Welcome! This blog documents my experience as a Nancy Germeshausen Klavans Cultural Bridge Fellow with the Liberian Ministry of Gender and Development during my studies at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The views expressed are solely my own and are written to share experiences, introduce issues, and initiate conversation. Thank you for reading!

The Girl Effect


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

President Sirleaf's Challenge: Reversing the Course of Liberian History***

On November 8, 2005, Liberian women had cause for jubilation. The presidential candidate who had just been elected to Liberia's highest political office was, for the first time in history, one of them: a woman, "Ma Ellen," Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Weary from fourteen years of civil war, women across the country had responded overwhelmingly to Sirleaf's rallying cry: "All the men have failed Liberia; let's try a woman this time!" Promising to bring a "motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency," Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won a commanding victory to beat former soccer star George Weah by a margin of nearly 20 percentage points.

President Sirleaf's watershed victory marked the first time that a woman in Africa was elected as head of state. Her win shattered a glass ceiling in a continent ruled for decades by an exclusively male roster of African leaders. Yet her victory was more than emblematic. It carried with it an unequivocal mandate to improve the lot of her country's women, the core base of her political support. Deeming women her "greatest constituency," President Sirleaf has reiterated that she has a "special, special obligation and responsibility to them." In recognition of the centrality of women in her election, President Sirleaf declared in her inaugural address:

"And now, before I close, I would like to talk to the women-- the women of Liberia, the women of Africa, and the women of the world. Until a few decades ago, Liberian women endured the injustice of being treated as second-class citizens. During the years of our civil war, they bore the brunt of inhumanity and terror. They were conscripted into war, gang raped at will, forced into domestic slavery. Yet, it is the women who labored and advocated for peace throughout our region.

It is therefore not surpising that during the period of our elections, Liberian women were galvanized -- and demonstrated unmatched passion, enthusiasm and support for my candidacy. They stood with me; they defended me; they worked with me; they prayed for me. The same can be said for the women throughout Africa. I want to here and now, gratefully acknolwedge the powerful voice of women of all walks of life.

My administration shall thus endeavor to give Liberian women prominence in all affairs of our country.... We will also try to provide economic programs that enable Liberian women -- particuarly our market women -- to assume their proper place in our economic process."

Thus from her very first day in Liberia's highest office, President Sirleaf has declared her unambiguous commitment to strengthening the economic opportunities facing Liberian women.

Lessons from Liberia's history: Dashed hopes and missed opportunities

Yet Liberia's history serves as a cautionary reminder that ground-breaking leadership alone has not necessarily translated into economic improvements for constituencies in the past. Twice before, the identity of Liberia's political leadership had posed an unprecedented historic opportunity, not unlike the one facing Liberian women today. Yet in both instances, instead of ground-breaking leadership translating into improved welfare for the constituency that might have been represented, precisely the opposite transpired.

The first instance of missed opportunity was the very founding of the Liberian nation as it is known today. In 1817,a society of white American knows as the "American Colonization Society" purchased a stretch of land in present-day Liberia, with the intention of creating a new homeland for several thousand emancipated slaves from the United States. Renowned Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuściński captures the significance of this great historical experiment in the following passage from his masterpiece, The Shadow of the Sun:

"The fate and behavior of these settlers (they called themselves Americo-Liberians) is fascinating. Yesterday still they were black pariahs, slaves from America's southern plantations, with no legal rights... And now they, the descendents of those unfortunates, until recently slaves themselves, found themselves once again in Africa, in the land of their ancestors, among kinsmen with whom they shared common roots and skin color. At the will of liberal white Americans, they were brought here and left to themselves, to their own fate. How would they conduct themselves? What would they do?"

The answer, according to Kapuściński, is startling. "In contrast to their benefactors' expectations," he wrote, "the newcomers did not kiss the ground or throw themselves in the arms of local Africans." Instead, they declared that only this small group of Americo-Liberians -- less than one percent of the total population of their new homeland -- had the right to citizenship. Damning still, Kapuściński wrote on, "as early as the middle of the nineteenth century, long before apartheid was instituted in southern Africa by the Afrikaners, it had been invented and made flesh by rulers of Liberia -- descendents of black slaves." Ethnic homelands were established for Liberia's distinct tribal groups, who were in turn forced by coercion to live in their assigned territories. It is from these homelands that the ruling Americo-Liberians looked to capture slaves for labor on their own plantations and sell abroad.

Thus in a bitter twist, Liberia -- a country ruled by freed slaves and named for liberty -- was investigated by the League of Nations in 1929 over allegations of forced labor and conditions of slavery. The tragic irony of Liberia's failed experiment is captured by Kapuściński:

"From their experience in the American south, the Americo-Liberians knew only one type of relationship: master-slave. Their first move upon arrival in this new land, therefore, was to recreate precisely that social structure, only now they, the slaves of yesterday, are the masters, and it is the indigenous communities whom they set out to conquer and rule. Liberia is the voluntary continuation of a slave society by slaves who do not wish to abolish an unjust order, but wanted to preserve it, develop it, and exploit it for their own benefit. Clearly an enslaved mind, tainted by the experience of slavery, a mind born into slavery, fettered in infancy, cannot conceive or conjure a world in which all are free."

A second time, Liberia again became the victim of its own missed potential. Nearly 150 uninterrupted years of elite Americo-Liberian rule came to a screeching halt in 1980 when Samuel Doe, a semi-literate 29 year-old military sergeant, toppled the ruling government in a bloody coup. Doe came from Liberia's indigenous population: a population that, despite comprising 99% of the country's populace, had historically been denied political voice and economic power. Many indigeneous Liberians rejoiced over the news that a member of their own Khan clan was in charge for the first time.

Alas, any hopes of Doe's presidency delivering improved living standards to Liberia's indigenous majority were ultimately dashed. Egregious economic mismanagement, incompetence, and corruption by the Doe administration and the outbreak of civil war caused a precipitous crash of the Liberian economy. GDP fell by a shocking 90 percent between 1979 and 1996 -- a decline so great it was deemed by the World Bank "possibly the largest economic collapse of any country since World War II." Thus the same people who celebrate Doe's ascension fell deeper into poverty under his rule, and the country ultimately unfolded into a devestating fourteen-year civil war that would claim nearly 300,000 lives.

