Wednesday, August 27, 2008

All Star Line Up!

Bring these women together and what do you think they would discuss?

Well...its definitely not who did their hair and what outfit they are wearing (although President Sirleaf does always look quite fabulous)!

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
President of Liberia

Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul
German Development Minister

Henrietta Holsman Fore

Administrator, U.S. Agency for International
Development and Director of United States
Foreign Assistance

Antoinette Sayeh
Finance Minister of Liberia

Ellen Margrethe Loj
Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General

This was the all star line up at the 2008 Liberia Poverty Reduction Forum at which I had the great honour of accompanying the Liberian Delegation. There was an impressive representation by women leaders working in development, each of whom presented an inspirational message which acknowledged the great strides made by the Government of Liberia and a strong belief in the progress which is yet to be acheived.

During the Forum, I did not have much time to fully absorb the position I found myself in. Amongst other responsibilities I worked on negotiating and drafting the communique and press release on behalf of the Government of Liberia. I worked closely with the German Government, who were kindly hosting the event, the World Bank and the UN. The work during the conference was incredibly pressurised but also very rewarding. A significant outcome of the Forum was the pledging of $250-300 million to Liberia. It also provided the opportunity for an open and frank discussion about the implementation challenges ahead as Liberia presses forward on its reform process.

Upon my return to Liberia, and now London, I have found it difficult to fully encapsulate my experience. The build up and the opportunity to participation in the Forum in Berlin was a definite highlight. Working closely with Finance Minister Sayeh provided me with a wealth of insight into the challenges she faces. My experience was defintley heightened by the open environment in which I was able to work. I also learnt an immense amount from her approach to working with others and building effective coalitions. Above all, I very much appreciated the opportunity to contribute to the work of Minister Sayeh.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Guest Blog: LET Allows Girls and Women to Soar

by Anna Myles-Primakoff
One of the great things about the summer has been the opportunity to find out about the work of other interns in Liberia. So this week I have invited the fabulous Anna Myles-Primakoff, working in the Ministry of Education, to post an article she has written about the Liberia Education Trust.

“All the children I meet, when I ask what they want most, say, ‘I want an education.’ We must not betray their trust.”
- President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Restoring the education system of Liberia and providing education to more children is essential to Liberia’s recovery. Furthermore, it is clear without immediate action and innovative strategies, the children of Liberia will continue to be denied the education they want and need. The Liberian Education Trust (LET), a Liberian NGO that works closely with both local NGOs and the Government of Liberia, seeks to provide strategies and action to rapidly and effectively rebuild the Liberian education system.

Inspired by President Johnson Sirleaf’s call to increase outside support for the education sector, LET was established in December 2005. Its unique structure and strong leadership has led to its rapid recognition as a leading Liberian NGO. LET has two branches, LET-USA, based in Washington, D.C., and LET-Monrovia, based in Liberia’s capital. Dr. Evelyn Kandakai, chair of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) and the former Minister of Education, leads LET-Monrovia. LET-USA is primarily responsible for fundraising, and provides resources for LET-Monrovia to administer LET’s grants and scholarships. LET currently operates in all 15 Liberian counties, with a recently expanded presence in the southeastern region made possible by a grant from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

LET began with three clear goals: construct or rehabilitate at least 50 schools; train at least 500 new teachers; and provide at least 5,000 scholarships to those most in need. So far, LET has constructed or rehabilitated 21 schools, provided over 5,000 scholarships, and provided numeracy and literacy courses for 1,200 market women.

At the heart of LET’s operations are the girls’ scholarship programs, which have inspired girls to dream of exciting futures. Many of LET’s scholarship recipients are old for their grade, due to their schooling being interrupted by the war, and a LET scholarship is a way for them to regain some of what was lost. A good example is 19-year-old Bettina Yain, a tenth grade student at Gray D. Allison School in Monrovia. “Because we don’t have many doctors in the country, I choose to be a medical doctor to help my country, relatives and friends,” Yain explains. She receives a scholarship from LET that covers her school and exam fees, and pays for her uniforms and books. Without LET, she would not have been able to continue with school at all, as no one in her family could afford to send her.

Yain’s story is similar to that of many girls receiving scholarships from LET. Asking each student her future plans reveals extraordinary motivation and desire to achieve, even in professions traditionally held by men. According to Pehmie Gbonah, another tenth grade scholarship student, “LET is educating us to be good leaders for our country.” Gbonah cites the lack of female engineers in Liberia when describing her desire to study engineering at university after she graduates.

Providing girls with female teachers and role models is also crucial for girls’ education. For women studying to become teachers, LET provides scholarships to cover all costs associated with schooling. According to Professor Euphemia K. Abdullah, Dean of the William V.S. Tubman Teachers College at the University of Liberia (UL), where 101 undergraduates studying to become teachers and eleven students studying education in graduate school at the University of Liberia receive funding from LET, the scholarships also boost the morale of the students training to become teachers. This is especially important as strong morale prepares teachers to leave for rural areas to teach under challenging conditions.

