22 February 2011

Half Way Done (and Only Just Begun)


It’s 1:30 in the morning as I start this, so I’ll just note that any incoherence should likely be attributed to that. I woke up about an hour ago to a great thunderstorm. It doesn’t seem to be nearly as wet as a good rainy season storm, but the sound and fury of the thunder and lightning are making up for it.

It’s been a quiet few weeks on the blog front, but not so much on the life front. I quit my job at the Ministry at the end of January, finally pulling the plug on an experience that had been making me dreadfully unhappy for a long time. I had a few things in the works when I quit, but nothing actually confirmed. Leaving without a definite next step was not at all like me, though I did quite enjoy the feeling of bravado it seemed to lend me for a few days. I quickly rocketed from relief to nervousness and back again, but it was all relatively short lived in the end.

A week after quitting, I got offered a chance to do exactly what I’d wanted to do all year – substantive work on social protection issues, with real responsibility and institutional support to get things done. I’m now interning for a large multilateral organization with a focus on youth (yes, your first guess is probably right).

Though I was originally slated to do mostly technical work on economic strengthening programs, I got drawn into legislative shenanigans on my third day. I’ve spent the last few weeks reliving my advocacy years – writing fact sheets, building coalitions, and wandering the halls of the Capitol. It’s been amazingly fun and the ease with which campaign planning still comes to me has given me a new appreciation for just how much I learned during all that time in Sacramento.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, I crossed the halfway point for Liberia, Take II. I spent most of November and December feeling like my time here was interminable, but now that I’m down to just about four months, it doesn’t feel like nearly enough time. A lot of that has to do with switching to work I’m really enjoying. The work part has also helped ease my general-life-unhappiness – it turns out that when you don’t have several hours a day to reflect on how miserable you are, you end up being a lot less miserable. Shocking, I know.

Now seems like a good time to reiterate my thanks to everyone who has graciously put up with the poorly timed phone calls, navel-gazing emails and occasional blubbering knocks at the door over the past six months. Your ears, words and hugs are very much appreciated. This being Liberia, I’m sure the rest of the road will still have some serious potholes, but I’m hoping there won’t be any more washouts between here and June.

30 January 2011

The Limits of Community Driven Development


People in development love to talk about the importance of community involvement with and government buy-in to development plans. The idea is that international donors shouldn’t just wing into a country and demand a certain development agenda according to a cookie cutter formula. It’s largely a good sentiment, and a very necessary response to disastrous international plans like structural adjustment. At its best, community-driven development ensures that local priorities are realized, previously disenfranchised voices are heard and indigenous customs preserved. What happens though, when the community gets it wrong (or at least, doesn’t get it all right)?

Let me start with an example. A few years ago, Liberia adopted a Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), which was a three year plan to guide government and donor priorities for development investments. It included things like professionalizing the military, rebuilding schools and constructing roads. The process of developing the PRS included extensive public consultations, with a road show into the counties to get input from rural populations and traditional leaders. The PRS is complemented at the local level by the County Development Agendas, which prioritize local projects within the national framework (which schools, which roads, etc.). The whole process has been widely lauded for its inclusiveness and focus on community needs.

While the process was good, the content leaves some relatively glaring omissions. Specifically, the national plan and every county in the country chose to ignore Liberia’s most vulnerable populations. In 16 total plans, there is no mention of social protection, welfare or safety nets for the vulnerable who can’t fend for themselves. This isn’t a small oversight: though the data are a few years old now, the last estimate was that Liberia has at least 50,000 households living in extreme poverty without a single adult available for work. With an average household size of just over 5 people, this translates into roughly 250,000 Liberians, or about 7% of the population.

Part of this is obviously a problem of voice, as extremely poor, work constrained households are unlikely to have the opportunity or means to participate in community dialogues, no matter how beneficial that participation might ultimately be. Assume though, that we can somehow solve the problem of voice. What happens when 7% of every community in the country shows up and asks for social safety nets and is turned down in favor of roads and power grids? Liberia and many similarly situated countries have to make difficult decisions about resource allocation all the time. Is it right to put those decisions to a majoritarian test?

This problem certainly isn’t unique to development contexts. They happen in government budget fights all across the world and even the best intentioned forms of participation can lead to distorted outcomes. I’m thinking now of a case study from Oregon that I read years ago in a policy class. The details are a bit foggy now, but I believe the gist of it was this: Oregon didn’t have enough money to fund all the Medicaid services it wanted to provide, so it established community fora to allow citizens to prioritize the services to be covered. Participants eventually settled on some sort of wellbeing-for-the-buck formula, and things like tooth capping (relatively cheap) ended up rated more highly than simple but more expensive life-saving treatments like appendectomies. The priorities were eventually tweaked, and the courts stepped in to assure that some basic minimum services were guaranteed.

