Ellen and Nicky Chime in

Here is an amazing article from the IHT. Amazing because you’ll notice that it’s written by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, and Nicky Oppenheimer, the Chairman of DeBeers (HT: Chris Blattman)

I subscribe – mostly – to the views expressed in this piece. The caveat is that for all the lofty rhetoric, the empirical evidence points to the fact that attempts at promoting private sector initiatives in Sub-Saharan Africa are met with a lot of resistance, both in-country and by the development industry.

The opinions put forward in the IHT article rest on the assumption that capitalism = good. I’m not going to challenge this notion, first of all because I think that debate has been taken up a few too many times, but mostly because whether or not we like or agree with this idea, it is the defining paradigm of the way the world works.

Of course, the way the world works is not always the way it should be working. But haven’t we learned that this is a useless point to make in this day and age? Enough futile attempts to dethrone capitalism as the dominant operating paradigm of our time – let’s work within it, make it work for those who need to be lifted out of poverty.

The problem is that if we are going to be functioning with this mindset, the way in which the entire aid/development industry operates needs to be reconsidered. And as my current hero, Elizabeth Pisani, has expressed, this type of industry is not reactive to changes and evolutions in the real world. A mere look at the Millenium Development Goals gives us a pretty good understanding of how aid agencies construe their work. As Andrew Natsios famously pointed out, arguing against the MDGs is like arguing against “motherhood and apple pie” – you simply can’t, because in and of themselves, these goals are desirable and ultimately good. But they do nothing to make developing nations – and particularly the LDCs of this world – become self-sustainable.

Natsios says:

The MDGs are also heavily weighted towards social services… In overemphasising these particular goals, we risk underemphasising the importance of equitable economic growth, good governance, and democracy, without which, we cannot produce the tax revenue to sustain the social services that the MDGs embrace. What is needed is a proper emphasis on economic growth as a necessary condition for social services, instead of vice versa.

One of my biggest issues with the MDGs is the emphasis placed on universal primary education. It did not take countries, schools, and NGOs very long to realize that this goal is essentially pointless if no proposition concerning the quality of education is associated with it. Furthermore, which countries have been able to raise its population out of absolute poverty by having its citizens educated at the 5th grade level? None. And the MDGs make no provision for university education – something which could really spur development.

This is Goal 2:

Goal 2 of the Millennium Development Goals sets out by the year 2015 to:

  • Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling

I’d like to use this opportunity to invite you to think about a completely different way of approaching aid – one of my favorite topics these days is bottom of the pyramid social entrepreneurship. That’s not the panacea either, but it certainly challenges a lot of dusty misconceptions about what development should be.


Just read this relevant piece from The Washington Post:

Shikwati and others cautiously suggest that the current situation is different. Enormous gaps between rich and poor persist in most sub-Saharan African countries, but there has been a slow trickle-down effect from the growing private sector, as jobs have been created in the cellphone industry, for instance, or tourism or banking.

Maggie Kigozi, executive director of the Uganda Investment Authority, attributes about 63,000 new jobs created in that country this year to growth in the private sector. Uganda has cut extreme poverty in half over the past decade — down to 30 percent of the population living on less than $1 a day — a fact that Kigozi also chalks up to private sector activity.

“We owe our success to that,” she said. “Not to the World Bank, and not to nongovernmental organizations,” she said, referring to aid groups.

They Come in the Name of Helping, reloaded

This article popped up in my Google Reader – 3 times.

The article itself, from The Washington Post, casts a critical eye on the affluence that foreigners live in while working in Liberia.

As this impoverished country climbs its way back from 13 years of civil war with the tiniest of steps, a boom is underway in the industries that cater to the rarified tastes of thousands of mostly European and U.S. expatriates who have come to help since peace arrived in 2003. The increasingly visible splendors available to this relatively wealthy group have left some Liberians wondering whether the foreigners are here to serve the nation or themselves.