What it will take to reverse the course of Liberia's history

Liberia's sobering history serves as a guide to the pitfalls that should be avoided by President Sirleaf in her quest to improve economic conditions for women. In short, there are four critical factors necessary for success that were conspicuously absent in these previous instances of resounding failure.

First, President Sirleaf's administration must demonstrate -- and in fact has demonstrated -- a very clear political commitment to the economic plight of women. Such benevolence was visibly absent from the past discriminitary policies of the orginal settlers toward native Liberians, for instance.

Second, is the existence of democratic accountability. Whereas the Americo-Liberian rulers arrived at the whim of a white colonial society halfway around the world, and Samuel K. Doe assumed power by way of a military coup, President Sirleaf was ushered into office by the overwhelming will of her own people through democratic elections. Thus her commitment is more than benevolence: it represents a fundamental responsibility to her electorate.

Third, what is needed is sheer competence: bona fide effectiveness, prudent financial management, and the ability to translate goodwill into concrete results on the ground. Such competence was sorely lacking during Doe's embattled administration. Today, Liberia's improved governance and capacity under President Sirleaf have been recognized internationally, most notably by the recent selection of Liberia for the "threshold program" of the US's Millennium Challenge Corporation and by the IMF in its restoration of proper IMF status to Liberia in March of 2008. Perhaps most illustrative of Liberia's effectiveness is its dramatic improvement on measures of corruption. In two years, between 2005 and 2007, Liberia climbed an astonishing 72 places in country rakings of corruption -- the largest rise of any country in the world.

Despite the fortuitous existence of these three auspicious factors -- commitment, democratic mandate and capacity -- one final question remains: does President Sirleaf's administration have the right policies in place --and, importantly, the right resources (donor and others) -- to translate this goodwill into tangible economic opportunities for Liberian women in her remaining three years in office, and to ensure that the economic fruits of Liberia's post-war development benefit men and women?

This is precisely the question that my colleague and classmate, Emily Stanger, and I sought to answer in our analysis, "Fulfilling President Sirleaf's Mandate: Ensuring Women their 'Proper Place' in Liberia's Economic Development." Read on for our conclusions.

*** This blog post draws on my masters thesis, co-written with the unrivaled Molly Kinder, for the MPA/ID program at the Harvard Kennedy School. We are teaming up again for this series of blog posts and I cannot thank her enough for getting us back in the game!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Courageous technocrats with heart

Without a doubt the world is looking to Liberia and asking will women's leadership make the difference? I say yes – but not simply because they are women. These women are making the difference because they lead with courage, sincerity in their purpose, and sharp technical skills. Perhaps their gender has contributed to this exact combination of qualities, but each of these characteristics will be central to successfully transforming and rebuilding Liberia.

Early in my time here, I questioned the existence of compassionate technocrats. Can you be a sharp technocrat without losing your compassion and grounded, humble connection to the poor?

Not only do I believe this to be an important question, but I think it is the most important challenge for leaders in development. In order to truly address the plight of the “bottom billion” in our world, we MUST have compassionate technocrats leading the way. Pure goodwill, charity, and solidarity, although admirable, will not eradicate poverty. Nor will a strict regimen of academic-inspired reforms that have lost touch with the human consequences of strategic errors. Policy makers need the best tools, but they also need to believe that their humanity is one in the same with the poorest of the poor.

How do we accomplish such a combination? I’d like to borrow from the inspiring insight of my colleague and friend, Molly; we can’t make it happen without profound courage.

I’d like to acknowledge 4 specific leaders in Liberia’s government who have inspired me with their journeys and their leadership: President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Minister of Finance Antoinette Sayeh, Minister of Gender Vabah Gayflor and her Deputy Minister, Annette Kiawu. Each of these women combine dedication and a sharp mind with a sincere sense of purpose in something greater than themselves. With great courage they have stepped up to lead this country, and because of these factors, these are among the women who will make the difference.

Thursday, August 9, 2007


One issue that has troubled each of us this summer is rape. It is exhausting to think about the enormity of the problem in Liberia and the major institutional and cultural barriers to doing anything about it. The legal system is weak; the rape is rampant; the women are completely disempowered. Yet, with a problem so horrifying, clearly something has to be done.

This week the Vice President has been promoting and publicizing the establishment of a court in Monrovia to try only rape cases. This is an attempt to respond to more than 30 rape cases on the court dockets that have yet to be tried.

Last week, I helped draft Minister Gayflor's key note address to the Liberian Council of Churches. The fact that they invited her to speak on the topic of Gender-based violence was a positive sign that Liberians are beginning to recognize the problem.

NGOs have plastered the capital city with billboards in an attempt to sensitize the predominately illiterate population about violence against legal. Drawings emphasize the messages: Rape is a crime. Rape leads to jail. Your woman is your friend, not your enemy - stop violence against women.

The awareness is increasing, but its hard to feel encouraged. Yesenia and Jeff visited a county jail and spoke with a man accused of rape. His defense: it wasn't rape, she had a boyfriend. Or in other words, she was not a virgin and therefore it couldn't have been rape.

There is a long way to go --- but if any journey deserves the hard fought battle, it is this one.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Gbarpolu: wake up call to a different world

Last weekend, four of us took a trip into the interior of Liberia to visit a traditional village called Nyaluwai. The one-night excursion stands out as the highlight of my summer, offering a glimpse into the rural reality of Liberia, its challenges, and the persons who live it.

Nyaluwai is, without question, the poorest, most isolated place I have ever seen. It is only accessible by foot: a short walk from the riverbed if you cross the river in a canoe, or a 11 hour walk from the capital city in the county. Given that our trip was 2 days and 1 night, we undoubtedly took the river route. Not to say that the drive to the river was an easy feat. With dirt roads turned to mud puddles during these rainy months, and bridges that I was concerned to even walk across, our arrival to the river village opposite Nyaluwai was questionable (see entry on accessing Gbarpolu County).

