Friday, November 26, 2010

Effects of War

Civil wars are not created equal. When you hear about different African countries recovering from civil wars, the degree of healing varies. Liberia makes Cote d’Ivoire look like a Sunday warm-up. Nearly everyone you talk to here has been affected by the war, usually directly and severely. Joseph (on the left), who I had lunch with one day, had just two weeks ago returned from a refugee camp in Ghana after being there for seven years. In his room, I saw his few personal items still half unpacked. He recalled back to 2003 when, with the war closing in on him and his family, they spent their last $200 to pay for a motor canoe to flee the country. After a less than fun week of vomiting, eating and drinking almost nothing, and relieving oneself in front of everyone (50 people packed onto a small canoe), they landed in Ghana. Seven years of living in a refugee camp and he was forced to come back when the school at which he was working in Ghana was cutting staff and he couldn’t get a ticket to the U.S. It’s hard not to run into someone who doesn’t have a similar story.

His brother Emmanuel (to the right of me in the picture) was currently in university getting his B.A. He is 30 years old. On average most people I met were years behind their grade level, due to the schools shutting down in most areas during the war – 12 year-olds in 1st grade, 20 year-olds in 5th grade, etc. I had the chance to visit the University of Liberia for the day, arguably the country’s best university. The teaching was, in my opinion, pretty subpar, though the professors may not have been at fault. It seemed like they were reading a lot of definitions for the students to copy down, something they should have covered in their preparation. But then I found out that books were too expensive for the majority of students to purchase. One of the interesting things I saw was that they were covering indifferent curves in their economics classes; granted it was something I learned in my first year at Vanderbilt while they were just getting to it as juniors, but they were covering it nonetheless. Now that schools are back open, the classes are heaving. The classes I saw were spilling out into the pathways, and students searched for anywhere to sit, while those less lucky had to stand for the lectures. Large populations of students are pressed into a limited number of schools – roughly 70% of schools were damaged or destroyed during the war, and 35%, of the whole population has never attended school, according to the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper. Until education improves, it’s unlikely that many of the top jobs in these big MNC’s like BHP Billiton will be able to go to Liberians.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Liberia: The Other Lone Star State

After an epic two-day overland trip involving motorcycles through the bush, creaking minibuses aboard which I garnered the name “Obama”, sleeping in a village at the border, and over 20 police checkpoints (and 4 forced bribes on the Cote d’Ivoire side), I found myself in Monrovia. If the capital city sounds vaguely presidential, it’s because Liberia is one of only two African countries with American ties (the other being Ethiopia).

Liberia had been on my hit list for a while because of its US connections, but more due to its being a reconstruction economy. Ranked 162 of 169 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index, Liberia is a country starting from scratch. Two brutal civil wars in 1989 and 1999 (to be detailed in a following post), which basically spanned from 1989 until 2004, left over 200,000 dead and the country’s infrastructure in shambles (the Guinness brewery, which I toured, was left alone, unsurprisingly!). When I told a US Foreign Service Officer that I was interested in development and wanted to meet USAID officials, he asked what part of development, and explained, “Liberia is rebuilding literally everything. Everything is in development.”

He was right. But it’s not just thephysical guts of the country, but the human capital. Over 1 million people fled from a country that only has 3 million to begin with, and as of 2005 half of those remained to be repatriated. Many are educated Liberians. On a flight, I happened to sit next to one, who had left before the war and only been back three times to see his grandparents. He said something interesting about Red Light, an area in Monrovia with which I was familiar, and which was notorious for muggings. It’s one of the trashiest places in the city – the side of the road seems like a soggy landfill. Being in Africa for nearly a year, I dismissed this as just another African street, but he explained in 1980, when he left, it was never like this. Liberia, he said, was like “the United States of Africa”. It was one of the shining stars of Africa, years ahead of now prominent countries like Ghana.

So Liberia has gone from African standout to devastated failure. What to do? The country made history in 2005 by electing the first, and still only, female president in Africa – and a sharp one at that. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (pic above, credit: is a Harvard-trained economist and former director at the UN and Citibank, among other institutions. She has a stellar resume and Western connections and support rarely privileged to African leaders. The US Ambassador to Liberia, in a fascinating NY Times article I suggest you read, explained, ”We see her as one of us.” Much more than other African politicians, she takes a fiery, no-nonsense approach. Fed up with corruption that was proving difficult to stem, just two weeks ago she dissolved her entire cabinet except one minister.

