Thursday, March 24, 2011

DIY Infrastructure

In my small hometown, in terms of infrastructure and specifically roads, city officials often consider things like whether to repave a road, install a roundabout in place of a stoplight, or alter speed limits. Rural Liberians in Bong County were faced with a similar dilemma on a slightly larger scale: their government, out of lack of will or capacity, had failed to provide a road connecting their villages to the city. I talked with Amos Mulbah, one of the villagers (not the Amos previously mentioned) who explained the problem was that pregnant women had to endure many pains over the footpaths that made villages accessible only by foot or motorcycle. Yea, I think a road connecting my home to modern civilization is probably pretty important, too.

Villagers are taking matters into their own hands. When I first heard them talk about this, I envisioned them uprooting stumps or something of the like to make it more passable. Instead, they are essentially hacking through the forest to build their own road from scratch. Follow the road far enough from Kpellemue as I did one Friday, and you will run into about 25 people, five or so of whom have axes and are chopping away at trees, while the rest are destumping, clearing, and smoothing the road. A group of women come out to provide food for the workers.

They’d been at it since January 2010, and when I talked to them in November they estimated they would be able to finish the last two miles by last month, February 2011. They let me take a few swings of the axe, and it became pretty obvious why it was going to take them over a year (I didn’t get an estimate on the distance).

The effort was started in Gbanga, the county capital, and most villagers worked as much as they could until the road reached their village, meaning there were many more working early on. There was no formal structure in place, and I even had trouble identifying who was in charge – it was as if everyone rolled up their collective sleeves and said, “Well, we’re not going to wait any longer”. Every Friday, people would take off time from their farm or job to work on the public road, and even a few like Amos Dolo (the aforementioned entrepreneur) have continued to help after the road passed their villages.

Similarly, at Amos Dolo’s school, he showed me another problem. The national government mandated a cap of 35 students per class, but failed to provide the funding necessary for additional buildings. Whoops. Though school officials have voiced their concerns to government, the PTA decided they were going to do something about it themselves. Subsequently, they have been going out to find “contracts” – essentially agreements with people who need brushing done, need fields harvested, or have other labor-intensive jobs in need of completion.

He showed me the extension, which only needs funding for the zinc roof before completion. In the meantime, they’re using a one room church and have divided it into thirds with tarps and stand-up dividers. Technically they’re separate rooms, but when I tried giving a short lesson, it was a bit distracting, to say the least.

They expect their government to provide the infrastructure and social services – that they were vocal about. But given these examples of collective initiative, it seems they understand the nation has just emerged from years of war and recovery will be slow. In the meantime, they can help too.

While I won’t compare apples with oranges – Liberia and the US are in two completely different development situations – it is tempting to envy this combination of urgency and will. Writing this from back in the US, where years of spending beyond our means and gridlock on issues such as healthcare and social security have produced one of the most pressing situations in recent history, it sure seems we have the former but not the latter.

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