Monday, September 24, 2007


On Saturday morning I bought a pair of Fila basketball shoes along Riverside market for 22 USD. The vendor wanted 26, but a friend of mine persuasively bargained him down. Just northwest of downtown, Riverside market is a hubbub of activity on Saturdays. It had been the largest market in Monrovia before the war, and has just recently been outpaced by Red Light.

Local commerce in Liberia is somewhat of a wonder to me - mostly because the national infrastructure is prohibitively underdeveloped. Where there are roads, it is conceivable that goods and services will follow. The goods may be well worn - at least several points removed from their point of origin and, mostly likely, destination - but if there’s a near by road then patience will eventually yield profit.

At Monrovia's Riverside, there is an endless stream of pedestrian traffic and international contractors to provide a market. What’s puzzling, however, is where the goods came from in the first place. There’s an endless variety of American throw backs: from squeaky clean Air Jordans, college football jerseys, Tupperware, dishware, Singer sewing machines, etc. Equally represented are Middle Eastern and German goods – though these nationalities have a stronger hold in grocery and convenience stores than street side markets. The goods themselves are seemingly new. Granted the dress shoes may need a polish, but on whole, merchandise appears to be stream into the country on a regular basis.

To my knowledge, however, the road to Riverside isn’t any less mogul-ish than those in the rest of the city. There are two traversable roads that run the length of Liberia, and they are often impassable during rainy season, so commercial vehicles are rare. Roberts Field International (the airport) is the end (or beginning) of every flight that passes through Monrovia – and I can’t speak to ever having heard of a rail system. Further still (and largely by consequence), Liberia completely lacks manufacturing capability. Though resource rich, Liberia’s raw materials are shipped abroad for processing and manufacturing. Not even Firestone (as I understand it) has a manufacturing plant in country. What’s left, then, as the commercial portico to the country, but its seaports? My guess (which I’ve had confirmed by just two acquaintances) is that certain “rights of passage” are understood between merchants and those working the docks. A small offering of incoming merchandise may ensure the safety of the rest of the shipment.

The coast is hub for various spokes of commercial exchange - legal and extralegal. In the earliest morning hours, young men push wheelbarrows of sand from the shore towards inland neighborhoods, where they reinforce structures and walls with sand bags. Smaller boys carry buckets of snails to the markets, and fisherman frequent the waters from dawn to dusk. So, I suppose, it’s reasonable to image goods of all kinds, from all countries, making their way to Riverside.

The shoes fit, that’s for sure – but I’m withholding further judgment until I see how well they wear.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Work in Transit

I’m sitting in the Nissan pick up on Benson Street just East of downtown Monrovia; we’ve been motionless for 30 minutes. Our driver, visibly flustered, is trying to coordinate with the office manager to see how to get the rest of the staff to a three o’clock meeting on the other side of town.

Resigned to passing the afternoon in the car, I decided to pop my laptop and get some work done. As I’m opening Excel files full of distribution plans, our driver exhales, disgusted, and gets out of the car to go encourage a taxi driver to move through the intersection.

So, I’ve found myself sitting in a Nissan pick up, typing on my MacBook… motionless in the middle of a street that is overrun with vendors and students on their way home from school. An atypical, though not unprecedented, day at the office.

Banking on Broad Street

There are two, relatively convenient ways to withdraw US Dollars from a bank in Monrovia: writing a check to yourself or wiring money to a local account from a bank in the US. This afternoon, I chose the former of the two and found myself carrying an uncomfortable amount of cash as I exited International Bank onto Broad Street.

One of four commercial banks in Liberia, IB was located within an UNMIL held area during the war, and has been active throughout the past 15 years of turmoil. This was also the case with the other four, commercial banks in Liberia, as well as the state owned Central Bank. International Bank sits across from the Executive Compound and Palm Hotel (and Chinese Restaurant). It is an American owned bank that acts as an intermediary for those wiring funds from abroad and cashes personal checks. At the teller wind charged me $18 for an “import tax,” which he explained was necessary because International Bank must import American Dollars. Though I hesitated at this explanation, the local accountant I was with assured me this was commonplace – and, more importantly, a lesser fee than I would have paid to wire the money.

