Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Liberian birthday

My favorite thing about Liberia is the kids. You can see kids everywhere you go. Playing in the street, working, taking care of their younger siblings, etc. Some of them have a hard look in their eyes, as if they had to grow up faster and between the cooking, cleaning and working they forgot how to be kids.
All the kids I’ve seen react the same when they see me or the other interns: surprised, curious, and reluctant but the encounter always ends with a smile after I wave to them.
My birthday was on Monday, and it definitely was a different one. I was away from my family and my friends. In a country that I have not finished to figure out yet.  I also wanted to celebrate in a different way. I wanted to make my birthday not just about me and that is why I’ve decided to have a “More Than Me” birthday.
On Sunday we went down to West Point with a bag full of toys. We gathered the kids in the neighborhood. All the girls from the “More than Me “Foundation, and also some boys who live in West Point.
Less than an hour after we arrived we were surrounded by more than 100 kids between the ages of one and 14.  We were sitting on the side while Mackintosh, the Liberian coordinator for the foundation organized the kids. They formed a line and were asked to spell a word. If they did it correctly everyone would clap and the kid would come to us to get a toy. In the over 100 toys we gave away that day there were many particular stories.

There was the girl that kept trading her toy every 20 minutes just to see what else was in the bag.  This other girl, who chose a boy’s toy to give it to her brother.  There was Rose, the five year old in the picture below, who was one of the first to get her doll and was playing with it as if the rest of the world has vanished.

There was the boy who came for a toy five times saying that he did not get one the first time or this other boy who I though was a baby under three years old but was actually able to spell apple.

Every kid reacted in a different way when getting a toy. Some of them would smile and say thank you, others would not even look at us. Other would open their eyes and mouth out of excitement and other would ask if they can trade a toy for something like shampoo or a tooth brush, reminding me how in Liberia some kids have to stop being kids much earlier.

My favorite part of the day was at the end. After almost three hours we were running out of toys and the kids went crazy. They came to us asking for the toy they wanted, wanting to trade the one they got or not wanting to accept the toy we were offering because they wanted something else we ran out of.

In the middle of that chaos a little girl sat down next to me and pulled my arm. I looked at her impatient expecting her to complain about her toy or wanting another one, but she just smiled and said: I just wanted to say Thank you! Those words and her smile were my favorite part of the day, the week and maybe the whole summer.

The clinic

 I’ve been sick the last few days. I have not been feeling well and had to skip work for several days.
I was feeling so bad that I had to go to the clinic. Other expats advised me not to go to a hospital because I would need to wait too long. The clinics have less people because they are more expensive.

I went to one of the best clinics, recommended both by locals and expats.  First I had to wait for one hour just for registration. The consultation was US$5 dollars. After that I was supposed to see the doctor but a nurse told me I would need to wait for 4 or 5 hours and if I wanted I could come back in the afternoon, when the clinic was less crowded because you were supposed to pay an emergency fee. The emergency fee was US$7 dollars.
I came back in the afternoon where there were no other patients indeed, mostly because they don’t want to pay the extra fee but also because most of them go in the morning to be able to go to work after the consultation.

The doctor said I had an infection but she could not determine the exact type because they don’t do that kind of test so I should be treated with a medication that could help “most” of the types. The doctor prescribed antibiotics but she also told me that I needed to be careful because many antibiotics in Liberia are expired or altered.
Luckily I brought those antibiotics with me from the US and did not have to worry about “fake” medicine. But I started to think about people who do.

Would you imagine the frustration of waiting for 4 or 5 hours at the clinic feeling ill and afterwards buying a medicine that is not going to work because is adulterated? or even worse having the doctor telling you that he is going to guess what kind of infection you have, because they don’t have the equipment to do further tests?  That morning I saw kids and seniors, burning in fever or clearly in a lot of pain waiting long hours to see the doctor and I did not even want to start imagining how long they would have to wait in a public hospital.

That day I felt as hopeless as many Liberians may feel when their country is not able to provide them with the basic services they need to have a good quality of life. That day I understood how lucky I am for being born in a country with more opportunities, and how unfair it is that a random fact, such as where you are born, determines your access to opportunities for the rest of your life.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The quest for private investment

