30 June 2010

Field Trip, Part II

It turns out that the morning’s delayed session was due to a power outage in the building (I had just assumed they weren’t powering the part I was in so early in the day). The Capitol and Temple of Justice both run on the public power grid and are susceptible to its vagaries, as I’ve discovered in visits to both. At least it gives decisionmakers a sense of urgency about fixing the dismal state of electrification in the country.

After waiting until about 10:15, I decided to head back to the Ministry to get a bit of work done. Around noon I caught a ride back up the hill again, hoping to catch some of the afternoon session. I arrived to discover that both houses were in closed session (secret session according to some). Though the doors were closed, prying ears could pretty clearly have picked out the gist of the conversation, since most of it was yelled. Unfortunately, the Senate went straight from closed session to adjournment for the day, so I pinned my hopes on the House.

Walking back through the room I sat in earlier in the morning (apparently the joint chamber, not that of either house), I came across a group of what I assume were UofL students, all yelling in another heated argument. And when I say yelling, I really do mean yelling. From our joint internship experiences here, we’ve all discovered that this is an incredibly common phenomenon, whether in government summits, NGO meetings or budget planning sessions. Disagreements on all sorts of issues quickly escalate to yelling matches, eventually subside, and every one walks away fine, though resolution to the problem is almost never reached. It’s totally perplexing, though perhaps preferable to superficial comity followed by backstabbing and trickery. [It turns out, upon further investigation, that the group was actually the Capitol press corps, not college students. Needless to say, the press corps here is quite young].

The House ended up going straight from closed session to adjournment, so there was no session for me. Blargh, but at least I didn’t drive all the way to Sacramento just to have a hearing cancelled. I was, however, asked twice whether I’m with NDI (once by a local intern and once by the deputy chief clerk), which gives a pretty good impression about their presence here, or at least gives me an idea about the paucity of other groups working the legislative side of things. Oh that I were with NDI.

29 June 2010

Field Trip, Emily Style

Lots of staff are traveling this week, making it a little quieter than usual at the Ministry. So I took it upon myself to arrange a little field trip across Tubman Blvd to check out the Legislature. Tubman is the main street that runs through town (named after the former Liberian president, not she of Underground Railroad fame) and it bisects most of central Monrovia, including the Capitol Hill Area. The south side is referred to as the beach side, and it’s home to the Executive Mansion and a whole bundle of ministries including mine. The north side of Tubman is called the swamp side, and it includes the University of Liberia, the Capitol, and the Temple of Justice in quick succession.

So I got dropped off here this morning before heading into the office. Session was supposed to start at 9, and there are a lot of contentious issues in store, so I was encouraged to show up at 8:30 to make sure I got a seat in the small gallery. I wandered in past the plaque noting that “the people’s house” had been restored by the US government into an empty circular atrium with beautiful dark wood carvings covering about 60 degrees of the circle. 

The rest of the room was worn indoor-outdoor carpeting and a very dated chandelier, creating a strange mix of stately grandeur and dated convention center hotel. I proceeded to wander through the almost entirely vacant building, getting a few looks and nary a word as I snapped a few pictures and looked generally out of place. Here, as in too many places, being a well dressed white woman tends to bypass a whole set of questions that would unfairly apply to others.

I’ve managed to find my way through the building to what appears to be one set of chambers, festooned in old fashioned red white and blue bunting. And here I wait.

And now it turns out that session won’t start until ten (oh commonalities of legislatures everywhere). So now I have an hour to explain what I know about the legislature and the issues it’s currently confronting. Like many things here, the legislature is based on the American system, with a bicameral structure. Senators are equally apportioned among the 15 counties, which are very unevenly populated. Montserrado County, of which Monrovia is the seat, accounts for about 1/3 of the national population. The House is divided by population, and is constitutionally allowed to have up to 100 members.