Yet, without a doubt, the takeaways from the experience far outweighed the travel consequences of a sore bum and the near heart attacks on rural roads. My mind and heart are still racing from the sights and reality, and for the first time all summer, I finally felt immersed in the reason I believe we must tirelessly dedicate ourselves to development.

This is humanity. The children are playful with beautiful smiles and the community is generously welcoming. Yet, comparing the standard of living for a woman in Nyaluwai to even a lower class woman in the United States is appalling. Given the technology, knowledge, and global communication at this stage in human history, there is no excuse for a woman to suffer in labor for 3 days before being carried in a hammock across a river and for 12 hours to see a trained midwife and deliver the dead baby. In an incredibly fertile land, why must women spend every hour of daylight in intense labor to farm, process, and cook one daily serving of rice for their families?

Even for the 4 of us who are dedicated to development, this trip was a wake up call. Gender disparities, constraints to educations, labor strains, malnutrition, traditional societies, the lasting effects of war, agricultural practices, subsistence living, democracy, access to health care, and community-led development - the insights were many and I know each of us continue to process and struggle with the challenges we saw and the warm welcome we experienced.

I will be posting a series of blogs reflecting on the weekend. I'm not sure that I can do the community and its citizens justice - but I will try. Their lessons were many and I am honored to be able to pass them along.

***For more information, definitely check out Rupert's blog. He has an incredible synapses of the development challenges and some of our personal takeaways from the experience in Nyaluai. Thanks Rupert!

Gbarpolu: The challenge of inaccessibility

Here are some photos of our journey to arrive at the village of Nyaluwai. The trip in the car consisted of a 2 hour drive on pot-holed pavement and 2 hours on an off-road path through the trees. 7 of us crammed into the SUV - 4 squeezed in the backseat with 2 grown men in the passenger seat. Not exactly comfortable, but it sure beat walking all day and night as most villagers would do to make it into town.

The trip was reminder of the dire need for infrastructure investment - not only for the horribly damaged roads of Monrovia, but also for the rural communities that will find it nearly impossible to move forward with education, health, and agriculture without the increased accessibility provided by bridges and a more reliable road network. Take for example the efforts to install a much needed water pump for drinking water: villagers carried the cement and supplies on their backs for nearly a day to get them to the Nyaluwai.

Canoes, pot-holes, and dilapidated bridges: adventurous for a weekend excursion... extremely constraining as a way of life.

Moses, Henry and Ernest (our guides and our driver) rebuilding a section of the bridge.

PHEW! Our 4-wheeler made it across the bridge, thanks to the unbelievable driving skills of Ernest. If you look closely, you will notice one of the planks breaking just behind the driver's side rear tire. Also, you can see the "no guns" sticker on the driver's side door, another reminder of the country's recent conflict.

The canoes that carried us across the St. Paul River from Bong County into Gbarpolu County - the final leg of the journey to reach, by far, the most inaccessible and isolated village I have ever been privileged to visit. The canoes are large, hollowed out tree trunks with rungs inserted for seats. They are paddled by one (extremely strong) man who uses a small, hand carved paddle (about 2-3 feet long) to maneuver across a river boasting quite a strong current. Impressive, to say the least.

Me, Molly, and Ernest riding across the river. Molly and I, always ready to inspire a laugh, are imitating a photo taken of Madam President Sirleaf canoing across the river into Guinea with the Presidents of Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Gbarbolu rice processing: a daily activity for Liberian women and girls (entry in progress)

Process used by women to remove the rice seeds from the stalks (threshing)... not exactly a combine.

Process used to pound the rice seed and break the husk off of the grain.

An incredibly challenging way to bounce the grain/husk mix attained by pounding in order to separate the rice grain from the husk. One wrong move and all your work is on the ground for the chickens!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Liberia at 160: Reclaiming the Future

This Thursday we took a trip to the city of Buchanan (a port city 90 miles outside of Monrovia) to join in the official national celebration of Independence Day. Highlights included a speech by the Independence Day Orator, who is selected by the President, and witnessing the President celebrate and dance with her supporters.

The President at the center of the dance party

The Orator for this year's Independence Day was Kimmie Weeks, a 26 year old advocate for children's rights in Liberia. Weeks fled Liberia at the age of 17 after attempts on his life by former President Charles Taylor for his advocacy work to publicize the government's use and training of child soldiers.

After addressing criticisms directed at the President for selecting someone so young, Weeks passionately proved that is not the years in the messenger, but the message of the words that makes a strong Orator. His speech focused on the need for all Liberians to contribute to development and called on President Sirleaf's Administration to focus on the future of its youth and children, ensuring their right to education and health care.

The room erupted in applause and yelling as he criticized the legislature's recent move to cut certain aspects of the national budget (including health) and redistribute budget funds into their own discretionary fund. In an environment where the newspapers have yet to bring much attention to this act of the legislature, it was quite exhilarating to hear it brought to the attention of the public, especially when it was directed at a room filled with members of the legislature.

Weeks's energy and dedication definitely gave me an inspirational jump start. In a country where every development issue is a serious one, the potential for Liberians to reclaim their future can often seem unreachable. Certainly the passion and skill of the "Iron Lady" President has been encouraging, but one woman cannot save a nation. After witnessing the determination and hearing the message of this 26 year old advocate, the possibility of transformation for Liberia seems a little more hopeful.

Happy 160th Liberia!

Yue Man and I at the ceremony

Celebrating Independence Day at the Ministry of Gender

Independence Day to Liberia is somewhat like the 4th of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas are to the United States. Its a day when government and businesses are closed, everyone gets together to celebrate with a family meal, and kids beg their parents for gifts. In a country where celebrations aren't all that frequent, the 26th of July was more than just a recognition of the country's 160th anniversary, it was a chance for Liberians to celebrate something.

One of my holiday highlights was witnessing the excitement among my co-workers at the Ministry of Gender. The Ministry gave an Independence Day gift of one bag of rice (market price of US$ 25) to each employee. Seeing every one's faces during the announcement of the rice giveaway was quite humbling. Their excitement and gratitude was genuine and overflowing.