Currently the National Investment Commission (NIC) is working on a change management process to restructure the organization.  146 people work at NIC, but the estimated required number of employees according to the new organizational chart is 50.  What do the other 100 do?
The government knows that the NIC is operating with more people than they need, but in this case its priority is not efficiency, is to create jobs. In a country like Liberia where unemployment rates are very high, the government started to use civil service as a safety net. This is why it is not rare to see people sitting around the NIC building with no clear job descriptions.
This issue makes political factors very important in the change management process. In the MPAID program we learned how a policy needs to address three components: 1) technically correct, 2) administrative feasible, 3) have political support. No matter how well designed NIC’s new organization is on paper, it will probably not be able to address component number 3 and therefore the ultimate solution would have to sacrifice a little bit of component number 1. The government is aware of this fact and the solution they seemed to have found is to keep these “vulnerable” workers but at the same time make sure to employ the 50 people they need to function.
The whole process is still in early stages.  The organizational chart still needs to be approved and the term of reference of the employees still needs to be determined.  However, the main challenge is going to appear after the “desk work” is done. Once they need to go out and recruit real people to do the jobs. Unfortunately most of the people NIC needs to fulfill its mandate are not currently part of the staff and finding them is not an easy task.
A few months ago they were looking for a head of certain department. They hired international consultants and spent nearly 4 months in the recruitment process. At the end the process was declared vacant. They could not find any candidates with the appropriate qualifications.
This turns into a vicious circle; without the adequate human resources NIC will not be effective in attracting investment into Liberia and without investment the creation of new jobs is almost impossible.  With no investment there will be fewer opportunities for Liberians, fewer incentives to go to school or to come back to their country for those educated abroad.

NIC is just an example of the problematic in countries in which private sector development is still incipient. Liberia seems to understand that; and that is why they are focusing their efforts in promoting private investment and developing public private partnerships. However, as long as the state capacities are low, the labor force unskilled and the infrastructure poor, the quest for private investment will remain a very slow process.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Pinned the girls

Last week we attended the closing ceremony of the school year.  It was on a Sunday at 4pm. The ceremony took place at what seemed to be a church at West Point. The place was packed with children, parents, family members and the school staff.
There were children from all ages, from kindergarten to high school. Among the children; several girls from the “More than Me” foundation.

My favorite part of the ceremony was when they called the kids to the front and the parents and relatives “pinned” them. They attached different “prizes” into their uniforms: candies, money, ribbons. The luckiest got 20 or 30 Liberian dollars (less than 50 US$ cents). It may look like a very small amount of money but for some of those families, 50 US$ cents can be the income of a week.
Other kids received ice cream or soda as a special treat. It was great to see the excitement in their faces trying to get even the last drop of soda out of the can with their little fingers. And that is the thing that will never stop surprising me about Liberian kids: their ability to smile and be happy with so little.

These things seem to be so insignificant, things that most of us could probably purchase every day. I bet my nephews will even be disappointed if that what they get as a “prize” at the end of the school year. But for a single mother with five or six kids, who works selling cookies earning 10 US$ cents a package, spending one dollar in a can of soda has to happen only in a very special occasion.
The ceremony lasted almost two hours and at the end the kids returned home happy and proud.  However, I could not stop thinking that many of these kids are going to spend almost two months away from school. For some of them this will mean playing in the streets and have fun. For the “More Than Me” foundation’s girls, it will mean two months having to work on the streets, being at risk of sexual exploitation or spending more than one day with eating (the only meal many of the girls get a day is the one provided by the foundation at school).

Friday, June 22, 2012

Two Liberias

Life in Liberia is very calm and quiet. Everything happens at its own pace: at work, after work.
This is my third week here and I am already starting to know directions, places, and people. Life is definitely different from everything else I have known before. You find yourself listening to amazing life stories about war, courage and need and you can hardly belief that these people walked such a long way to get here.

The most amazing stories I’ve heard come from women. Women who lived and raised their children during the war in Liberia.  Women who hided in the bathroom with their babies, while people broke into their compounds and start shooting randomly to their neighbors. 
One woman told me that during the war it was not rare to get home after work and find strangers sleeping in her living room or bedroom. When I asked her: What did you do in that situation?  She said: “Nothing, you couldn’t ask questions at the time.”

Another woman was 6 years old when the war started. Her sister was 9. The parents sent the first girl to the US during the war. The second one had to remain in Liberia, because she didn’t have a passport. The reason why she didn’t have one was because the day her younger sister got her passport (before the war started and without knowing that she was going to need it later) she had the flu.
The girl that moved to the US was raised away from war, away from poverty and horror. She went to college and returned to Liberia three years ago to work for one of the international organizations that operate here. The second girl grew up in Liberia. Some days the only thing she had in the stomach was a cup of tea. She still lives in Liberia. She is unemployed and she resents her parents and her sister and stopped talking to them a while ago.  I could not stop thinking how life works. One single event, like having the flu when you are nine, can change your whole life. Being raised in a country instead of another can determine your opportunities in life.

In Liberia is not rare to find this kind of stories. Since the end of war and the election of President Johnson many Liberians, who grew up abroad, started to come back to Liberia.  When you talk to them they tell you that they came back because Liberia was a safe place again, a country with new opportunities where they could actually have an impact. Nonetheless, you also hear them telling you that they never felt Americans and know they don’t feel Liberians. They have a different accent; generally they have a better economic situation and people don’t treat them as their equals: they overcharge them at the market or they don’t (or pretend they don’t) understand their accent in the streets as if they were foreigners.