This is the current cause of much debate and acrimony in the country. Before the 2011 elections, the legislature must pass the threshold bill which will designate the population sizes for House districts. Some in the legislature want to greatly increase the number of representatives in the House, while small counties generally oppose it and are demanding more representation than they would otherwise be entitled to based on their population. One enlargement bill passed already, which the President vetoed, arguing that the government couldn’t afford to pay for the additional lawmakers, staff and district expenses. The issue is also being duked out in the Supreme Court, which is considering constitutional challenges based on equal representation claims. The whole issue is a mess and has been making headlines in the remarkably sensationalist newspapers for weeks.

However messy, it has to have a quick resolution. Until the issue is settled, the National Elections Commission (NEC) can’t set the new boundaries based on the census, and it can’t otherwise prepare for the upcoming elections. This election is going to be a huge test for the NEC already, as it will be the first national election for which Liberia (rather than international partners) bears primary responsibility. Waiting to begin preparations could spell disaster. For more on this fascinating topic, I refer you to my final paper for Development Policy in Africa, available by email for a low low fee.

The legislature also has two other big issues to deal with very soon. The first is the budget which, from what I’ve gathered, might be even more contentious than in California. For Liberia’s sake, I hope it’s not. The second is the issue of residency requirements for contesting the presidential election. The Constitution requires that presidential aspirants live in the country for the ten years preceding the election. Since so many prominent Liberians were forced to flee during the Taylor reign, this provision was suspended in the 2005 elections. It’s only been seven years since Taylor stepped down, so the rule would still impact many candidates, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her main opponent, George Weah (Liberia’s most famous former footballer). Fortunately, since both of the major parties have the same stake in this issue, it’s more likely to be resolved successfully.

The legislature also has some interesting characters in it, most notably Prince Johnson. Johnson was the leader of one of the rebel groups (Taylor led the other group) that marched on Monrovia in an attempt to overthrow Samuel Doe in a bloody coup. Doe himself had come to power in a military coup in 1980, and Johnson was one of his soldiers at the time. Most Liberians know Johnson from horrific video footage of him torturing and murdering Doe after capturing him in 1990. Though Taylor was eventually called to account for his crimes against neighboring Sierra Leone, neither he nor Johnson were ever charged in connection with their crimes here. Johnson is a free man and now a senator. Chalk one up for impossible post-conflict peacemaking conundrums.

25 June 2010

Name games, and oh, I met the Chief Justice

-         -- Maybe this is just something I haven’t noticed in the US, but there seems to be a very strong emphasis on calling everyone by name here. Anyone who has spent any reasonable amount of time with me should be able to predict the challenges this might cause me in everyday American circumstances, let alone one with unfamiliar syllabic clusters and accents I’m struggling to master. I’ve got a bunch of names down, but there are so many people in the building that I just couldn’t get them all in the first few days. Now there’s the standard dilemma of it being too late to ask some people. I’m struggling for the diplomatic response to this in the absence of Storey, my usually helpful sidekick in this regard (“Oh, good to see you, this is my husband Storey,” expectantly waiting for self-introduction from the forgotten-named one).

This does not seem to be a reciprocal problem. Tons of people have learned my name and use it frequently and energetically. There seem to be two standard variations on it, both decidedly duo-syllabic. I’m either Em-LEE or Em-LAY, but with conviction, none of that mumbled American nonsense. It feels a little like Cheers when I walk in some places, though I suspect Norm actually knew Diane’s name, so I feel kind of bad about it.

-- In reading through the reports I’ve been analyzing, I’ve had the great fortune of coming across some interesting new words and even more interestingly named things. I’m increasingly intrigued by a crop called bitter balls, which googling hasn’t really been much help on. When I asked a colleague about it this morning, she said simply “yummy”. If I can find some not covered in meat sauce, I might have to try it. I also learned about piglings (quasi-shovel/spades), and was somewhat sad they weren’t a special variation on piglets.

The most amazing one that keeps popping up though is the term for some of the larger prisons in the rural areas – the Palace of Corrections. As you might have suspected, this is a pretty remarkable misnomer. The reports I’ve been reading about said palaces include lack of electricity, lack of running water and extremely limited food for prisoners (some of whom have been held without charges for more than two years). In one of the smaller jails, prisoners are released to go find their own water each day. To the government’s credit, this is all being reported by the folks working to rectify it, but it’s still a pretty dire situation. Part of the work I’m doing this summer is intended to improve the ways that local officials let the ministries in Monrovia know about problems like this.