In addition to scholarships, LET provides grants to programs that teach basic literacy and numeracy skills to market women. By better equipping these women to conduct trade, LET enables them to provide for their families. LET also provides grants for school construction to the Liberian Agency for Community Empowerment (LACE), whose activities are concentrated in rural areas, particularly those most affected by the war. Committees to supervise construction projects are drawn from surrounding communities, which also contribute land, labor and some construction materials, fostering a sense of ownership and care.

Ultimately, LET can be viewed as a model for how to channel funds to ensure that they reach those who need them most while simultaneously boosting national capacity. Dr. Kandakai stresses the importance of LET’s mission, not just for the individuals it seeks to help, but also for the country’s development. “If girls and women are going to get out of a rut, in a large way it will be education that empowers them. It is important not only for them, it will also change the development story of Liberia.”

Friday, July 18, 2008

My pitch to the Lonely Planet Guide....

So it is time to confess- the real reason I came to Liberia was to travel around and write about the next hot spot on the backpacker trail. I would get picked up by Lonely Planet as a travel writer and spend the next few years wondering from deserted beach to untouched rainforest.

So before the rainy season really kicked in we planned a trip out to Robertsport. The three hour journey was pretty smooth as we were following in the footsteps of the President who had recently held a Cabinet retreat there. It was great to get out of the city and see some of the rural areas.

Robertsport, the capital of Grand Cape Mount County, is a small town of around 4,000 people. We stayed in luxurious tents on the beach with a captivating view of the ocean. They had beds, lights and even a mini fridge! My days in the Ministry of Finance had been keeping me very busy so I welcomed the chance to kick back and relax for a couple of days.

While the respite from the bustle of Monrovia was welcome, it was difficult to ignore the impact of the war. Our tents backed onto the shell of building which once used to be a luxurious hotel and, other than our lodgings, there seemed to be little reconstruction activity. It was like a ghost town which had literally stopped.

We took the opportunity to visit the lady charged with jump-starting the local economy- the Superintendent of the County. She was a formidable lady who returned to Liberia from the US to help rebuild the country. It was the first time I heard such a personal story which described life in Liberia before and during the war. Families with a reasonable level of wealth and education left in their droves and anything left behind was looted. She emphasised the important role that Liberians abroad had to play in the reconstruction effort- but it was difficult to attract them to rural areas with few amenities. Tents on the beach- as luxurious as they may be- are not quite sufficient.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Follow the yellow brick road.....

At work much of my efforts have been geared towards preparations for the Liberia Poverty Reduction Forum, 2008 in Berlin. At the Forum the government will present the first full Poverty Reduction Strategy to Liberia's international partners, take stock of the progress made and discuss future challenges. In a nutshell the objective is to seek endorsement of the government's priorities so that partners strengthen and align their support around the government's agenda.

A key priority of the Forum is to highlight the importance of rebuilding infrastructure, especially roads. By the end of the war only 6 per cent of the limited road network was paved and the entire water distribution network, sanitation system and electricity grid were completely destroyed. There was no piped water or electricity, except for private generators, anywhere in the country for 15 years.

Investment in infrastructure fits into the classic 'big push' era of development polices. If you subscribe to the poverty trap literature, then by financing infrastructure, and more specifically, building roads, productive demand will follow. Farmers will be connected to markets, exports will become more competitive and the rural poor will have greater economic opportunities. The theory can be compelling for some, but there are countless numbers of 'white elephant' project, roads to nowhere and lack of maintenance. Besides, it can be argued that Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world, it doesn't have much of anything. It is possible to create a 'laundry list' of almost everything which needs to be rebuilt. Why focus on physical infrastructure when provision of social services are so scarce?

What the government will be emphasising at the Forum is that rebuilding infrastructure, especially roads, is at the centre of all of the government's major objectives. In particular, by connecting the country it will contribute towards economic revitalization, increase access to health and education, consolidate peace and security and facilitate inclusion and equity. The longer-term benefits are supplemented by the immediate benefits of job creation and provide people with tangible results of the governments efforts. Moreover, during the extensive nationwide consultation process, people consistently named roads as a priority. With limited resources and capacity the government must enforce some prioritisation and respond to the population.

So the grand vision is in place and the Minister of Finance has been leading the effort to take this message to donors in Berlin. In support of this, the key areas that I have been working on are the presentations to be given by the Finance Minister, the communique which will capture the outcome of the Forum and the press release. My work has provided me with the opportunity to work closely with the Minister and begin to understand the complex relationship with donors. The Government is clearly showing leadership in setting the agenda, the challenge is to bring donors together to support implementation.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Post-conflict beaching

When packing for my internship, I insisted on taking beachwear. But each time I mentioned the possibility of going to the beach or a 'city break' to one of the counties, I was reminded that I was going to Liberia- a country whose war ended just 5 years earlier and where only 7 per cent of the roads were paved. I politely nodded and agreed but then packed another pair of sunglasses and some trashy celebrity magazines.