You can easily notice the difference between the ones that stayed during war and the ones that left. From now and then you will still heat the ones that left complaining about the slow internet or the poor quality of infrastructure. The ones that stayed never complain. This is the best version of the country that they have seen in years.  However there is something they have in common: hope. Hope that the country will continue to do even better.
I have learned that there are two ways to look at this country. The easiest and more obvious one is based on the long way Liberia has yet to walk. The other one (the one I always forget when I get frustrated at work) is how far Liberia has got considering from where it is coming from.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

More Than Me

West Point is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Liberia. Near 75 000 people live there with neither running water nor an effective trash collection system, and only four toilets to serve the whole population.
The houses are very small (about 1.5 meters by 2 meters) and made of corrugated iron and wood. Each house shelters more than 5 people on average.

Most of West point’s population is children and that is what you find when you walked around. You can find the youngest playing with bricks, wires or any other dangerous object they find around. The oldest basically ‘working’, either swiping, getting water or cooking (by oldest I mean older than 8 years old).
Many of these kids lost their parents during the war. The luckiest are raised by single mothers, who don’t have a stable income and can barely afford to buy food for their four, five or more kids.

The reason why I found out about these stories is the foundation “More than me”. They do an amazing job identifying the most vulnerable girls in West Point and paying for their school fees and lunch. Many of these girls are taking out of child labor or sexual abuse.

In Liberia 73% of the children are denied and education, over 80% of them are girls. Going to school is for these girls not only an opportunity to earn a living in the future but also a short term escape from their everyday life, in which they can learn, play and forget about their situation for a while.
During my visit I made a new friend: Beatrice. Beatrice is one of the girls who attends school thanks to the ‘More than me’ foundation. She lives with her mom and her blind grandfather. Her mom is sick and can’t walk. Her grandfather begs at the market. Beatrice followed me around West Point for three hours. Without saying a word, just smiling and holding my hand. She was taking care of me. Showing me the way around, helping me to walk around traffic. The only thing she said in three hours was: I am hungry and she was able to keep her smile the whole time, even when it was hard for me to do the same due to the heat, the bad smell, the flies and the sad stories around me.

“More than me” foundation keeps permanently raising funds. Tomorrow they are organizing a Match day to raise money to build a school. If you can check it out and make your donation!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Girls in Liberia

On Sunday afternoon we went around the city with a Tour guide. We visited the Ducor hotel, luxurious building that was destroyed during the war. Nothing but a great view is left from this hotel, which was for sure glorious on its time.

On the way back we walked around Monrovia. It was clearly a poor neighborhood. Trash was lying in the ground, houses were small and unpainted and in every single street we saw the same image: children playing in the street with no adult supervision. 

At one point we passed a group of girls that looked at me surprised and reluctant. My natural instinct was just to wave at them, and after I did it they gave me a huge smile and started following me down the street. These girls followed me around three blocks just to find out my name and after I told them my name, one by one they started telling me theirs. Then, one of the other interns took a picture of us* (see below) and the girls left so happy, laughing and clapping as if something extraordinary just happened to them.

In that moment I felt humble and realized that those girls taught me a valuable lesson: even in the middle of the most shocking misery, smiling is possible.  I could not stop thinking about these girls, especially after the next day when I met a man who works at the Ministry of gender. He told me about the gender gap in Liberia, about the inequality of opportunities between girls and boys and the lack of empowerment in women.

The Ministry of gender in Liberia is working, among other things, on closing the gender gap in education enrollment. The main two causes for lower enrollment in girls are:

1.       Access: in rural areas schools are far away from girl’s houses and parents don’t want them to walk far distances by themselves, because they are afraid of something bad happening to them.

2.       Social norms: most families don’t invest the same amount of resources (time, money, attention) in their sons and daughters.  Fathers mostly, tend to think that because girls will marry and go away without carrying their family name it is not worthy to invest in their education.

Sadly, this person was also telling me that even when they get girls to enroll in school there are other issues that prevent them to stay in school or succeed. As an example, there are many cases of teachers asking girls for sexual favors as a condition for good grades.

This sort of problems translates into women’s lives later, not only into the lack of economic opportunities but also into the role of women within the household. In Liberia most women don’t have a say in the family budget, even if they contribute with part or most of the money. 
As anecdotic evidence; my new friend shared a story with me about a man in a rural community that was complaining about his wife being lazy and not contributing to the family budget. This man was asked to make a list of all the activities he does in a day and to priced them. Afterwards he was asked to do the same for his wife’s activities. At the end of the day the value in dollars of the woman’s activities was four times higher than those of the man.

As I said I could not stop thinking about these girls and about the fact that they might face these challenges sooner or later.  They might not be aware of them or they might even think that life is just the way it is. Hopefully the Liberian government’s strategy to support the economic and social empowerment of women and girls will be able to change that.  Until that,  I hope my girls keep smiling.

                                                 * Thanks to Nick Bayard for the picture.