-- My work isn’t all report reading though. Yesterday I went to a meeting at the Temple of Justice – the home of Liberia’s Supreme Court. We met with the honorable Chief Justice about whom I’d heard a variety of interesting stories, most of which were barely above the level of rumors in a small town. He’s probably in his 70’s, and I would guess is the oldest person I’ve seen since I got here. He’s also one of the tallest, probably 6’3”, incredibly slender and ramrod straight but for a slight hump in his shoulders. I’d imagine this is what Paul Kagame will look like if he wakes up with a kink in his neck in thirty years.

The Temple of Justice, unlike the Executive Mansion and parts of the Capitol, has benefitted handsomely from donor projects. It’s one of the nicest buildings in town and is almost done with its renovations. Parts of the open-air corridors in the design reminded me immediately of the Fresno County Courthouse, though to its credit, the Temple was clearly not at the height of its glory.

The Temple of Justice (picture from a few weeks ago)

The meeting itself wasn’t great, in ways I could have predicted before it actually started. Other participants weren’t prepared to answer questions that would pretty obviously come up, and the Chief Justice was unimpressed, though only vaguely impatient. I got the feeling this wasn’t an uncommon experience.

In all the work and reading I’ve been doing on issues of capacity gaps this summer, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint where and when I picked up certain skills. Where did I figure out how to anticipate questions and to prepare adequately for a meeting? When did I learn to write things down so I’d remember everything I needed to do? How did I learn the right way to handle the egos of people in positions of authority? Sure, I’ve relied on all these skills in past jobs and even had a bit of formal training on them, but even during the trainings, it felt like something I already knew. I don’t think this is because I was a born lobbyist (far from it – see above re: name retention) or that I’m a brilliantly gifted list maker (have you met my sisters?). I’m sure these skills were learned somewhere, but until I can figure out the acquisition process, I’m struggling to find the best way to make sure other people get them.

21 June 2010

Lap belts, Lebanese and Lapas

-- Yesterday, for the first time after more than three weeks in the country, I saw a Liberian smoking. I’ve seen plenty of expats smoking everywhere, but shockingly few (well, none until yesterday) Liberians. It seems this is one vice Liberia hasn’t picked up from the US.

I’ve also been quite surprised by the frequency of seat belt usage here. While people don’t think twice about cramming insane numbers of people into the back seats of cars, nearly every driver and front seat passenger wears a seat belt. We asked our taxi driver about it this weekend, and he said that the police are pretty vigorous about enforcing the seatbelt laws. Given the reports I’ve been reading about the challenges of the Liberian National Police enforcing most laws, this was really surprising to me. Similarly, while the overall rate is much lower, there are a reasonable number of helmets on the motorbike drivers, apparently for the same reason.

-- I still haven’t managed to eat a real Liberian meal since I got here. There’s a pretty limited set of restaurants that are clean enough for foreign stomachs to handle, and most of these are owned by Liberia’s substantial Lebanese community. As a result, most meals that we eat out of the house are some combination of hummus, pita, falafel or foul (pronounced fool, a garlicky bean paste that’s quite tasty). In a way, I guess the Lebanese influence is pervasive and long-standing enough to make it part of the Liberian culinary landscape, but it’s still not the same.

The whole question of how Liberian the Lebanese immigrants are is one that’s being hotly contested in some quarters right now. While many Lebanese families have been here for multiple generations, they are not considered Liberian citizens. Constitutionally, citizenship is reserved for those who are “Negro or of Negro descent”. Not coincidentally, land ownership is reserved for citizens. As a result, many outsiders with a potential interest in investing here are turned off by the lack of property security and end up looking elsewhere. Some are willing to gamble on long term leases, but it’s clearly an impediment to a lot of folks. It’s been argued that this provision of the constitution violates international law and there are certainly a lot of reasons to reject it, but the economic reasons seem to be holding the most sway right now.