This brings me back to Liberia and the question of who has the right to tweak development priorities. In the Oregon case, the federal government and courts were able to step in because most of the program funding was coming from Washington. For the foreseeable future, a huge chunk of Liberia’s development funding will come from outside sources, but the governments and multi-lateral organizations providing that funding are committed to nationally-directed development, and are none-too-keen to delve in to rewrite local priorities.

In a positive-rights-protective democracy, there should be two easy checks for this problem. First, positive rights to things like a safety net would be enshrined in an enforceable legal code, with viable means of redress for violations thereof. Second, in a representative (as opposed to direct) democracy, elected officials would enact policies with an eye toward the protection of minority rights, in this case, an economic minority. The delegated democratic authority vested in the legislature could provide justification for altering the plans while still claiming broad representativeness.

Liberia is painfully far from realizing either of these two solutions, which brings us back again to the democratic appropriateness of external meddling in development priorities. There isn’t a neat answer to this question, but my substantive-over-procedural democracy bias inclines me toward saying that outside intervention is both necessary and appropriate. Without assuring a minimal baseline for living standards, promises of substantive democratic participation are relatively meaningless. I’m thinking of it along the lines of a political version of Maslow’s hierarchy – without accounting for base needs, higher order values like democratic participation are unattainable.

All this leads me to the conclusion that, while increasing country ownership is an important improvement in development policy, there are some pretty serious limits to allowing communities too-free a hand in setting policy prerogatives. Donors should certainly seek coordination with governments, but should be prepared to fill the gaps that majoritarian policymaking will inevitably leave.*


* This also provides two other benefits which I’ll just mention briefly here, though perhaps write about in more detail later. Pragmatically, donors have the benefit of experience with successes and failures around the world, and throwing this experience out the door for the sake of country ownership is, at the very least, counterproductive. Ownership doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel in every developing country. Politically, a higher level of donor participation in decision-making addresses the other side of the democracy question – the extent to which citizens of donor nations deserve a voice in the allocation of their tax dollars. While the concept of democratic voice is stretched awfully thin by the time that it gets to USAID funding decisions in West Africa, it’s not entirely unreasonable to say that unrestricted grants for aid represent a diminution of what little voice citizens once had.

23 January 2011

Not loving Love


Now that I’ve started this book review thing, I feel somewhat compelled to continue with it, at least as long as the whole book-every-few-weeks streak continues (and in so announcing, I’m sure I’ve just ended it). I’ve got another post in mind though, so I’ll make this one short.

I finished Love by Toni Morrison this week. I suppose it’s somewhat inevitable if you start with an author’s most famous and well-received work, but it seems that each Toni Morrison book I read is worse than the last. Granted, this is only #3 (following Beloved and Paradise), but they’re also in chronological order of publication, so it seems I might want to dig further back in the archives if I come back for more Morrison.

Love is supposedly a gripping novel about an intergenerational family struggle to wrest control of the affections and memory of a complicated patriarch. It felt like an unnecessarily meandering novella, part inartful Lolita, part cheap romance novel, part silly suspense story. In what I think was an attempt to make the story transportable, Morrison never really sets it in any location, which has the effect of making it rootless and untethered rather than universal. This was particularly strange when contrasted with the obsessive and confusing use of specific dates in the story line. So, the book ends up anchored in time and flitting about in space, without any characters interesting enough to drive the plot forward. 

I didn't actively hate it the way I have other books, but that was largely because I couldn't be bothered to care that much. If it had been more than 200 pages, I doubt I would have made the effort to finish the book. It makes me want to read Beloved again just to reinstill my faith in her as an author and in the Nobel Prize as an institution.

On a side note, I’m having trouble getting Blogger to upload a photo header in the right size and proportions. It doesn’t let me actually choose the pixel dimensions of my image, so I can’t just resize my photo to fit. If anyone has fought with this overly-simplistic template problem before and knows how to help, please let me know. The page will be prettier for your efforts.

20 January 2011

Two little numbers, not little enough


You’d think that with the copious amount of free time I seem to be amassing these days, I’d have plenty of time to write long, interesting posts about fascinating things happening here. It turns out that this isn’t really the case. I suppose I do have the time, but I’ve been struggling for things to write about that would be interesting to read if you don’t care about the internecine struggles of Monrovia’s expat community or the antics of the zany cast of characters where I work. Honestly, the latter might be interesting, but in my half-hearted attempt to maintain some level of professionalism, I’ve tried to avoid specific details about what goes in my place of employ. You’ll have to wait for my memoirs for those particular juicy bits.