My experience, on whole, was perfectly smooth. For most locals, however, this is generally not the case. In a recent conversation I learned that applying for a loan is a prohibitively complicated process. Take for instance, the process of property appraisal at the Liberian Bank of Development and Investment.

The Liberian Bank of Development and Investment (LBDI) is the largest Liberian run bank in the country. According to one Liberian friend, to have his property valued as leverage to take out a loan, the speculation process would take (“easily”) over a year. Furthermore, the bank would take the property at face value – meaning they would value an acre at the current price of an acre, rather than granting the owner a loan that would enable them to build on that acre. I am, admittedly, unfamiliar with the speculation process, and therefore unsure as to how common of a practice this is. I’ll do a bit of research on the topic, but I’m more than interested to hear any comments on this subject from anyone reading. Regardless, my friend attested to the fact that the process would be far easier and more lucrative for a Lebanese businessman or other international.

It will be interesting to follow LBDI transactions over the course of the year – or perhaps open an account to get a more intimate perspective.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Merit and Peace

This past weekend I moved from the apartment in Sincor where I had stayed for two weeks to a new residence in the Mamba Point district of Monrovia. Before leaving the the Sincor neighborhood, I went for a stroll through the streets surrounding the JFK Hospital.

As I wandered from the compound gates towards the seaside, I met a young UNMIL soldier sitting under a palm tree shining his shoes. He was on duty for the morning, he remarked, but it had been a quiet day thus far. He asked about the work I was doing and where I was moving. This banter led to his description of his own home in Nigeria and the tours in which he had served as a UN peacekeeper. He also volunteered a comparison of his time spent in West Africa, which didn't fare favourably for Liberia:

"Ooh, it's so heavy here," referring, I presumed, to the humidity of the rainy season.

"And it gets so hot," I found this comment surprising, given he'd lived all his life within the region.

"But, most of all, the city is so sad. Freetown, in Freetown, there is much to do." I'd heard this observation made many times before. The capital of Sierra Leone is rumored to be much more developed (better roads, more reliable utilities) and recreation-friendly (the options for R&R in Monrovia are limited, with fewer local/international hang outs that other capital cities).

"But, I found him here, and that makes me happy." With this, the solider nodded to a small german shepard which, to this point, had been lounging in the shade nearby. I don't typically use names in this blog, but in this case, I asked special permission of this new friend to share this detail.

"His name is Peace, because that's what I bring."

"That's an excellent name," I responded, offering the solidier my own name, "and what is yours?"

"Merit. M-e-r-i-t."

Maybe Merit was being poetic, or maybe he just enjoyed injecting irony into conversation.

Or, maybe, Merit really did find Peace in Monrovia, and they're keeping careful watch over a compound in Sincor.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Monkey Named Soup… And, Lessons in Management

Tonight, at a dinner party in a house overlooking UN Drive, I met a monkey named “Soup.” The owner, our most generous host for the evening, had adopted the small female monkey in Madagascar to save it from an alternate fate as dinner course. While native Liberian monkeys hail from the Northern Lofa County, I’ve seen a number of pet monkeys over the past few weeks; most are kept on leashes, though I’ve seen a couple tied to trees. My first impression of this particular chimp was that her cage was far to small – but I suppose it beats a soup bowl any day.

CHAI Liberia welcomed three new staff members today; two doctors and a nurse, all Yale Fellows. The event was occasion for convening a number of the Deputy Ministers, inviting a slew of introductions and ad hoc speeches, and reviewing the CHAI development model and mission in Liberia. There were two key themes for the day, both came in the form of toasts: first, this is a time of reform in Liberia, rather than reconstruction; and two, the role of the “trusted adviser” hinges on keeping one’s distance from party politics.