For each of them, the rice meant the provision of one month of the staple food for their families. For many, the value of the rice was just short of their monthly salary of $30. In a country with unemployment rates at 85%, one might expect a great level of gratitude from the average Liberian upon the gift of a month's supply of rice. However, in many ways, it was shocking to see such appreciation spilling from those who have secure, formal employment - a sure sign that even the above-average Liberians still live on the margins of a minimal standard of living.

Beyond being another reminder of the harsh reality for most Liberians, I couldn't help but feel touched by the rice distribution. The money to purchase the rice came from staff contributions to a "general staff support" fund - collected during the (optional) Wednesday morning prayer service, just as a collection would be taken up at a church service. Those who have the means put in more; those with less put in what they can. The Minister then uses this money to give something back to the staff. Perhaps the most touching aspect of this process is that no one hesitates to contribute, and yet, they received the rice announcement with gratitude and surprise, rather than entitlement and expectation. Witnessing this event reminded me of the power of simple generosity. Now that's something for Liberians to celebrate.

Jallah, the nighttime security guard and daytime janitor for the Ministry of Gender, standing with the bags of rice.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Vibrant colors of Liberia's lapa

Lapa hanging from the rafters of a Lebanese-owned fabric store in the "waterside" district of Monrovia. Waterside, right along the coast, is the place to go for everything needed to make an African attire: lapa, lace, intricate embroidery, and tailors. Lapa is a word Liberians use to refer to both the fabric and the measurement of it - buying one lapa is the equivalent of buying 2 yards.

Who knew picking out an African dress would be such an adventure?! For the Western eye, walking into a fabric shop to pick out "lapa" is a visual treat: bright colors and endless patterns. After three dress-making trips, I still feel overwhelmed by the process and rely heavily on the opinions of Liberian friends for advice on the right colors, the right design for the selected lapa, and bargaining the right price.

Once you have selected your lapa (which is automatically sold to you in a 3 lapa = 6 yards quantity), the next step is to design. You can purchase "posters" which show off about 20 different African dresses, modeled by a nice curvaceous African woman. Using these designs as inspiration, the task is to select the neck line, embroidery design, sleeves, and skirt style. As time goes on, we are all getting slightly more adventurous - realizing that even if we are white Westerners, Liberian dresses don't look good unless you go all out.

The best part of the shopping experience has turned out to be my coworker Matilda. After a few weeks of admiring her fashion sense in our office, I finally stopped her and pleaded for help. Now she's become the "Waterside" tour guide for the entire group of interns. She has helped Molly, Yesenia, Yue Man, Zach, Jesse and Rupert manage the chaos of fabric vendors and successfully select and design our African wear.

But the real key is that Matilda connected us to the best-known-secret tailor in Liberia (nicknamed Five-o-Four)! We have overwhelmed him with orders after he successfully dressed Yesenia and I for the Cabinet Retreat. Amazingly it only takes a few measurements, a few days, and clothes come out better than we'd hoped and fitting like a glove. Pretty amazing given the conditions under which he works.

Sewing machines belonging to him and about 20 other young men line the sides of a back alley. The informal sewing industry in Liberia is heavily male-dominated. With no electricity, the tailors at this "shop" do all their work on old foot petal sewing machines. They are sheltered from the daily rain by sheet metal propped up by the roofs of the adjacent buildings. Each of them pay the owner of the alley to set up their sewing machine and do individual business.

Needless to say, a Saturday excursion to buy a Liberian outfit isn't exactly a trip to your local Gap. But the adventure is well worth it and by the time we leave Liberia, Matilda and Five-o-four will be well on their way to establishing a successful business as the Liberian Outfitters to the Westerners.

Molly, me, Matilda (the African dress designing master), J R (our trustworthy lapa judge who critiqued our fabric selections on a scale of 1 to 10), and Yue Man

Sunday, July 8, 2007

If ignorance is bliss, why drown yourself in harsh realities?

Terrifying, sickening, unbelievable, extremely interesting, challenging…

I’ve received quite a few reactions to the last blog posting on the statistics of women in the Liberia. To abandon ignorance and truly absorb this reality is startling and frankly, quite depressing. So, why do it?

A friend directed me to a blog posting about Molly and my reflections on Liberia. The author concludes his discussion about my compassionate technocrat posting by stating that it is easy to understand why persons like myself become disheartened, so to say, and take jobs to maximize financial security. Yes, on the surface, the discouragements certainly seem to outnumber the successes in this line of work. Confronting histories of corrupt, oppressive governments and unequal societies understandably drive well-intentioned people away from development policy work.

But perhaps we should be focused on understanding the opposite. Rather than sympathizing with those who abandon the challenge of development, how do we understand those who have an unshakeable devotion to it?

How do you live your life looking at the monstrous triangle of poverty, inequality, and war and harness the energy to challenge it?

This was nature of the first question I asked the 68-year-old President, known as the “Iron Lady”. After so many years working towards the development of Africa (serving positions in both the private and public sectors), what kept her going? What gave her the energy to lead a country challenged by reconciliation, corruption, extreme poverty and a collapsed economy?

She said came back to take the challenge of leading Liberia because she saw “the possibility for transformation.”

Madam President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Oh yes, we must remain hopeful. In the face of destruction and desperation, we cannot fall into the trap of despair. Easy to say, but slightly more difficult to do.

I’ll admit, I’m not overly optimistic about Liberia’s future, particularly in the short run. In fact, a thorough examination of any one barrier to development (infrastructure, job creation, reintegration of ex-combatants, low levels of education, the status of women, etc.) can be more daunting than thinking about the macro picture of the country (bad history but rich in natural resources). Considering the challenge, how much of a possibility is there? How do you look at the status of women in this country and find energy rather than despair?

Somewhere in the bottom of this mess, I agree with the President, there remains the possibility for transformation. Despite the tragedy – the broken villages, raped women, hungry children, scarred combatants – I still believe that an innate Good within humankind can never be destroyed. Women have not lost hope in their ability to rebuild this nation, fathers still sacrifice to send their children to school, and children smile acceptingly at the sight of a new face.