In the meantime, here’s a slightly wonkier post with some depressing numbers I’ve been pondering for a while:

Liberia has grand plans for its growth over the next twenty years. I would like little more than to see the realization of those plans. That strong desire notwithstanding, there are some pretty daunting challenges to be faced along the way. Among the most substantial will be changing these two numbers:

-          $0.40/ton-km
-          $0.50/kWh

These are the prices, respectively, of moving a ton of goods one kilometer in most of Liberia (it can be twice as high in the rainy season) and of generating one kilowatt hour of energy here. In isolation, they mean relatively little, but these are the numbers that may impede progress here for decades. To give you a sense of perspective, transportation in Southern Africa costs about $0.05/ton-km and energy in most manufacturing economies is $0.05-$0.10/kWh.

Without dramatically reducing these costs, Liberia simply won’t be able to compete with its neighbors on West Africa or with other developing countries with similar natural resources. These obviously aren’t the only challenges facing the economy, but they may just be the linchpin that holds up progress on nearly every other front. I won’t bore you with the whole network of connections between energy/infrastructure and other development priorities,* but let’s just say that all the stuff I care about depends on lowering those numbers. Now we just have to figure out how to do it.

Here’s hoping it’s just a Herculean, rather than a Sisyphean, task.


*If you’re really interested, I’ll email you the report I wrote last year on cross-sectoral advantages of prioritizing specific development interventions. Doesn’t that just sound thrilling?

12 January 2011

Read, Run, Repeat


I really didn’t intend this as a book review blog, and I’m sure the frenzied pace of reading will abate at some point in the near future, but I read another book over the weekend and thought I might as well not recommend it to you all. During my prowl through the Cezky Krumlov bookstore on New Year’s Eve, I decided to take a relatively big gamble on Dave Eggers, giving him two of five closely contested spots in my return flight stack-o-books. Honestly, I didn’t think it was such a gamble. I loved What is the What and everything else I knew about Eggers politically and personally. The man lives in Berkeley, wrote about Sudan before it was trendy, and started McSweeneys and a whole slew of storefront shops (including the pirate store!) to support kids’ writing endeavors. What’s not to love? Apparently, the answer is You Shall Know Our Velocity.

The hook for the book was good: two guys have a life-changing event and decide to go around the world and give away a substantial amount of money. The actual book was two guys going around the world doing incomprehensibly stupid things that made me alternate between cringing and raging. As an added bonus, it had pretty serious errors in both technical and substantive editing.

In trying to pin down why I disliked this book so much, I was tempted to think that I just don’t enjoy books with characters to whom I can’t relate or whose basic character traits I dislike. The more I think about that conclusion though, the less convinced I am. I adored Lolita, couldn’t get enough of Gatsby, and count a large number of dictator-driven plots among my favorites. I think that the book maybe just isn’t that good. Dave’s got another chance to come back with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (which I’m told is much better), but I’m implementing a two-strikes policy on authors, so he’d better make it up to me.

In non-book news, there really isn’t that much news to report. I’ve been told that the key to making it through the boredom and frustrations of a place like this is to develop routines. For a bunch of reasons both good and bad, mine got upended toward the end of November and I’m now trying to re-establish them. I’ve been running most evenings at sunset, a nice little 5k course through Capitol Hill that takes me past all three branches of government. Tides, the local ex-pat bar/rooftop lounge, has started movie nights on Tuesdays, offering the closest thing Monrovia has to a movie theater. Even though the same pirated US movies are available – remarkably quickly – on bootlegs all over town, there’s something nice about watching a movie outdoors with a group of somewhat-similarly situated people.

If I manage to keep a Ministry car for the weekends, I try to make it to the beach on Sundays when everything in town is closed. If not, I’ve been using my wily charms to get into one of the pools at the fancier compounds in town. For better or for worse, I’m now keenly aware of my need for Vitamin D and whatever else it is that sunshine offers, and without any public parks in town, pools and the beach are the best options for getting my fill of sun. Sunday nights have a pretty regular poker game which is a great way to stave off the gloom of impending Mondays. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I walk to work and back (staying there for roughly 8 hours in between), cook a good deal, listen to a ridiculous amount of BBC World Service, and make my way through old TV series I missed the first time through. Despite many offers of friendship from random people on the street while I run (“Hello, please be my friend.” “Hello, can I know you?” “Marry me baby”), it’s a pretty lonely existence, but one to which I’m slowly becoming accustomed.

And when all else fails, there is more lapa to be procured and there are more dresses to be designed. Here’s one of the newest efforts (and the last picture taken on my camera before it was stolen last week):