On this latter point, Liberia today offers great opportunity to build and employ a-typical management skills. There is a vacuum of experience for many mid-to-upper level ministry positions and, subsequently, a high demand for consultants. Because internationals, those “without a dog in the fight,” are perceived as offering objective advice, they have the ability to positively impact policy on many levels. While it is tempting, at times, to take a more aggressive approach to meeting goals and deadlines, it is vital to the long-term success of development initiative here (and elsewhere, for that matter) to achieve success through local implementers. The Clinton Foundation places a great deal of emphasis on the practice of “reform through government.” In fact, CHAI programs are established exclusively at the bequest of host governments. CHAI employees work as government employees, offering technical support and promoting the institutions they advise. My impression, thus far, is that this model has achieved impressive results in the field public health and hold great potential in other sectors.

In short, lessons in management (or development negotiation) thus far include:

1. Never enter a meeting without knowing the outcome
2. Reform through local government, rather than acting as an implementing partner
3. Treat every draft as a final draft - I've already had one instance where a questionnaire I "drafted" was implemented as a final copy
4. Know your customer(s)
5. Publicizing objectives only limits the scope of your work
6. Aspire to remain under the radar; anonymity offers leverage

and more to follow...

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Orange Limes, Green Oranges...

... and snails bigger than your fist.

On saturday morning, in a market directly across from the former army barracks on UN drive hundreds of vendors gather to sell fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, meat, fish, and a variety of other items. I went this morning with coworkers and couple Liberian friends to find produce and see what the local market had to offer.

There are a few men who trade American and Liberian dollars, but they typically offer a worse exchange rate than you would find elsewhere (maybe 50 LD to every USD). I saw a handful of men selling fish as well, but majority of those “behind the counter”, so to speak, were women of varying ages. The “uma” (an affectionate term for older ladies) are more than willing to offer advice on how to prepare the food. A coworker and I bought two dozen crawfish for 200 LD and were told that they were best if boiled and dropped into a peppery soup. The range of seafood is impressive - there are lots of snapper, what look like string ray (scuttlefish, maybe), and eel, among others. The meats are equally diverse - and at times, difficult to distinguish. Tens of people hurried through the market with trays of pigs feet and a range of chicken parts. I can’t vouch for when exactly the meat is chopped - I did see one pile of chicken wilting on a scale that had a greenish hue to it. In some case, there is still animal hair on the bones. Most notably, we passed a small stand of what I hope were monkey arms. Meats are available both fresh and dried. In preparing either form I was told to clean the meat and either fry it or boil it thoroughly before including it in any recipe.

The fruits are fantastic - more specifically, plantains may be a staple of my diet over the next few months. The grilled plantains and cassava (which tastes a bit like a potato grilled) off the side of the road that are delicious if cooked all the way through. I’ve seen fresh bananas consistently and pineapples and papayas the size of small watermelons. There are tiny eggplants, large squash, and greens of all kinds. I’m also looking forward to the freshly ground peanut butter which is mixed is a 10+ gallon bucket and spooned into small plastic bags for individual purchase (I’ve heard it’s best to bring your own bag). In short, I’m looking forward to experimenting with different dishes.

Outside of roadside stands and these downtown markets, the majority of commercial activity seems to be done by Lebanese companies though I’ve noticed a few Liberian brands on the shelf (I just purchase Mamie’s Peanut Butter, which is at least packed in Monrovia). There is a large Lebanese merchant population in Monrovia which owns a number of the more prominent apartment buildings, hotels, restaurants, office buildings (including a J-Mart), and grocery stores. Other West African countries have a solid presence as well, such as West African Telecom; as does the Danish shipping industry, Maersk. There are, of course, a myriad of oddities (french ice cream mix, for example) and the ubiquitous international brands, such as Coca Cola.

I think commerce in Monrovia is particularly dynamic because is serves two very distinct markets (local versus international) and has a vibrant supply chain - the size of the shipping industry keeps the ports actively complementing the already rich the natural resources.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

One week in...

