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!

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.