Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Americans Follow Their Money"

The President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) is a commitment made on the part of President George Bush to increase funding for the prevention and treatment of malaria worldwide by over 1.2 billion dollars over a five year period.

I thought this was a generous use of our national resources, but was hardly surprised to hear more than a hint of resentment regarding the appropriation of these funds from those working in the National Malaria Control Program (NMCP).

It was a slight ironic situation, sitting at the NMCP across the desk from a Database Manager, listening to his impression of the PMI.

“Americans always follow their money. That is how your country works. You make promises, but then you send consultants and there are strings attached; we purchase primarily American products. Of the 12 million dollars a year that Liberia receives from the PMI, 3/4s of that goes right back to the US – buying supplies, paying for salaries, things like that.”

I felt like I had walked into the pages of “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” – without the glitz and glamour. I’d been working with a man from NMCP to pull together the PSM Plan for Round 7 of the Global Fund Grant. I’d waited an hour for our meeting to start (due, in large part, to burgeoning traffic in the downtown area) and my patience was relatively thin.

“Well, even three million is start. Let’s look through this budget and see what we’re missing for the grant.”

Botched Demilitarization

In Spring of 2003, an ECOMOG peacekeeping mission composed of S’Leonian troops landed at Roberts International Airfield; the task of demilitarizing ex-combatants was among their chief priorities. Street fighting in Monrovia had subsided over the past few months, and many citizens felt that Liberia, in fact, was demilitarized.

“That is what surprised so many people,” a friend of mine recounted, as we sat at a beach in Sincor, Monrovia.

“People thought the war was over, until ECOMOG and UNMIL troops began offering money for remaining weapons. One of the largest collection points was on Randall Street at Stop and Shop [one of three major grocery stores in downtown Monrovia]. Troops offered up to 100 dollars (USD) for a rifle, and 50 dollars for three shots… I remember standing on the street and watching children and old ladies come with reels of ammunition.

“This did not have the desired effect, however, because during the war, Taylor and his opponents armed their soldiers. People were given weapons to go to the front lines – so even those who already owned arms received guns. Many people had two or three AK 47s.

“The system of purchasing weapons was also just dangerous. One time, UNMIL ran out of money and had to tell a crowd of people bearing guns and ammunition that they would not receive the money they expected.”

The demilitarization of Liberia, according to many, is a job left undone. Particularly in the outer counties, communities possess stockpiles of weapons; further still, many Monrovians believe they would require little persuasion to put them to use. Ex-combatants, and armed civilians for that matter, are know to have sunk weapons in nearby using sealed containers filled with oil; the lakes make ideal hiding grounds and the oil lubricates the guns and artillery such that they may be surfaced and used years later.

What would be the most effective way to route a county of such weapons? Today, UN peacekeeping missions continue to offer money for arms in southern Sudan (among other places, I would imagine). Money for guns is standard operating procedure. Though clearly this process was not fully successful in Liberia, the practice is still used and the implementers are still thought to be vital to the peace in Liberia.

“UNMIL cannot pull out of Liberia yet. Though we all agree they cannot be permanent, they must stay until people have faith in the new army [the Armed Forces of Liberia]. For now, it’s just too soon.”

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Strangers At the Door

American Airlines neglected to get one of my suitcases (incidentally, the one with the electronics I was carrying for our office) onto my flight departing Boston; I realized this at Heathrow’s baggage claim, when I was racing to get to Gatwick for my flight to Monrovia. Luckily for me, AA connected my suitcase to an SN Brussels flight. That flight arrived today - and after a speedy unpacking job, I confirmed that everything arrived.

I was at my apartment early this afternoon to finish this task and decided to show our landlord a broken screen in one of our windows while I was home. Mohammed inspected the window and said he would send someone up to fix it later.

I quickly made lunch, and no sooner had I sat down than I heard someone knock on the door, then saw a face peering through the window. Assuming this was the man to fix my window, I unlocked the door … and found no one. I walked onto the porch in time to see a man leaving the compound – the garage door was open, unattended of course.

This is at least the third time that I’ve been home, midday (previous times were Sundays), and someone has knocked and disappeared. Based on my apartment’s earlier experience with someone finding the door open, and subsequently cleaning out a purse sitting in a living room, I can only imagine that people have success with just trying to open various doors.

2008 in Liberia

For a NH native so engrossed by American politics it takes quite a bit of motivation to leave the state two days before US primary elections. But, on Sunday evening, I pulled myself away from campaign-hysteria and slid down to Logan International to catch a flight back to Monrovia – hoping to find the unpredictable, ever-entertaining scene I’d left on Dec 17th.

Monrovia did not disappoint. In fact, random, bizarre hilarity began with the flight we took to Monrovia. As Gatwick’s moving sidewalk accelerated my walk towards the departure gate, my peripheral vision caught the glimpse of a Nordic-looking figure on the tail of a plane. At a full stare, the plane read “Iron Maiden: the 2008 Tour”. Check it out:

Of course, this was our plane from Gatwick to Monrovia. Iron Maiden, we learned, was going on tour the following month (not in Liberia, incidentally). The lead singer, furthermore, is a certified pilot. Who knows.

We landed on time – in stark contrast to our flight departing Monrovia, which was 7 hours late. We stalled on the runway for about 15 minutes, before the flight attendants informed us that the rolling staircase was not attaching to the plane, and we should subsequently mind the gap.

Heeding the stewardess's warning, I stepped onto the platform (the “gap” couldn’t have been six inches wide) to the immediate stench of burning rubber. I hadn’t forgotten how heavily the air in Liberia sits in the lungs, but I wasn’t really prepared for the smell. Quite honestly, I didn’t recognize the new odor; my roommate identified it later that evening.

I’d had a long vacation – but Monrovia appeared to have made more progress that I’d expected. Blocks and blocks of Tubman Boulevard had been repaved and dumpsters had been distributed throughout the city. Where piles of rubbish used to steam, there now sat enormous, yellow dumpsters. I was thrilled to see (and smell) this improvement. Every morning I jog by a pile of trash, which at least, now is elevated above nose level.

Ironically enough, while jogging this morning I noticed two teenage girls emptying the trash. It looked like they were sorting – for what, exactly, I’m unsure. It was early morning, though, so they’d have all day to sell their findings. The image seemed to capture both that Liberia the speed at which Liberia is changing and raise the question as how the changes will effect the lives of average citizens.