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!

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.