I blogged about this topic a couple of months ago, after watching Peter Brock’s “They Come in the Name of Helping” – if you haven’t yet watched it, please do.

This story about sushi in Liberia popped up twice more in my reader – Chris Blattman and Rupert Simon both reacted to it (and, according to Blattman, it seems that a LOT of people picked up on this story)

Simon seems to side with the opinion expressed in the article:

… If only the sushi were made from local fish (fresh and delicious), I wouldn’t mind. But importing tuna and salmon to serve to aid workers, when the rest of the population can barely get enough rice (let alone fish), seems a little absurd.

Blattman, on the other hand, says – what’s the problem with a couple good restaurants?

My opinion is somewhere in the middle – I still believe that, in general, to have such a discrepancy between the way foreign aid workers and locals live is a problem – it distances the foreigners from the realities that they’re supposed to work on, and from the people they are supposed to assist. But that’s essentially the problem with development work that isn’t grassroots based.

On the other hand, I appreciate Blattman’s straight forwardness in the matter. Because when you work in difficult settings, far from your family and the comforts of home, sometimes, it’s nice to take a break. And that’s just the reality of it – aid workers are not super heros, they are human beings with needs and desires, and some people in Liberia know what those are, and are taking advantage of it – how entrepreneurial! (This is only half sarcastic)

In a lot of post-conflict settings and generally poor places where NGOs and IOs are active, aid workers always inject cash into the local economy. Some say it’s good (it boosts local economy, creates jobs, etc.), some say it’s bad (unsustainable). Whatever the case may be, it’s definitely a reality that needs to be contended with. Perhaps the negative effects of foreign affluence juxtaposed to local poverty can be mitigated by developing an approach where locals would benefit from in a sustainable manner – through job creation, using local resources (think local instead of imported fish for the now (in)famous Monrovia sushi restaurant mentioned above), etc.

If I end up traveling to Liberia this summer for The Niapele Project (fingers crossed), it will be interesting to see the reality of this juxtaposition.

Will Justice Prevail?

Buduburam camp.

I am exhausted.

After one week of intense campaigning, I feel like our little coalition is being met by brick walls and glass ceilings, no matter who we turn to.

I have to say that I am truly disappointed by the lack of interest in this situation demonstrated by the authorities and the media – a few grassroots media organizations have been following the situation closely, but what we’ve read in the news so far mostly misrepresents the situation – of course, when the dominating discourse is that of the authorities it becomes the legitimate Truth, and the voice of the forgotten is suppressed, or simply ignored.

I am absolutely heart broken by the current state of affairs – following today’s police raid on the camp, and ensuing beatings, arrests, and imminent deportation of innocent refugees, I am honestly considering changing the name of my blog to “Meanderings of a Young Deluded Idealist”

How is it possible that these people’s rights are being so blatantly trampled upon, and that no one shows a sign of caring? Where are the Angelina Jolies of this world? I suppose painting Easter eggs with their rainbow family, while innocents’ rights are being violated, as I write this.

I’ve contacted media organizations, press agencies, embassies, international organizations, and pulled every string I could think of – but, obviously, to no avail.

Here is our petition, calling for the safeguarding of the rights of refugees in Ghana – I don’t know if this will effect change in any way shape or form, but the least we can do is try.

The Humanitarian-to-Development Gap

“The situation in Liberia is a reminder that the international community has yet to come to grips with the humanitarian-to-development gap,” the OCHA [UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] report noted. “It would indeed be troubling were Liberians to be worse off now with peace than they were when humanitarian aid was reaching them in the immediate post-conflict period.”(read full IRIN report here)

Yes, it would be troubling, if you use the word “troubling” as a euphemism.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place – part 3

Besides resettlement and repatriation, the third – and possibly most elusive – option for refugees is local integration. Interestingly, as I write this, hundreds of Liberian women are protesting in the Buduburam refugee camp, seeking “an immediate redress to [their] plight.” In a fascinating turn of events, Liberian women are calling upon the UNHCR, the government of Ghana and other relevant authorities to help them resettle in Liberia. You can read an article relating these events, as well as the open letter expressing the grievances of this group here. The women are very clear – they are not interested in local integration programs, primarily because of a deeply embedded fear of discrimination. The article relates some gruesome stories about murders and attacks on refugees by the local population – when in Buduburam, I remember hearing such stories, with photos of dismembered individuals to support the claims. The women also seem to believe that true integration is simply not a possibility for them – that Ghanaian society will not be able to accomodate them.