It turned out I wasn't the only one banking on some beach time and so on the first weekend in Liberia a few of us interns called our friendly neighbourhood taxi driver, Dolo, and headed to the beach just twenty minutes away. Now, I wasn't expected a tropical paradise and that certainly wasn't what we got. As we arrived, the sky turned an angry grey and we took note the sign warning against going into the ocean due to the strong current. But it was still warm and refreshing to be by the sea, so we set up our towels in a quiet spot ( there was no one else there) in front of some abandoned shacks and settled down to a bit of reading. After a short while, in the distance, we saw a group of fifteen young lads heading our way- wielding large machetes.

So....I was well nervous as they approached and was reminded of all the gruesome acts of violence that were committed during the war. Suddenly, working on my tan didn't seem like it was worth it.....maybe I should have listened to the words of caution. As they drew closer, they pulled out a pig's head from a sack, showed it to us, smiled, and then carried on walking by.

It was random.

But we survived.

So the following weekend we planned a trip out to Robertsport, a two hour drive north along the coast, towards Sierra Leone.......

Monday, June 30, 2008


I was not looking forward to my first real day of work, in my first real job after I graduated from university. I turned up, drenched by the rain which was unrelentingly attempting to erode (my tan and) memory of my fabulouso holiday to Thailand just a week earlier. I still remember the awkwardness of my uncomfortable suit that is now buried at the bottom of my wardrobe.

My job- assistant economist in the fiscal policy unit at HM Treasury in the UK. To be honest I didn't really appreciate what that really meant or what I was supposed to do. I spent my first few weeks reading (and googling) and spent an unfathomable amount of time writing a speech on public finance.

Fast forward almost four years and the surroundings of my corner desk with a view of the courtyard, speedy internet connection and comfy chair have morphed into the reality that is the Ministry of Finance, Broad Street, Monrovia. (I've added couple of pictures of my walk into work in Westminster, London.)

This is my new view. To be fair, the Ministry of Finance sounds like a semi-paradise compared with the horror stories of ministries where my housemates are interning. In the Ministry of Education for example, the electricity is only switched on when the Minister is in office and the office is shared with a family of mice!

So on my (second) first day, I turn up, drenched by the rain (again) and tasked with writing a speech for the Finance Minister, on challenges for public financial management in Liberia. This time, the context is not about how to improve the current system but how to create an efficient, transparent means of managing and accounting for money in the government. As with many other areas in Liberia- the challenge is to establish, from a rudimentary base, a new way of working.

This is a daunting task since what we study and learn about is best practice and latest developments. I could provide an extensive analysis of fiscal policy and its optimal design. But given the limited development before the war, and the destruction which followed, focusing on the end goal of what is to be created provides little guidance as to what should be done now. What is required in Liberia, where there is so little, is a system which provides the sufficient level of functionality in the short term, while also forming a solid foundation from which progress can then be built upon. The challenge is to create find the optimal path and sequencing to make progress towards the end goal.

In the Ministry of Finance, Minister Sayeh has made an incredible amount of progress in this direction during her two and a half year tenure. A symbol of this success is the unprecedented speed with which the country is achieving debt relief. Under the debt relief process, the end goal is achieved by successfully implementing incremental reform to public financial management and therefore provides a useful roadmap to focus the efforts of the Ministry of Finance on a month to month basis. There is still much to be done, and while the end goal may seem in the distant future, it is a privilege to be part of the journey.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Madame President, Her Majesty the Queen and Me!

Last week was surreal to say the least. I was invited to the German Compound, in Monrovia, where President Sirleaf-Johnson raised a toast to 82nd birthday of Her Majesty the Queen.

Admist the cocktails and Liberian band playing the British national anthem there was much talk about the impressive leadership of President Sirleaf-Johnson. As the first female head of state of an African country she has attracted many strong supporters. She has inspired the country to look forward while maintaining the fragile peace which has been in place since 2003.

A fellow intern had the opportunity to see the President in action as she responded to a protest outside the Ministry of Justice. Tensions had been rising in one of the counties where a group of labourers were killed in a dispute over land. The protest in Monrovia was calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. As fears of mob violence began to take hold, the sound of the President's motorcade could be heard in the distance. As the President stepped out of car the crowd fell quiet and listened attentively to her call for patience and calm. The crowd took heed and dispersed. That was all it took!

The fact that the President had to respond at such a micro level is indicative of the fragile nature of peace in the country but also the lack of means of communication. It also demonstrated the impressive command she wields over the people of Liberia. The experience highlighted that there seems to be a lot resting in the hands of just one person - without her the stability of the country is in serious jeopardy.