrol. Liberia is also heavily dependent on food imports. Even though its soil and climate should have been perfect for agriculture, Liberians import most of their staple diet, including rice and vegetable oil. One of the government’s top concerns at the moment is the large surge in global food prices, which has hit the poor hard, and which might have negative consequences for the country’s stability if not dealt with swiftly and effectively.

It is no doubt that in the short run, both the UN peacekeeping force and food imports are paramount to the country’s peace and food security. However, the government of Liberia also realizes that it needs to engage in aggressive self-rescue if the country is to be able to stand on its own two feet in future. Some of my fellow housemates working at the Ministry of Internal Affairs have been assisting in the training of traditional leaders in various counties. The aim is to help establish local laws and institutions that would help build peace and promote stability in the longer run. In terms of agricultural development, the government been making efforts to attract investors to make investments and build technical expertise in the sector. Liberia still has some way to go before it can achieve peace and food security independent of external assistance, but realizing the need to be aggressive in its approach to development is a very good start.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Iron Ladies of Liberia

All of the progress that we’ve made can be attributed to the fact that we’ve got strong women leadership in the government, these are all strong women that have led the processes of change and renewal. With all the problems and all the scares, I remain optimistic that Liberia will rise again."

—Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

She sat down on her favourite rocking chair, looked around at all of us, and smiled. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf might be the first elected woman president of Africa, but her sincerity and frankness made the occasion seem less like a formal meeting with a head of state, and more like a grandmother summoning her grandchildren around her feet to talk at the end of the day.

It has been a long day for her – in fact, every day as the President of Liberia must be a long day. Since her inauguration in 2006, President Sirleaf and her administration has laboured tirelessly to prevent a post-conflict nation from returning to civil war. Between the endless meetings with various ministries and international organizations, where she fire-fights urgent concerns and strategizes on the long-term development of the country, President Sirleaf also rushes around the country to communicate with the general public face-to-face, to listen to their concerns and to deliver them the personal message that the government is doing all they can do get Liberia back on its feet. So much of the hopes and expectations of both the Liberian people and the international community rests on this one lady’s shoulders, that it is unimaginable what the country would be like without her.

Fighting alongside President Sirleaf are the other Iron Ladies of Liberia, who have been personally appointed to leadership positions by the President. The Ministry of Finance where I work is headed by Dr Antoinette Sayeh, a brilliant lady who has been instrumental in pulling the country out of its crippling debt situation. The Ministers of Justice, Gender, Commerce, Youth and Sports are other examples of powerful ladies who are helping to change the face of Liberia.

The Ministry of Finance interns with Dr Antoinette Sayeh, Minister of Finance

It has been an inspiration and privilege to witness the changes and progress these Iron Ladies have made. However, as I look around the streets on my way to work and see the numerous women struggling to make a living in the sun and in the rain day after day, and as I hear and read about their sufferings during the long years of war, I begin to realize the enormity of the challenges faced by the Sirleaf administration as it tries to reintegrate these women back into society.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf gets up from her rocking chair and bids us farewell. For us, the day is over and we will return from the President’s house back to our apartments, chat about our meeting with her, and go off to bed. For President Sirleaf however, the night is still young. She walks off to her next meeting as if it were the beginning of a new day.

The MPA/IDs with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

Sunday, June 22, 2008

In and Out of Monrovia

The first time I visited central Monrovia (where the Ministry of Finance is located), I was struck by the sheer number of people milling around in the streets. The piles of candy on hawkers’ trolleys, the women in patterned, traditional African clothing, and the numerous yellow cabs crawling alongside the pedestrians added splashes of colour to the chaotic scene. Incessant honking, loud pop music from stalls selling cassette tapes and the hustle and bustle of people going about their daily lives completed the atmosphere. There were visible signs of poverty everywhere – unemployed youths sitting on street corners, elderly women watching passer-bys with tired eyes, dilapidated buildings lining the streets, reflecting the years of war and neglect this country has been through.

A weekend trip to Robertsport (or Robert’s Port), a town in western Liberia in Grand Cape Mount County, showed me a completely different side of Liberia. Just 10 miles from the Sierra Leone border, the town has a population of just 1,500, where most people make their living from fishing. Stretches of empty beach dotted with lone fishing canoes provided picture-perfect scenery, and the luxurious waves there have drawn in adventurous surfers from near and far. Fishermen sporadically ran up the beach, showing us their catch of the day. After the intensity of Monrovia, Robertsport provided the silence and space for me to consolidate my thoughts on the Liberian experience thus far, and gave me the opportunity to take in the natural beauty the country offered.