Finally, the women ask for $1000 per household member to return to Liberia, as well as a variety of reintegration programs to be put in place for them as returnees. While the rationale for this stance is understandable from their perspective, I – unfortunately – strongly believe that these demands will never be met by the UNHCR.

I truly admire these women for their tenacity – The Niapele Project field coordinator, Jessica Leombruno, is providing us with updates from the field on a regular basis, and their movement is a peaceful one, done in the pure tradition of non-violent civil action, and, for this, I commend them. We hear how they have been on the main soccer field, day in and day out, for weeks, sleeping outside, even in the rain – their determination and courage is inspiring.

Nonetheless, there are some aspects of this movement that seem counter-productive – for instance, school children are encouraged not to attend school and to “strike” with their mothers, aunts and sisters. While this is a powerful way to express the seriousness of the situation, it is to the detriment of these children, for who education is an absolute necessity. The school that The Niapele Project is partenered with has been shut down due to this strike, and, as a result, the School Feeding Program is not functioning either, depriving the elementary school children of the daily meal they normally receive.

The government of Ghana is now making it clear that it will not tolerate this situation for very long, and is calling on the women to end their strike, which is in breach of the Public Order Act of 1994. Representatives from the UNHCR and the Ghana Refugee Board have apparently met with the women to discuss their grievances (unsuccessfully), and the Liberian Welfare Council (the only officiously elected body that represents the interests of the Liberian refugees in Buduburam), as well as the Camp Manager, have not been supportive. Sadly, it seems that no one is taking their claims very seriously.

At the same time, their demands are not driven by pragmatism, and reflect the lack of understanding of how the institutions that are supposed to represent and support them function. I highly doubt the UNHCR will grant each refugee $1000 (in cash!), and accede to the demands for scholarship programs for returness in Liberia. The UNHCR and the Ghana Refugee Board have been diverting funds and attention towards local integration and self-reliance programs, and towards initiatives benefiting returnees already in Liberia.

Furthermore, the UNHCR budget for programs benefiting Liberian refugees in Ghana is dwindling – from $9.6 million in 2007 to $5 million (projected) for 2009. Only $20,000/year is dedicated to income generation programs… The reality is that the UNHCR will not continue to support this community, and that asking them to spend 10s of millions of dollars on repatriation efforts is not a realistic demand. It’s extremely unfortunate that this movement is not better organized and better informed.

The UNHCR, the Ghana Refugee Board and other relevant authorities cannot stand by idly while this is going on – dialogue has to occur, and these women need to acknowledged. If authorities are going to privilege local integration, then more needs to be done to communicate the benefits of this to refugees. Their concerns about insecurity and discrimination have got to be addressed, and MUCH MORE than $20,000 needs to be spent on creating economic opportunities for them. Perhaps other UN agencies or international NGOs could step in to create large scale micro-credit programs, as well as provide educational and training opportunities for this community. For now, however, apart from the UNHCR and the WFP (whose contributions to improving refugee livelihoods in Buduburam is subpar), there are absolutely no other international organizations providing that sort of service.

It’s very disconcerting to see the complete lack of understanding that exists between the refugees and the institutions that are responsible for them. Local integration could actually benefit the refugees of Buduburam – Ghana is a much more economically dynamic country than Liberia, and opportunities could be created for this community, which already contributes to the vitality of the local economy by patronizing Ghanain businesses.