-- Lapa madness has officially set in at our house. Lapa is the generic term for the fabric that’s used for just about every purpose here. Depending on the day, a lapa might hold babies, be wrapped into a makeshift skirt or actually sewn into clothes. The fabric patterns range from the very elaborate (of the gold brocade) to the political (we’ve seen some Obama print stuff, but can’t get our hands on it), to the just funny (some patterns involve cell phones, others lipstick cases, others rooster heads). We’re more or less obsessed. While a single lapa is usually 2 yards of fabric, most places sell three lapas worth of fabric at a time, so as we’ve been shopping, we’ve picked up half a dozen yards of fabric of each pattern we fall in love with. We’ve got grand plans for duvets, table cloths, curtains and aprons. If anyone is considering a welcome home present for me, a sewing machine might be a good idea.

We’re also going to get some clothes made this weekend, which I couldn’t be much more excited about. I decided a while ago that my backup profession (if I ever give up on saving the world) would be costume designer for period pieces. I love the idea of having a dress form, a sketch pad and a room of magic fabrics to make beautiful things. There are however, many problems with this scenario. First, I haven’t given up on saving the world (this isn’t really a problem so much as an impediment). Second, I have no drawing ability. Third, my sewing ability is only slightly more advanced than my knitting and drawing, which means that I’m probably a long way off from my IATSE card. The current offer, however, may solve many of these dilemmas for me. I get to go to places chock full of fabric, buy the beautiful stuff, and then explain to someone exactly what I want made with it – all while supporting the Liberian economy! So much anticipatory joy.

17 June 2010

Listen carefully, I'm only going to say this once.

A two-fer today - a little commentary and a few pictures I've managed to sneak in during various drives this week.

So, it’s not often that I say this, but there are some days I’m really glad I grew up in such an agriculturally focused area. Sure, there was the unparalleled access to some of the best produce in the world and the occasional feeling like I was living in a modern day Steinbeck novel, but I’ve lodged my fair share of complaints against the Central Valley (at least half of them deserved, mind you).

Sometimes though – for example, when reading through agricultural development plans or considering the challenges of animal husbandry in a nation without a single veterinarian – it’s pretty useful. It turns out that somewhere along the way, I picked up some knowledge about tree fruits and drip irrigation systems and deworming animals. More important than the specific knowledge though, is how comfortable I am thinking in agricultural terms and how easily I can fall into the language and the lifestyle. I’ve always appreciated the animal side of my childhood, I just rarely think about its usefulness. I’ve certainly never really processed how rare it is for Americans to have that sort of connection to land and food. So there you go mom and dad, a little vindication.

And now some pictures:

This is my Ministry, as you can see, right on the beach. Trust me when I tell you the beach isn’t that appealing, but the idea is really nice, and the sounds of the ocean are hard to beat. Strangely though, it doesn’t smell salty like the Pacific.

A pretty common sight around town, in a city that gets 200 inches of rain a year.

Look carefully for the Liberian scaffolding.

Some things are just like home.
 Some things, less so.

And I’ve finally found an electronic version of the graph that I think says so much about Liberia.

13 June 2010

Out and about

It’s not that easy to take photos around town without being super conspicuous, so I don’t have that many yet. I’m hoping to get more if I head up country later this week but enjoy these (snapped from moving vehicles on drives across town) for now…

Mamba Point in the afternoon – the place on the left with the flags is the biggest grocery store in town, where we buy most of our food. On Saturdays there are throngs of guys selling DVDs (including Alex, our self-anointed guy who this weekend exchanged a non-functional disc for us) and a small handful of fruit vendors out front.

As part of the Ministry of Finance’s tax collection campaign, they’ve put up a series of tax sensitization messages around town. We’re trying hard to get pictures of all of them – some are pretty cool, some are really funny. Above is the best from the first round of moving vehicle attempts.

I can’t tell exactly, but I think this is from Jallah Town, a neighborhood just north of Capitol Hill and the University of Liberia.

Dinnertime preparations in Sinkor, our neighborhood.

Oh, and today’s happiness/dinner at our house: guacamole and homemade pita chips.