During our stay, we paid a brief visit to the Superintendent of Cape Mount County, who is based in Robertsport. A Superintendent is an appointed official who acts as the governor of a county, and in the case of Cape Mount, the Superintendent is a kind-looking, well-educated Liberian lady, who welcomed us into her home and talked to us about her hopes and worries. Her utmost concerns are for the future of youths in Cape Mount and for their lack of opportunity to interact with and learn from the outside world. The conversation with the Superintendent transported my mind from the idyllic scenery of Robertsport back to the unemployed youths roaming the streets of Monrovia. Robertsport might have provided the perfect escape from the crowds and noise of Monrovia, but it certainly has not escaped the socio-economic problems that the rest of the country is grappling with.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Selling off the family silver

The chairperson looked around the table and asked for a vote from each representative from the various participating ministries. An overwhelming majority voted against. I breathed a sigh of relief - the Ministry of Finance had won the battle this time round, and the companies in question will not be granted the unreasonably high levels of tax exemptions they had asked for. We had spent some time at the Ministry analyzing these companies and had found little rationale for them to be given government support. None of them were planning on making large capital investments in the economy, nor were they taking on any risk to diversify into new economic activities. Simply put, these are profit-making companies that want to escape the obligation of paying taxes so they can make even more profit.

The creation of private sector employment opportunities constitutes the core of Liberia’s growth strategy, and it is important for the government to create a competitive business environment to attract foreign investment into the country. It is also the case, however, that the government needs a sustained source of revenue in order to improve the provision of basic services to the public. Whilst tax exemptions may help attract investment, which in turn generates higher incomes and broadens the economy’s tax base, they may also reduce government revenues, since they effectively act as subsidies to companies. The net effect of tax exemptions for a particular company would therefore depend on the macroeconomic benefits generated by the investment, measured against the revenues lost.

A similar balance needs to be struck when the government negotiates concession contracts with the private sector for natural resource extraction. Liberia is a land endowed with rich natural resources such as iron ore, diamonds and timber, and if managed well, these resources have the potential to spur economic growth in the country. In particular, mining and panning activities are expected to expand rapidly in the next couple of years, growing from near zero production in 2005-06 to more than $110 million in production in 2010, or to about 12 percent of GDP. However, it is sadly the case that in their urgent effort to attract foreign investment, developing countries often ‘sell off the family silver’, signing away their natural resources on highly unfavourable terms. The Liberian government is making big efforts to avoid this. In addition, it has recently started to focus more on the social responsibilities of concessionaries in their negotiations. By requiring companies to provide basic services such as health and sanitation, education, transportation, and social safety nets in the local communities where they operate, it is hoped that benefits from natural resources may be widely shared. This inclusive and equitable growth will be the key to sustained peace in Liberia, helping to avoid the atrocities that had so devastated the country in decades past.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

"Yes, Minister"

I was feeling slightly nervous when the lift arrived at the 7th floor. To the left was a wooden door with the unmistakeable sign ‘Deputy Minister for Revenue’ on top of it. This is the office in which I will be working for the next two months. I went inside. A couple of friendly faces smiled at me, and before I knew it, I was led through another door. Sitting behind the desk was an authoritative-looking Liberian lady with glasses and twinkly eyes whom I figured to be Deputy Minister Tamba. Within moments of talking with Minister Tamba, she had given me my first big assignment – to help project Liberia’s revenues for the next three years. Slightly overwhelmed and at a loss for words, all I could say was ‘Yes, Minister’.

When President Johnson’s government took office in January 2006, annual revenues were just over $80 million. In two years, the government had more than doubled that figure, with revenues for full-year 2007/08 projected at over $180 million. Given the growth in the economy and the rise in foreign investment, revenues are expected to further increase. It is hoped that by developing a more systematic way of projecting revenues, the Ministry of Finance will be better able to plan their resource allocation to the other ministries which are responsible for implementing key services such as the provision of basic health and education, infrastructure construction and repair, and the development of agricultural activities. It is also expected that the new system of revenues projection would help the Ministry of Finance model the impact of changes in tax policy on the different economic sectors in society. This would then allow the Ministry to devise a fairer and more efficient system of taxation.

I walked out of Deputy Minister Tamba’s office, took a deep breath, and set about gathering information for my task ahead. Something tells me my stay in Liberia will be a busy and interesting one.

Below: Billboards in Monrovia aiming to raise awareness of the importance of revenue collection

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A quick walk through time

As I waited in Brussels for my connecting flight to Monrovia, the images of Liberia that I had seen in films and photos streamed through my mind. Some were images of the 14-year civil war that had gripped the country and decimated the economy – young men wielding guns, panicked citizens running on the streets, destroyed roads and homes. Other images were that of the new Liberia in peacetime – President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her Iron Ladies in the government, people going about their normal lives, the rebuilding of roads and schools.

The country’s economic performance reflected these contrasting images: between 1987 and 1995, Liberia’s GDP had fallen dramatically by 90% in what was one of the largest ever economic collapses recorded in the world. Following the inauguration of the new government in 2006, GDP growth jumped to 7.8 percent, and rose to 9.5 percent in 2007. This growth is expected to be sustained in 2008, reaching more than 10 percent in 2009 by IMF and government estimates.

However, it is all too easy to take this progress for granted. Once you think about the fact that a whole generation of Liberians have spent more time at war than at school, you begin to comprehend the complexities of the task of rebuilding the country. With hundreds of thousands of the young in Liberia unemployed, many with past experience as fighters, and with the deep social divides that continue to exist in Liberia, a combination of sustained growth and equitable distribution of wealth would be essential for the country’s economic and political stability.

Liberia’s past might have been a turbulent one, but if present efforts to sustain growth and development are successful, there is hope for future generations.