Sure, the statistics are staggering and the challenge is grand. Without doubt, my 3 months of work in Liberia’s Ministry of Gender will have minuscule to no effect on the status of women in this country. However, I wholeheartedly believe that no matter how discouraging the odds, work towards a more just society a Good in itself.

By harnessing this Goodness (however your faith and beliefs might define it), I believe we transform ourselves and hold the potential to transform society. Be it through our work as farmers, traders, technocrats, lawyers, activists, humanitarians, private sector developers, teachers or parents. Somehow we must harness energy from mere possibility of transforming our unequal world.

I look at the example of Liberia’s president. She’s no guarantee. But she certainly exemplifies “possibility”.

The value of that possible transformation, no matter how far off, gives me ample reason to abandon ignorance, stare harsh reality in its face, and critically think about what role I am called to play in the transformation.
Even if it is just a possibility.

Madam President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Friday, July 6, 2007

Observing the Cabinet Retreat

The Cabinet in action, while the interns focus in from the back row.

Last Friday, we received a warm welcome to observe the nine-hour Cabinet Retreat. (Sorry to disappoint, but there were no dramatic shouting matches or controversial decisions made.) The majority of the retreat focused on a review of Liberia's progress towards completing its deliverables in its Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy (iPRS). This is a two-year long comprehensive strategy divided into 4 pillars: Security, Economic Revitalization, Strengthening Governance and the Rule of Law, and Rehabilitating Infrastructure and Delivering Basic Services. Within these pillars there are hundreds of programs/activities that the Liberian government has committed to implement/accomplish. This is the guiding document for donors (other countries, The World Bank, United Nations, etc.) as they decide how to best support Liberia. In addition it serves as an accountability mechanism; next June, the donors will be checking on Liberia's performance in implementing its ambitious iPRS.

It was a long day of reports on progress in each pillar, things ranging from defining a National Defense Policy to completing artisan training for 500 women (the Ministry of Gender reported that training has been completed for 349 women - moving in the right direction). In any case, it was quite an interesting day witnessing the government's treatment of a tool (the PRS) designed by the World Bank to help countries plan their own development agenda.

A photo of the interns with Natty Davis, National Coordinator of the Liberia Reconstruction and Development Committee (LRDC). The LRDC coordinates many of the activities surrounding donors and the implementation of the iPRS.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Personalizing the reality of Liberia's gender statistics

Statistics about the situation of women in Liberia are few. After 14 years of civil conflict, the lack of data is a huge constraint for government and development partners alike. One of the ongoing priorities is to gather data to characterize the population and inform policy, especially as the country moves into the process of drafting its 5-year Poverty Reduction Strategy. Over the past week, I have been working with the Ministry of Gender to review and revise the nation's Gender Profile and Gender Needs Assessment, telling a story with what little information is available. I'm keeping my nerdy fingers crossed that the Demographic and Health Survey data will be out in July, as promised, so that I can do some data crunching to expand upon the data we have now (including violence prevalence rates, perceptions on HIV/AIDs, education attainment and women's health concerns). Below, I have attempted to pass along some of the harsh reality that the current reports contain.

Think of a room of 100 women/girls in your life.

I picture my mom, 2 grandmothers and 7 aunts. 17 girl cousins, my 2 high school best friends (aka sisters), my god-daughter. My 11 college roommates and 15 young women who participated in service trips, retreats and adventures with me at Boston College. My 32 female peers in the 2008 MPA/ID class at the Kennedy School and 4 faculty/staff who have influenced my studies throughout the years. 4 women who were my community in Laredo and 8 mentors from Casa de Misericordia Domestic Violence Shelter.

100 women. Who would be in your room?

Now, imagine that these 100 women live, not in the United States, but in Liberia. What would this mean?*

Women will average six children each and the entire room will mother 620 children. 97 of those babies will die before they reach the age of 5 years old. Pick 61 women who will watch at least one child die before it reached school age. About 25 women will experience this loss more than once. Luckily in my own randomized exercise, my mom was one of the 39 women who never had a child die. 4 of the 97 dead infants belonged to my friend Maggie.

Now select a group of 11 women and a group of 4. 11 women will deliver their children with the assistance of trained medical professionals; 4 women will die giving childbirth. My Granny Stanger, cousin Darci, roommate Regina and classmate Caroline died while giving birth (I’ll ignore the fact that my Granny’s death might have erased the existence of 10% of the room).

Separate nearly two-thirds of the room: 74 women in the room will be illiterate adults – unable to read newspapers, street signs, books or guides to proper health care. As a comparison, if the room were 100 men, half would be illiterate. In my simulation, 7 out of my 32 Kennedy School classmates are able to read and write their names. My Aunt Denise and my Grandma Dauenbaugh no longer share books with each other and my god-daughter will never be able to read her birthday cards.

Now add in a new assumption, the room of women are all from the urban area of Monrovia:
28 work as market vender/petty traders, 5 work in clerical positions, 3 are skilled laborers or work in manufacturing. Overall, 41 women are working and of these 33 are self-employed.

Now assume your network of women comes from rural areas:
65 women have access to land for farming, but only 7 women in the room own land that they farm. In fact, even though the law of inheritance changed in 2003 to grant wives the right to 1/3 of their husbands’ property (previously, they had no rights over his property), 28 women in the room believe that the law does not even allow them to own land. (32 have husbands who believe the same). This is all in spite of the fact that women in Liberia are collectively responsible for 60% of the total agricultural production of the country.

Final scenario, the 100 women in the room were forced to leave their homes or were directly affected by the 14-year civil conflict in Liberia:
Separate just over three-quarters of the room. These 77 women were raped. 13 women became pregnant as a result of rape. In my room it was my Mom, aunt Jodi, cousin Cassie, 4 friends from Boston College, 2 colleagues from Laredo, and 4 of my KSG classmates.
42 women were subjected to internal body cavity searches.
23 women suffer from permanent physical disfigurement
Pick out one woman in the room. My random sampling drew my college roommate Lizzie. She was forced to eat or sell pieces of a loved-one’s body. Imagine her telling you a story similar to one of these:

“The soldiers cut my husband’s head off after he witnessed powerlessly them raping me. After they cut him into pieces, they put the pieces in the pot and asked me to cook it. After cooking, they forced us to eat. I am not the way I was before.”