This weekend was good, and the first that I’ve felt settled. Saturday included the now-standard multi-store food roundup, a walk through town to a leisurely lunch and World Cup game, our first lapa buys (I knew we wouldn’t hold out long), swimming, another World Cup game, and then some time at what may be one of the two most pleasant bars I’ve even been to. Amazing what an open deck overlooking the ocean will do to improve upon a scene I otherwise quite dislike. Today was lots more food and soccer. We’ve also become completely obsessed with the K’Naan World Cup song and I’m determined to learn all the lyrics by the end of the month. FIFA, you picked so wrong with that Shakira song.

10 June 2010

The Sound and the Fury

In the rush to parse all the newness around me when visiting a different place, I often focus too heavily on the visual, so for the past few days I’ve been thinking about the soundscape of Liberia:

-- As I mentioned before, the Ministry is right on the ocean, so once the air conditioners calm down or the power cuts out, I can hear the sound of the Atlantic at my back all day. It’s pretty amazing, though as someone who has really only vacationed to the sounds of changing tides, the surf/work combo takes some getting used to. Fortunately, the rather nasty safety and sanitation reputation of Monrovia beaches has minimized their recreational appeal. The really strange thing for me is the way most Monrovians seem to completely ignore the ocean. As I mentioned before, every window (and some quasi-windows) seems to have oppressively heavy drapery which is never opened, even when it’s obscuring an amazing view.

-- There is a surprising lack of dogs here, which is closely correlated with the lack of barking dogs. I’ve heard that most were killed for various reasons during the war, and it seems that seven years on they still haven’t recovered to the same numbers I’d expect to see in a place like this. I guess I’ll have to go back to California to get the full barking dog extravaganza.

-- Oh, the language. That’s totally different. English is the official language of Liberia and everyone I’ve met so far speaks it, but it’s sometimes barely recognizable as English. I frequently have trouble distinguishing between conversations in Liberian English and those in one of the local dialects. It’s kind of a creole, with lots of dropped syllables and some differently ordered slang phrases thrown in. Most of the folks I work with directly have been to school in the US for at least a few years, so their accents tend to be lighter and they’re pretty patient with my poor hearing. As confounding as it is for me, I can’t imagine the challenges of trying to communicate as a non-native English speaker (as many UNMIL and NGO staff are) or as a Liberian trying to decipher the innumerable other English accents that are all running around.

-- Radio is the main form of media here and the political news is remarkably good. I can only wish that US radio carried such detailed accounts of political happenings (the real kind, not the Mark Sanford kind). There are also a fair share of incendiary talk radio hosts, some of whom are currently trying to stir up trouble over a rumor that one of the main presidential candidates was arrested during a raid in the US.

-- There also seems to be a great love of schmaltzy American power ballads here. Notably, admiration for the genre crosses gender boundaries. The Minister I’m working with turned up a Celine Dion song on the radio the other day and belted it out with some real feeling. Last week, one of Amy’s co-workers played something similar on repeat – all day long.

-- One noise that’s continually unnerving is the fun crackling of power outlets every time I plug in my computer. Everything here is a surging 220v and though my adapter swears it can handle that, I can’t quite get used to the snap, crackle and pop. Most ex-pat focused places in town are running on their own generators, but from what I can tell, the Ministry runs on the nascent public power grid, so it tends to have the scariest of the noises.

-- There isn’t really a landline phone service (I’ve literally seen one regular phone) in Liberia, so everyone has cell phones. No one seems very concerned that they go off in nearly every meeting and most folks feel free to answer on the spot. As far as I can tell no one has voicemail, so this makes slightly more sense than in the US. There is the expected range of custom ringtones (I heard the Inspector Gadget theme song yesterday and was overjoyed) but I’m continually surprised by who is attached to which ringtone.

-- Reserving the right to change my mind once rainy season starts in full, I’m pretty well in love with the sounds of the storms here. It has stormed nearly every night since we arrived. Amplified by the poor insulation and lots of metallic roofing, the storms are thunderous (though not necessarily with actual thunder), torrential affairs that make me feel I’m about to get swept away in an epic flood. After actually watching this morning’s rain, it seems that the bark is louder than the bite, but it’s still great fun to hear, even when it wakes me up. I’ve been told rainy season should arrive on precisely the 15th of this month, though in another blow from global warming, the weather patterns here have apparently changed pretty significantly in the recently, so the rainy season schedule may be less precise than it used to be.