Mama Ellen, as she’s affectionately called, is known for being a tireless worker, even at age 72. I had the opportunity to have dinner with one of the directors of Liberia’s Philanthropy Secretariat. The unique unit resides in the Office of the President and is tasked with helping attract and channel philanthropy money from private donors (like Gates Foundation, not USAID) to on-the-ground projects. The employee I talked to explained that there is almost never a night when he leaves and Sirleaf’s office light is off, and he works late hours.

Her hard work seems to be paying off, at least internationally. She has attracted big MNCs like ArcelorMittal and BHP Biliton, two of the world’s largest steel companies, and has renewed contracts with Firestone, there for the country’s rubber trees. Her biggest accomplishment has been convincing the World Bank and IMF to cancel the country’s $4.6 billion debt (the country’s GDP is $876 million). Most Liberians I talked to felt she was doing a pretty good job and some even spoke overwhelming positive about her – they couldn’t come up with much negative, except for her work on the domestic front, which they say has taken a backseat to her focus on international relations.

What is most clear, though, is that these people have hope. They believe things are getting, and will continue to get, better. This was quite the opposite of what I saw in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise when you’ve hit rock bottom.

(Note: 3rd picture is cassava leaf and rice, which I ate a lot of.)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Amidst the Mob at Alassane Ouattara’s Election Kickoff Rally

Apologies for the two-week hiatus. I was away in rural Liberia for an amazing experience that will be documented shortly. But before that I need to wrap up my experience in Cote d’Ivoire. During my stay in Yopougon neighborhood and interviews in the same area, I befriended some of the leaders of the local headquarters of the Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party, who asked if I wanted to meet the presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara. Unfortunately one opportunity was missed when I went north, but I was invited to the kickoff rally on the first official day of campaigning.

When I arrived with Cisse to the muddy, open area the size of two football fields, the crowd was already buzzing with energy. A crowd of youths ran through the streets chanting “Ado is the way!” (Alassane Dramane Ouattara takes the nickname “Ado”). We were able to maneuver our way into the VIP/journalist area quite easily with our connection and my skin color (Indeed, I never saw another non-black the entire day), and found some standing room within about 30 feet of the stage.

There were people on top of people. As far as the eye could see, there were people – on top and inside of buses, hanging on to old billboards, finding space on distant unfinished construction projects. I was wearing many people’s sweat. We arrived around 2:00 p.m. and Ouattara didn’t appear until after 6:00, during which time the crowd became increasingly crazy with anticipation like a little kid waiting for Christmas. As each of the prominent party members came on stage, I could feel people closing in on me. The fence behind me separating the masses from the VIP/journalist area bulged and looked like it could give way at any minute. People were forcing themselves over the fence, despite the efforts of security. (The amazing thing is that by all accounts, no one was drinking, which is interesting in that 1) this was raw enthusiasm and 2) I’d be afraid what might happen if there had been alcohol involved.)

My experience at election rallies is very limited, but the atmosphere, when Ouattara finally arrived, was pure electricity. Not a citizen of the country, even I had chills running down my back. You could sense this was a country ready to move on, enthused about what’s next. Some journalists insisted that I get up close to the presidential candidate for pictures, like they wanted me to show the world that Cote d’Ivoire is ready for change. Ami, one of the party staff I knew, texted me and told me to come sit in a section neighboring Ouattara’s platform. With all the commotion, I wasn’t to get any personal time with him, but when he did make his way for the main stage, I had the opportunity to shake his hand and wish him the best. Having played his part on stage, Ado retreated and left the stage to a band for an all-night concert. Cisse and I, likewise, moved to the outskirts of the rally area, before heading to a nearby bar for drinks to reflect.

All this comes back to my unanswered question: Does democracy promote growth in ethnically diverse countries? Research has shown good governance to have a positive, significant effect on growth. But as far as I can tell with a cursory view of the literature, whether “good governance” is a proxy for democracy is still open for debate. In some cases, some research found that political institutions such as dictatorships or democracies were not important, but rather political stability was.

(Note: The elections went off peacefully, with a voter turnout of 83%, one of the highest ever recorded for a multiparty election in Africa. Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo received 38% of the votes and Alassane Ouattara received 32%. The runoff is slated for November 28.)