Today, during my evening run, I had a close call with a machete. Though typically imposing, the instruments are quite practical for cutting through dense grass and plants (or anything else for that matter) and are common along the streets in Monrovia. I was jogging with a CHAI coworker and a South African pilot in Sincor, a neighborhood in eastern Monrovia, and was jumping around potholes in the road which had filled with mud. I hopped, not-so-gracefully, towards a corner of the street covered by plants and stepped forward just in time to see a machete clear the path. If anything, this first week has proven that the year ahead will keep me on my toes.

I returned to Liberia one week ago as of last night, landing at Roberts International Airfield on schedule and with all of my luggage. I enjoy landing at RI; it’s a small airport and passengers disembark via ladder to pour into a very crowded customs office. I’m looking forward to completing the necessary paperwork to warrant stand in the “resident alien” line.

Wednesday was a day of logistics. I headed into the office, delivered all technology I packed for the office (I carried three laptops, an MP3 player, and a phone), bought a phone, talked to a couple landlords, priced office supplies, and took a very excited trip to the tailors. One of the CHAI employees is working to refurbish a room at the JFK Hospital in the Sincor neighborhood and subsequently making curtains for the pediatric ward. The primary cost is the cloth itself. Two or three yards may cost 10-15 US Dollars, depending on the material, and the service charge may range from 7-15 USD, depending on the order. Typically a shirt it less than 15 USD.

Friday proved to be a fast orientation to both the M.O. of meetings in Liberia and some of the key issues of the next couple weeks. I arrived at the National AIDS Control Program (NACP) for a 10 o’clock meeting; we started at 10:30 and ran (at a steady clip) until about 3 before everyone’s attention started to wane. The focus was on creating indicators with which to measure the quality of services offered by health facilities throughout the country. While I am working directly with the NACP Supply Chain Manager, much of our work will relate to the process of Monitoring and Evaluating (M&E).

At the close of business Friday I went with a couple coworkers to a happy hour at the American Embassy. The embassy, despite being of smaller size, sits in an enormous compound - fit with a helicopter pad in case an emergency evacuation is necessary. Apparently, during the war, the apartments nearest to the American embassy were the most expensive in the city because tenants were willing to pay premium for the security offered by the embassy and nearby UN buildings. To a certain extent, rent in apartment in this Mamba Point neighborhood are still high. Happy hour was... happy... with plenty of Heineken to go ‘round.

This past weekend was a welcome time to wrap my head a few work project - then unwind while getting to know a bit more of the city. I went to a Hash run on Saturday (a story unto it’s own), followed shortly after by a party hosted by a number of UNMIL characters. As the Liberian police force is still in its infancy, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has thousands of men and women on the ground to train local officials. Logically enough, each battalion is referred to as the first syllable of the country name followed by “bat”. For example, a battalion from Ghana may be called GhanBat. “BanBat,” a battalion of women from Bangladesh guards the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Monday brought more meetings - though the discussion this week has been a bit more lively than I’d seen earlier. The top priority for the coming weeks is preparing for the LFA (Local Fund Agent) to inspect the Global Fund mission here in Liberia. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria (GFATM) is the primary donor of antiretrovirals (ARVs) in Liberia. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is the primary recipient of these fund and thus the chief procurement party. UNDP works with the National AIDS Control Program (NACP) to forecast the demand of supplies and I, in turn, am offering technical support to the Supply Chain Manager at NACP. The report submitted by the LFA may significantly impact the funding Global Fund devotes to Liberia, and subsequently the supply of ARVs in the country. Thus, we are all putting the majority of our energy into ensuring that the hospital facilities the LFA will visit are prepared to demonstrate their capacity to manage HIV/AIDS tests and treatments.

Amidst the focus on this more serious topic, everyone enjoyed brief comic relief at the expense of a small mouse in an NACP conference room. In the middle of her sentence, a UN speaker gasped a bit, shook her head and, pointing across the room, said, “I’m sorry, I can’t speak, there is something moving over there!” The remainder of the meeting went much more quickly in spite of the distraction.

Tomorrow I will go to the Firestone Hospital (of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company) in Margibi County for the first of several visits to prepare for the LFA inspection. No doubt, it will be yet another day of something new and unexpected.