“My son was killed by a group of rebels and the body was cut into pieces and put into a wheelbarrow. They (rebels) gave it to me for sale. I did it because I was afraid to be cut to death.”

Only six women are free from physical/health consequences from the abuse they were subjected to during the war.*

Photo from a women's group formed to support women affected by the war.

Now imagine if this weren't your imagination. Imagine if this were your reality.

*I completed the following exercise by placing these 100 women in a spreadsheet and using random selection to apply the stats we have. Its not an academic exercise, but it has reflective value. I invite you to think through the exercise yourself. Even after pondering these reports for a few weeks now, sitting down to prepare this entry for the blog has been emotionally jarring.

*These statistics are taken from a World Health Organization survey completed in 2004 to assess the health needs of women who survived violence during the war. 412 women and girls were interviewed; 11.8% of the sample was under the age of 15. For those of you wondering about sample selection, the women for the survey were randomly selected from lists of women that were given to the study team by women leaders in communities and displacement camps. The results cannot be generalized to the entire Liberian population but are generally accepted as being reflective of the experience of women who were affected by the conflict.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The worlds of poverty and policy: Can compassionate be an adjective describing a technocrat*?

The second week was difficult. After having the time to set my feet on the ground and become acquainted with my surroundings, heaviness pushed back on my surreal introduction to Liberia and visit with the President. Of course, considering my immersion into a post-conflict country, a capacity-constrained office, government politics (in a developing country in Africa, none-the-less), and a birds-eye-view intern position, emotional drains were to be expected.

Last week was filled with many nighttime reflections pondering the two sides to the development issue: a clear need for smart policy and the necessity to address widespread desperation. Long-term economic and infrastructure improvements verse immediate social concerns. Use a million dollars to build roads that will transport food to and from rural areas or use it feed hungry people? Does a technocrat* have to separate herself from some of the immediate social needs in the country? Can a technocratic leader also be the compassionate answer to development? Will Liberia’s ex-combatants and jobless youth be patient enough for the realization of the President’s mission of transformation?

The stark contrast of a Saturday road trip to the Sierra Leone/Liberia border with the Sunday reception with the President penetrated my reflections. A roadside market of women with bright dresses and unfriendly, blank stares at the foreign intrusion - a welcoming circle of Liberia’s President, her closest friends, and various Cabinet members inviting us to analyze and assist to our maximum capacity. Young men spinning around on motorbikes that were most probably purchased with the money the UN gave them to turn in their weapons (disarm) – an outside gazebo of men and women, many of whom spent the war years in the United States and returned in 2005 to support President Sirleaf in her run for the presidency. A dozen UN checkpoints on the two-hour drive enforcing the “veil of peace” in Liberia’s interior – the head of state who earned the vote of confidence to reunite her country and establish a state of security. Children’s innocence, curiosity and smiles that spark reminders of a common human nature - the interactions, people and rhetoric that remind you of the unavoidable political nature of government.

How will this government pull everything together? How could anyone be expected to do so?

Madam President is doing many things right. The situation is complex, the challenges extraordinary, and the President oozes a stick-it-out-for-the-long-haul mentality. In fact, her sharp focus on the job before her, took me slightly by surprise. The woman means business – efficiency, analysis, getting the right data, building government capacity, playing the right cards for international donor support, balancing the budget, putting a hard fist down on corruption, extracting the maximum potential – even on a Sunday evening, after a soccer game, while sitting in a rocking chair welcoming seven Harvard interns to her country.

This is not to say that the President does not understand her people or that she is not working to genuinely improve the lives of Liberians. But, I kept wondering to myself – does being the President automatically mean that you can’t truly know the people, the reality? How in touch can you be? I’m beginning to settle into the irony of how far removed one may need to be from the oppressed in order to have the power to systematically affect their lives. I wouldn’t be studying development economics if I didn’t firmly believe that the technical sciences are viable means towards eliminating human suffering. But, as Molly and I have pondered often this past week, can you be a sharp technocrat without losing your compassion and grounded, humble connection to the poor?

After a week of struggle, I’m convinced we can. Now I’m moving on to reflecting on how.

(Children fascinated by the 2 white ladies who were hanging out on the Liberian side of the border. Note, I have re-discovered that hand games are the best ice breaker and smile maker for kids! Check out Molly's blog entry for a dead-on reflection on and description of the day.)

*If you have not had the pain of being consumed by policy language, a technocrat is defined as “a technical expert, especially one in a managerial or administrative position.” Basically, the economist/ World Bank, UN employee/ academic turned policy maker and administrator.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Weekend rejuvenation: a view into the lighter side of my summer

This past weekend was wonderful, complete with 2 trips to the beach, a Sex and the City DVD marathon, my first Sunday morning mass and a Saturday night cookout! After the long week, it was quite nice to kick back, stay out of the office and away from the laptop, and take the much-needed time for self-rejuvenation.

Thinkers Beach is a pretty desolate beach property scattered with a few white plastic chairs and tables for the international crowd. Nothing fancy compared to beach destinations around the world, but it is a resort get-away compared to the rest of Monrovia’s garbage-strewn sea shores. I relished the two afternoons of Frisbee throwing, book reading, and sun soaking - especially because the days are getting rainier as we head into July.

(Zach the grill master)

Perhaps the biggest treat of the weekend was our good-ole American cookout, inspired by Zach and Jeff. During the week, we have a woman cook our dinners, which are mostly Liberian-inspired with a few adaptations. By Liberian food, I mean lots and lots of fish (see below). She is a lifesaver because without her we’d be eating even more peanut butter and pita than we already do (lunch everyday at the office).

Given the fact that we don’t have electricity until 6:30 at night, and our stovetop takes about an hour to boil water, cooking for ourselves becomes an all night affair. But this weekend, the boys grabbed the Liberian coal grill, we splurged at the Western grocery store, and we feasted on hamburgers, hot dogs, baked beans and Pringles. Food therapy at its finest!