Perhaps a solution to this would be to provide Liberian refugees with the opportunity to become economically active, and encourage them to save money in order to return to Liberia proudly – on their own dime – when they are ready. This could be a long, difficult process, but it could be the only possible compromise between the stakeholders.

We just got a group of students together at Sciences Po for The Niapele Project- they’re going to be researching and writing a paper defining and benchmarking best practices in protracted refugee crises – how governments and international agencies should structure their disengagement and construct durable solutions based on the reality of each affected community.

The events taking place in Buduburam are testament to the fact that the modus operandi adopted until now by international agencies and the Ghana Refugee Board needs to evolve – more consultations with the local population, better information and communication, as well as more implication of the refugees in identifying and implementing solutions, are vital.

“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”
~ Margaret Thatcher

Stuck between a rock and a hard place – part 2

Last post, I discussed why repatriation, which is favored by the UNHCR as a “durable solution” for dealing with refugees, is a flawed policy.

“Securing durable solutions for refugees is a principal goal of international protection and part of UNHCR’s mandate. These solutions can take three different forms: (i) voluntary repatriation to the home country; (ii) resettlement in another country or; (iii) finding appropriate permanent integration mechanisms in the host country[…]

Among the three durable solutions, voluntary repatriation is the one which generally benefits the largest number of refugees. Resettlement of refugees is a key protection tool and a significant burden and responsibility-sharing mechanism. Local integration, the third durable solution, is a legal, socio-economic and political process by which refugees progressively become part of the host society.”(Source: 2006 UNHCR Statistical Report – released December 2007)

As I previously discussed, voluntary repatriation sounds great in theory, and can be a pragmatic solution in practice, but it fails to recognize and deal with the psychological, social trauma of displaced populations. Celina and Kristin both recently brought up issues related to resettlement of refugees in third countries – a fascinating topic.

Recently, Dave Eggers shed light on this topic with his book “What is the What”, which retraces the life of Valentino Achak Deng from peaceful times in Southern Sudan as a boy, to becoming an orphan refugee, to being a resettled refugee in the United States. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. You can read a review here.


Thousands of Liberian refugees were resettled to the United States since the 1990s, partly because of the natural connection between the United States and Liberia – which was founded by freed American slaves – , and partly because the United States has a tradition of taking in refugees and asylum seekers from around the world.

note: another incredible book about resettling in the United States, which has nothing to do with Liberians, but is absolutely fantastic, is “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down”. It depicts how difficult integration can be for foreigners – in this particular book, it focuses on the strikingly different cultural approaches to medicine, illness and healing. You can read a review here

Many of the Liberian refugees that have been resettled in the United States face some daunting challenges – first of all, the US government has decided to place these refugees in what seems to be the most random of communities – Minnesota is now home to one of the largest Liberian communities in the US, and places such as Philadelphia, Tennessee and Georgia are also hosting this influx of refugees.

The first and foremost issue encountered by resettled refugees is to find a way to integrate into their host communities – after years of living in the direst of circumstances, dealing with murder, rape, and other atrocities, refugees are parachuted into a new and unknown society. Thankfully, a lot of Liberians being resettled already have a family member present in the United States (family reunification is one of the few reasons for which asylum or resettlement is granted).

Nonetheless, as this investigative report highlights, integration in local communities is far from easy – Liberian refugees have suffered greatly from discrimination, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, seeing as most foreigners from developing nations arriving in Western countries usually receive poor treatment.

Excerpt: “An African-American woman [in South-West Philly] walked up to one of them [ Liberian refugee child], picked up his hand and said: “My God, how did you get so black?”
(Listen to the full NPR report here: “Liberian Youth in US Find Threat from New Violence“)

In spite of the difficulties of adjusting to the “American Way of Life”, most Liberians in the United States have been there for years, and have successfully managed to rebuild their lives – a lot are home owners, have jobs, pay taxes and play a vital role in enriching the micro economic life of the communities which host them. Now, as the war in Liberia has subsided, the United States is getting ready to lift the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) which it has given to Liberian refugees (this has already happened to Sierra Leonan refugees in the 90s).