--Finally, there’s the snap. Liberian handshakes are hearty, and as you draw your hand back, they end with a snap of index and middle fingers against each other. It’s a pretty cool sound and the snap doesn’t work with a limp hand, so I’m developing a much more substantial handshake. I’m still pretty bad at it, but the Ministers are patient teachers and since everyone here shakes hands all the time, I get plenty of practice.

07 June 2010

Planes, trains, and automobiles (by which I really mean taxis, motorbikes and walking)

I’m still not convinced about the right format for posts, but for the time being I think I’ll try to mix in some interesting stuff that I’m learning about the country with some random things I’ve been doing or thinking.
- Despite the very low percentage of Monrovians that actually own cars, there is a remarkable amount of traffic here in the morning. This is partly due to the huge influx of UN and other international staff, partly to the horrible city roads that make everything take longer, and partly to the complete lack of public transit which has led to an interesting mix of private transit options. 

Most non-Liberians in town (myself included) take private cars everywhere, usually for safety reasons though in the rainy season I suspect there’s a lot of personal comfort at stake as well. Those without a full time car or driver rely on a small network of reliable taxi drivers that are willing to take only one passenger at a time. On my first ride, my taxi driver laughed when I told him my name, and dubbed me Emily #4, indicating either that Emilys are just inclined to good work or that the taxi network is pretty tight.

While I’ve heard that a few buses were recently donated to the government (and I might have seen them a few days ago), the main mode of transport for most Liberians consists of street taxis and motorbikes. The street taxis run up and down the main street in town, on what essentially amounts to a regular bus route. They keep taking more and more passengers until the car is (over)full. There are usually 7ish people per small car (the most popular model appears to be the Nissan Sunny, which is like a 2/3 size Subaru Outback). Once you get to the general part of town you want, there are tons of young guys on motorbikes for hire to drive through the side streets to wherever you actually want to go. Amy tells me that when they did a gun buy-back program here after the war, the price for a weapon was roughly the cost of a motorbike, so a lot young men made that trade, and now many of the bike drivers are former combatants (officially, war affected youth).

Also, there are no stop lights in Monrovia. Or stop signs. Or any other traffic coordination efforts at all, save a few brave Liberian National Police officers assigned to police the insanity of Capitol Hill in the morning. Traffic operates on a strictly self-serving basis, with no particular regard for lanes, pedestrians or fairness to others. The one upside of the massive potholes is that they make everyone drive slowly enough to make this system somewhat workable.

-   - Had my first Liberian donut today. It was pretty awesome, halfway between a regular donut and a funnel cake. Dunkin’ Donuts wishes it could make a donut like this. Really, they wish they could make donuts at all.

-   - Amy, Erica and I went out for our first long walk on Saturday, through the Mamba Point neighborhood (Erica’s hood). We managed to restrain ourselves from buying lapas (Liberian sarongs) on the first day, but I’m not sure how long we’ll be able to hold out. We’ve been told it’s best to go back several weeks in a row so that people know we’re not casual tourists, and we’ll be able to get better deals. We did manage to procure an avocado, which brought us faux-guacamole and real joy. In the non-people category, Mexican food may be what I miss most, and that avocado was a sweet sweet taste of home. The avocado lady is in for some good business next weekend if we find her again. Other important acquisitions included a map of Monrovia and some new TV show DVDs. Perhaps we won’t learn as much about soccer as we’d planned.

02 June 2010

I've got nothing clever for this post title

When I was growing up, every first day of school my mom would line us up and take a picture of each kid and then the whole group standing by the front door. By the time we'd finished high school, it made quite a funny display. I suspect that if I'd ever been gainfully employed while living there, the same thing would have happened on my first day of work. So to carry on the tradition, here is the obligatory front-of-the-house-on-the-first-day shot:

And a few from the office today, this one of the view right outside my ministry. Ignore the grimy window on the close up version:

And finally, a look at the morning's reading:

Work, Day 1

So, I finally got to my first day of the internship yesterday. Don’t really know where to start as my thoughts don’t make for a logical narrative of any sort, so please excuse the bullet points. To protect the innocent, I’m going to try and keep this somewhat vague about where specifically I’m working, but if you are actually interested, let me know and I’ll email you directly.