Liberian dinners: grilled fish prepared by Sonnie, usually served with rice and a fruit desert of bananas, fried plantains, gigantic avocados, or oranges

Friday, June 22, 2007

Thanks for the comments!!!

It is wonderful (and quite humbling) to see that people are actually checking in on the site and reading the entries! Some of the comments have such wonderful questions, and I definitely want to continue the conversations. I've started responding to comments with an additional comment of my own. I will try to get to as many as I can, but internet time is short and sacred, so I'll see how far I can get.

Thanks again for all the support, kind words, and concern. Your interest in my experience is extremely motivating!

"Who you are is God's gift to you. What you do is your gift to God." - Danish proverb

Monday, June 18, 2007

Meeting Madam President: harnessing the possibility of transformation

Here are some pictures of our Sunday night event with the President (in her soccer fan attire). The Minister of Gender is in the white dress . More details and reflections to come soon...

Meet the interns...

Zach, Yesenia, Rupert, Yue Man, Molly, Emily, Jesse

Here is the complete team of interns, all smiles after Madam President urged our respective Ministers to challenge us with Liberia's toughest issues, mentioning that we should leave Liberia exhausted.

(***Notice the ladies' self-designed African dresses for the occasion. I must admit they are quite simple compared to the bright colors and patterns flaunted by most women in Liberia, but don't worry, there are more African dresses to be made this summer)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Birthday celebration

Here is a huge shout out for friends and fancy treats on birthdays!!!

The above is "Team Liberia" from the Baptist Compound (6 Harvard Interns + 1 adoptee, Jeff, a law student from Columbia who is interning with the American Bar Association and living with us). We had just finished our luxurious dinner at one of the few non-Liberian eateries in town. Lebanese food, complete with beef and french fries, was quite the treat compared to the typical Liberian dinner of fish and rice. Plus, the boys made me taller than Molly in this picture - how's that for special treatment! (Even if I am a little crooked)

Other birthday highlights included a lunchtime shopping trip to pick out fabric and dress designs for our first African dresses (quite an adventure!!!), opening my new "I Love Liberia" T-shirt, and finding lots of birthday love in my in-box.

Thanks to everyone, especially "Team Liberia", for making it such a special day!

Video clip!!!!! (and what I'm working on in the Ministry)

I've added the International Rescue Committee's Mother's Day Video Clip to the blog. It showcases men and women's action groups that are using drama and song to promote communities free of sexual exploitation and gender-based violence. It gives a great example of the widespread problem of sexual exploitation and a glimpse into Liberia's people and language. I wish that the sub-titles for Liberia's "Simple English" came in real life, but unfortunately they don't. It’s getting easier for me to understand people, but it is definitely a challenge sometimes!

I figure something as exciting and visual as a video is a good opportunity to talk about something not-so-visually-stimulating like my exact assignment in the Ministry. The Ministry of Gender has a Gender-Based Violence Secretariat. This Secretariat leads the nation's Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Task Force, made up of representatives from other ministries, the police force, lots of ngos, and health facilities. Together, the task force is working to implement a 5 year National Plan to Prevent and Manage Gender-Based Violence. International Rescue Committee, working with the action groups in the video, is a strong voice in the mission, particularly when it comes to spreading the message to communities and supporting healthy life styles.

Much of my work this summer will center around this task force. First, I am designing the system that will be used for monitoring and evaluating the national Plan of Action. This will include analyzing monthly reports from all those in the country who encounter survivors of violence (For example, the police and the health ministry are now able to transmit monthly reports to our office about their GBV cases.) A team from the Secretariat will head out to four counties next week to do the baseline assessment of indicators such as judges', prosecutors', and police's knowledge of the laws and willingness to respond to GBV cases. The idea is that over the course of the next five years, there should be dramatic improvements in the management of GBV cases. If all goes well, the system and indicators we set up will show that it either happens or doesn’t. Secondly, I will be developing a one-year plan of action for the Ministry, based off of the five-year objectives, so that they can prioritize projects and have a clear focus for their GBV strategy in the next year.

So, as of now, my exciting desk job isn't providing much for stimulating video footage, but check out the IDC clip for a feel into the true spirit of what many, myself included, are trying to accomplish in Liberia!


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

More Than a Few Good Men

The overall fight for gender equality, particularly the battles to eliminate violence against women, requires more than just the efforts of strong women. It requires a few good men, as well. Complete protection for women will never exist unless an entire society feels that every person deserves to live violently free.

I have been lucky enough to have strong and supportive men in my life and I don’t think that trend will change here. Liberia, and particularly the Gender Based Violence Secretariat in my office, includes more than a few good men working towards an equal, violent free society for all. In fact, more than half my office is made up of men – and let me say that my discussions with them have shown that they truly care about the future of their country!

Rape against children, men and women is not just a problem for women to be concerned with. So all you great men out there, don’t turn your head. We need and appreciate you being with us!

Monday, June 11, 2007

KSG Delegation joins UN Drive

I live with six other students from the Kennedy School who are working with various government ministries and offices (Finance, Health, Agriculture, Office of the President). The diversity of our assignments provides for quite engaging discussions over the dinner table, that is until we digress into deep conversations on our love and hate of Oprah.

A driver transports us to and from work everyday. There are a few main drivable streets in Monrovia, and they are packed with yellow taxis and an unending number of UN and non-profit SUVs. Even more congested than Monrovia’s main drag, UN Drive, are the “shared” taxis, which squash in as many people as possible (think of the ultimate Where’s Waldo challenge within the back of a yellow taxi). For a country that doesn’t have a public transportation system, the overcrowding of taxis is a positive sign. People are moving – they are getting things done and out on the streets. The demand for transport is high and rising; hopefully the appropriate infrastructure will come soon.