Refugees coming to the US are not given permanent residence, or citizenship, nor do they have actual refugee status – the TPS, as NPR notes, “first granted in 1991, as Liberia descended into a decade of brutal conflict, [is] something of a fallback for those who don’t qualify as a refugee and can’t obtain a permanent green card through marriage or work.”

As I write this, it seems that this matter has not been resolved – a bi-partisan bill was introduced in Congress in April 2007 to extend the TPS for Liberian refugees, but it apparently has not been voted on. Looking at legislative records, it seems that similar legislation has been introduced year after year, always ending up “dead” – for details, click here or here.

It seems really ridiculous (and I’m weighing my words) to want to deport these people, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, some of them have been in the United States for literally decades, have American-born children, and are fully integrated into their local communities. How dare we uproot these people again? How dare we try to tear them away from their lives? And to go back to what??

Secondly, as is pointed out in this NPR report, the livelihoods of entire Liberian communities in West Africa depend on the remittances and goods sent from family members resettled in Western countries, particularly the US. In Buduburam, there are two (not one – TWO) Western Union branches, through which transit the only stable form of income for most of the refugees. There are two types of refugees in Buduburam: those with and those without relatives in Western countries, and the difference is striking. Depriving these refugees of this vital lifeline is tantamount to depriving them of their right to life. The Liberian government estimates that remittances to Liberia from the United States average $6 million each month, according to Charles Minor, the country’s ambassador in Washington.

Thirdly, and this is the kicker – this is what Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia had to say about sending resettled refugees back to Liberia:

Liberia needs time to rebuild and recover and is unfortunately not in a position to absorb and provide for an influx of refugees”
(read full article here)

And the Liberian ambassador to Washington adds that

“This could jeopardize our progress.
We don’t have the housing stock, the schools or the medical facilities to support this many returnees as yet
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made job creation a top priority, Minor said, but the country cannot yet provide employment for thousands of returning Liberians, even if they have skills and experience.

(In case you weren’t already convinced that Liberia was in no way able to take in tens of thousands of returning refugees from previous posts (like this one, or this one), then check out this report discussing the utter lack of trash collection in Liberia.)


Now, for those who have been following my “meanderings”, don’t you find this slightly ironic?
On the one hand, we are encouraging Liberian refugees in Ghana to return home to Liberia (because it’s “fine” there now), and on the other hand, the Liberian Head of State recognizes that Liberia is in no position to absorb an influx of refugees.

There are about 5,000 Liberians risking deportation in the United States.
There are about 40,000 Liberians in Ghana.

So the UNHCR and other international organizations, as well as donors, are no longer willing to spend their money on Liberians displaced in West Africa, and want them to return to their home country, because it “benefits the largest number of refugees”. Meanwhile, the government of Liberia is acting schizophrenic, by both supporting this first policy, and explaining to the United States that it’s in no position to absorb a measly few thousand Liberians (who are much more well off than their relatives who stayed in West Africa).

That makes no sense.
It simply doesn’t.

Meanwhile, thousands of refugees in Ghana are still hoping to be resettled. They call it “travelling”, and a lot of them think it will soon be their turn – because their aunt/cousin/sister is there, because God wants it that way, because that is the only possibility they are willing or capable to envisage… There are so many reasons why Liberian refugees cling on to this possibility.

As time passes, the likelihood of resettlement gets slimmer and slimmer, but, nonetheless, Liberians still believe.

I have seen the UNHCR boards in Buduburam notifying the community that resettlement to the United States was officially over, but still – people believe.

There is a total lack of appropriate socio-cultural communication between the UNHCR and other relevant authorities, and the refugee population. This absolutely needs to change if long term, durable solutions are to be created for Liberian (and other) refugees who find themselves in protracted situations, which, apparently, is what the UNHCR is trying to do…