-- The Ministry where I’m working is right off the main road in town, on a winding and treacherous path toward the beach. The good news is you can see the ocean from half the windows in the building. The bad news is that I was pretty convinced the cab that dropped me off might not make it back up the hill, as the road down was basically broken concrete strewn over dirt. I don’t think it was ever intended as a road, much less repaired as one.

The building itself is a study in contrasts. While the toilets don’t really work in most bathrooms and there isn’t toilet paper, each of the private offices has very elaborate curtains (think heavy bedroom drapery circa Dallas in 1987). There is sporadic air conditioning in some places though all the corridors are sweltering. Oh, and there’s a big staircase with no railing at all, and I’m terrified I’m going to take a header down it at some point. Amazing how one little broken nose can make you all cautious.

-- At one of my first meetings, the Deputy Minister explained a key challenge of civil service reform in a post-conflict setting: while many government workers from the previous regime were put on the payroll for purely political reasons, the new government can’t simply clean house and start over without upending the delicate political balance. So, as I was able to see in less than half an hour, the Ministry is a hodge-podge of incredibly diligent workers and others who literally sit around all day chatting. I think the old guard is slowly being turned out, but in the mean time, it feels like one leg is holding a very heavy table (and mine is supposedly one of the best functioning Ministries).

-- Liberia has a pretty vibrant free press, with about half a dozen tabloid-format daily papers in Monrovia. After yesterday, I suspect that I know how the city can support that many papers despite its astronomical levels of illiteracy: waiting. I’ve heard all the cracks about working on African time, but got to experience it for the first time yesterday. People seemed to be late for just about everything, and everyone just sat calmly reading newspapers. I made it through most of the good stuff in three papers over the course of the day. So many reasons to love the media.

-- Got my first ride in a UN vehicle yesterday. Given my now decades-long obsession with the UN, it was pretty awesome. I also spent a bunch of time at the UNDP office and got a good briefing from a staff person there who’s doing a lot of work at my Ministry. For those of you that have worked at UN offices long term, do you ever get tired of all the blue? I loved it when I was in NY, and find if strangely comforting when I see it around town, but am willing to chalk that up to my natural affinity for blue and the aforementioned UN-philia.

-- Yesterday also included a planning meeting on a big national summit that’s coming up in three weeks. Just one part of the meeting provided a whole cascade of the daily challenges of working in a country with no infrastructure: the plan was to get invitations out as soon as possible (shooting for two weeks before the summit, to give you a sense of the future-planning scale), but with sporadic email access for many and without a reliable postal system, there was a debate about the best way to distribute the 90-odd envelopes. 

The UN was willing to have its drivers deliver some, but given its limits and wanting to push Ministry ownership of the project, couldn’t do them all. So the discussion fell back to having Ministry staff deliver the remaining invitations. There was general consensus that getting the administrative staff here to do it would be a huge lift, and would require taking away a previously assigned delivery for another event. (Things like this, it should be noted, are the actual job of the administrative side of the Ministry.) It was finally settled that some of the Ministry drivers would drop the rest, though they wouldn’t be able to do it without additional gas rations. So after quickly tallying gas prices and adjusting line items to add in the additional expense, a plan for getting the invitations out was finally at hand. And that was all before the plan to make sure people actually opened the letters and responded…

I lay this all out in detail not to criticize the people who were in the meeting – I’ve certainly been in more protracted and unnecessarily detailed planning meetings – but to give a little more texture to the challenges of the work people are trying to do here. Glib development advice would say to demand accountability from the staff, to force the right people to do their jobs and get rid of them if they didn’t. As real people in a room trying to put on an event (to build cross sectoral buy-in to a new capacity plan, another important development goal), everyone struggled with balancing micro versus macro capacity improvements. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but am now appreciating their inevitable complexity more.