The ride to work showcases government offices, destroyed buildings that will be the future homes of government offices (thanks to the support of the Chinese), every Christian church imaginable, and an unbelievable number of acronym “ex-patriot” institutions. You name it, its here: UN, UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA, UN[fill in other letters here], IMF, WB, WHO, CRS, USAID, MERLIN, CCF, IRC, etc. The international presence, made apparent by marked vehicles and buildings, is overwhelming.

The drive down UN Drive raises questions as to the long-term effects of such an international presence: Is Liberia facing a new form of colonialism by international institutions, donors, and non-profits? Would Liberia face a chance at establishing long-lasting peace without such a strong UN presence? Are international institutions assisting in a manner that will build Liberia’s capacity, or are they creating dependencies that will result in unsustainable progress?

These questions will undoubtedly inspire lots of reflection during my time here. Of one thing I am certain: Liberia is rebuilding and the internationals here are taking notice.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Monrovia: the view from above

Pictures of Monrovia from the top of the Ducor Palace Hotel:
1. the neighborhood of West Point
the bridge that collapsed one month ago

This morning (Sat) we drove to the Ducor Palace Hotel, the first hotel in Monrovia and a luxurious retreat for foreigners visiting Monrovia. Peaked on a hill near the coastline, the hotel's pool offers a splendid view of fishing boats and waves crashing on the sand shoreline. Or, at least it once did.

During the conflict, it was abandoned by all persons with resources and inhabited by Liberians fleeing from their burning villages and pillaged homes. Since the conflict's end, refugees transformed the stripped-down luxury hotel into a cement structure comprised of over 150 one-room residences. One month ago, the government evacuated all squatters via police force. Under the support of Libya, renovations of the building will begin in one month.

Security forces, guarding the hotel from re-occupation of squatters, granted our "guests of the president” delegation a trip to the top floor. After climbing eight flights of stairs through the wet, dilapidated structure, we stepped onto the balcony to witness the best view of Monrovia – green trees and blue water, sand beaches and kids playing soccer, bustling streets and crowded slums, the fallen bridge and abandoned buildings.

I can’t help but feel uncomfortable by the privilege I have to look down on the capital city and marvel at its crumbled infrastructure and gorgeous shorelines. Something about the view from above makes the city’s destruction and challenges all the more real, yet extremely far away.

In many aspects, my lens into the life of Liberia’s women is no more than a “view from above” – statistics, written accounts, and encounters from behind the barrier of my high heels, white skin, American English, and privileged affiliation.

I know I won’t make it down to ground zero; just as the guards keep the squatters out of the hotel, life’s circumstances prevent me from ever truly knowing what it takes to live after surviving unspeakable atrocities. Yet, I have breached the surface of the view before me, and I look forwarded to witnessing all that I can: broken bridges and blue waters, alike.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Rape: "by far the most serious crime committed against women and girls in Liberia"

Today, the UN urged the inclusion of women in Liberia's reconstruction, particularly emphasizing the need for cooperative efforts to address the crime of rape. Check out the story here on the UN news page.

It's easy to fall sick, but...

"It's easy to fall sick, but it takes time to heal."
- Comfort, Ministry of Gender

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Baptist Compound, home sweet electrified home

Cement walls and 24-hour security guards secure the compound; it is a “safe” place for Baptist missionaries, seminarians, and other international non-Baptists to stay while in Monrovia. Generators power the compound from 7:00 pm – 3:00 am and 5:00 am – 9:00 am and we actually have running (cold) water for showers, flushing toilets, and cooking. Electricity is a luxury good in Liberia and only recently has the country been able to begin re-electrifying the capital to move beyond its reliance on generators. (Our Ministry runs on a generator that turns on after I arrive at work and shuts off before I leave. Overcoming constraints to getting the work done – definitely a reappearing theme here).

Leave it to the women to clean up.

"After a meal, the men leave the table and play cards, while the women clean up and do the dishes. It is the same with Liberia's current situation. After the war, it is the women who will clean up the mess."
-Alomiza Ennos, Women's Legislative Caucus

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

“VIP” Arrival

I arrived safely in Monrovia yesterday in a plane full of Liberian-Americans, many of who were returning to the country for the first time since the war in order to visit family and friends they left behind. Slightly dazed from the two-day trip, the fact that I have arrived in Africa floats around my head but fails to sink in.
Greeted on the runway by a gentlemen holding up my name, I was immediately whisked off to the “VIP” room of the airport. Amongst parliamentarians and legitimate VIPs, I was introduced as a “guest of the president”. It certainly felt as though I had entered someone else's life! I thought that the arrival would make things all the more real, but the elaborate welcome made it feel a little more like a dream. I am here, developing a policy to benefit women and their country. And as trite as it sounds, I can't help but think... dreams do come true.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Preparations: Humbled by the resilience of Liberia's women

As I prepare for my time in Liberia this summer, I keep going back to why I was drawn to Liberia in the first place: the extraordinary effort of women who have challenged societal norms and shattered barriers to enact change and rebuild their country. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, first female president of Africa, being the primary example.

Three years ago I remember a friend kindly suggesting to me that Africa might personally destroy me. As an independent young North American, I had been deeply affected by women's afflictions and struggles while I studied in El Salvador. The experience led me to work with women survivors of domestic violence on the US/Mexico border after graduation, and it continues to motivate my development studies today. I remember this comment vividly, because what he said was quite true. At that point in time, confronting the brutal rape, social stigmatization, health crises and economic challenges facing women in Africa may very well have infuriated me to the point of despair.

Now I head to Liberia to support the country's work to enact a national plan to address gender-based violence. In a country where 90.8% of surveyed adult women suffered from sexual assault during or before its 14 year conflict, how will I keep faith? Why am I going?

The tenacity, courage and drive of the nation's women inspires me. They push forward in the frontlines of politics and in the trenches of communities. They love and they hope and they challenge. Their stories and gentle strength carry me to Liberia this summer.

On the left is Swanee Hunt, director of Harvard's WAPPP and Chairwomen of the Initiative for Inclusive Security, sitting with Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia, and the Honorable Vabah Gayflor, Liberian Minister of Gender and Development. For a great introduction to the enthusiasm surrounding Liberia, check out Hunt's op-ed on President Johnson-Sirleaf.