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.


Regina Lauricella said...

Em – I read your most recent questioning with great apprehension: “Can you be a sharp technocrat without losing your compassion and grounded, humble connection to the poor?”
Upon reading your final thought: “After a week of struggle, I’m convinced we can,” I was relieved to find that you answered your question affirmatively.
As you search for how to be this compassionate agent of systematic change, keep in sight the fact that compassion and the recognition of human connectedness are the most valuable tools in being an effective technocrat.
Despite my apprehension, I am grateful for the foresight you possess in recognizing the realities in being a well-educated, powerful woman in society… Keep on asking the hard questions!

Love and Prayers,

Molly Kinder said...

oh my god, emily -- you are unbelievable. honestly, i didn't think anything could surpass your incisive reflections in the wee hours of the night as we try to make sense of our head and our hearts out here in monrovia....until i read this blog entry and realized your writing is just as smashing! you've managed to convey the very deep complexity of this issue with such grace and thoughfulness, and your hopeful ending has even made me a believer.

i'm pleased (and relieved!) to that my interaction yesterday in the meeting with the president has massively restored my faith in the necessity of hard-nosed, technical expertise at the very top. she was on fire yesterday and dazzled me with her brilliance and leadership. and yet how this can be married with a sensitive understanding of the realities on the ground and a compassion derived not only from priveleged benevolence but also personal connection is still the million dollar question. in the meantime, i could not possibly feel any more grateful to witness your earnest and passionate quest for the answer.

thank god the world (and team liberia!) has people like emily stanger:).

Mauricio Santoro said...

Dear Emily,

I arrived here following links from Molly and Dani Rodrik and I liked very much your blog and your discussion.

Actually, we are in similiar positions, because I am finishing my PhD in Political Science. I work for a Brazilian Human Rights´ NGO and I plan to be a civil servant (i.e., a technocrat) in my country.

I often wonder how my field experience in Latin America and Africa has shaped my view of the world and I think the answer is that is has changed so many things that I can´t even imagine how I would think/feel/write if my life had been different.

In Brazil there are lots of technocrats who work in a nice office, earn a good salary and don´t have the slightest idea of what´s going on in the streets of the country. I suppose it is more or less the same everywhere.

Best regards