Monday, September 1, 2008

Leaving Liberia (or, "Why Liberia? Part 2")

After 2 short months, my time in Liberia came to an end, but not without an incredible farewell party hosted by the Ministry of Gender and Development!

I was leaving the next day, and Jenny (the intern from Princeton) and a woman named Paavani (United Nations Development Programme) were leaving soon, so the Ministry held us a goodbye party that I will never forget.

There were signs all over the conference room, wishing us well. I was overcome with emotion when I saw and read them. There were a series of beautiful speeches, we were given many really generous gifts, there was a great meal, and then lots of dancing. Then we, ourselves, were asked to give farewell speeches.

In my speech, after all of my thank you's, I referred to one of my first blog entries in which described the question I had been getting: "Why Liberia" and my 6 answers. As you may recall, I listed:

1) Historic moment for Liberia and I want to witness and contribute
2) Leadership of President Johnson Sirleaf
3) Leadership at the Ministry of Gender and Development
4) My love of West Africa!
5) How well the work complemented my graduate studies
6) Opportunity to live/work with "Team Liberia"

My farewell speech continued with four new reasons for going to Liberia, reasons I never could have known without being there for a summer, but those that made it an incredible summer.

7) Wonderful new "friends and family" at the Ministry of Gender and Development -- my colleagues were terrific people and great to get to know.

8) Realizing how dedicated the Ministry of Gender and Development was to their mandate and mission. From empowering rural women to lead and distributing rain boots to female farmers, to running community youth parties on the holidays to keep children safe and raising public awareness about gender issues, this is an organization that has an important mission and is committed to meeting and exceeding it.

9) The work was absolutely exhilarating and made me realize that I want to devote much of my professional life to international development, gender issues (e.g., girls' and women's empowerment, addressing sexual and gender based violence), and leadership.

10) Jenny -- the most unexpected and amazing colleague and friend. It was a privilege to work by her side all summer.

I will deeply miss Liberia, its people, and the Ministry of Gender and Development, but I hope to be back.... soon.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

My Work at the Ministry of Gender and Development

This blog has primarily covered issues about Liberian leadership, culture, holidays, athletics, post-conflict recovery, etc. I have not written a great deal about my work this summer, which represented the vast amount of my time, energy, passion, stress, and joy -- so I will share that now.

The Liberian Government asked me to create a brief report on my achievements, constraints, and recommendations. Below is what I submitted to them:


Coordinated and executed management audit of the Ministry of Gender and Development (MoGD)
• Conducted—through research, interviews, and observation—a thorough diagnostic of MoGD processes, organizational structure, systems, management, coordination, supervision, mandate, etc.
• Submitted 60-page Assessment Report on analysis, findings, and recommended way forward

Designed and conducted workshops for MoGD senior management and employees
• Co-designed and facilitated five-hour leadership workshop for MoGD supervisors (including Minister, two Deputy Ministers, one Assistant Minister, all Directors and Chief of Sections)
• Co-designed and facilitated five-hour workshop for all MoGD employees analyzing the MoGD Mandate and establishing a vision for the Ministry
• (The latter two workshops received evaluations of 9 out of 10, and almost all participants reported that they would utilize tools offered and lessons learned, and that they gained a better understanding of leadership, their own responsibilities, and the MoGD Mandate)
• Co-designed and facilitated five hours of technical workshops on Microsoft Office (approximately 60 employees attended; most reported they would use lessons learned on a daily basis in their work); followed up with private tutorials

Produced Resource Packets for MoGD and GoL Ministries
• Created “MoGD Employee Toolkit” of 15 original documents to orient / educate employees, including: Brochure on PRS; Brochure on Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa; Briefing on MoGD Mandate; Organizational Chart; etc.
• Created “Resource Workbook for Liberian Ministries”—an in-depth analysis of 20 common themes and problems for GoL institutions, with way forward and suggested tools

Prepared National Women’s Conference Report and National Plan of Action for Women
• Compiled transcripts into 50-page report; prepared mini-versions for distribution in Berlin
• Created original organizational design; thoroughly edited and formatted document
• Wrote executive summary, created cover page, table of contents, and President’s Letter
• Conducted analysis of National Action Plan; harmonized it with Poverty Reduction Strategy

Helped write speeches and create presentations for MoGD senior management at national and international forums including:
• Keynote Address, Plan’s Launch of “State of World’s Girls” Report
• Keynote Address, Forum for African Women Educationalists
• Speech, Gender Perspectives in Agricultural Cooperative Development, CDA
• Speech, Developing Churches’ Code of Conduct on GBV
• Speech / Presentation: Gender Mainstreaming in the African Union
• Speech, Stop Rape Concert at SKD Stadium
• Speech, “Humanized” Infrastructure, (for Berlin PRS Meeting)
• Presentation, United Nations Security Council on Liberia: Gender, Peace, and Security

Provided technical assistance to National Gender Forum (NGF) Secretariat
• Designed original brochure on Beijing Platform for Action: 12 Areas of Concern for Women
• Created detailed documents on Beijing Platform for Action for each of the NGF Task Forces
• Composed a one-year Plan of Action for the NGF Secretariat, including a proposal for all recommended trainings and the design of introductory training / orientation retreat

Provided technical assistance to programmatic and technical divisions within MoGD

• Offered written feedback on MoGD Personnel Handbook
• Offered written feedback and rewrote all Terms of Reference (ToR) for Department of Planning & Administration
• Offered written feedback on proposal for Rural Women’s Leadership Structures’ micro-finance scheme and regional elections
• Offered written feedback on report on three-week feasibility study of women’s socio-economic situations in three Liberian counties

• Offered written feedback on draft of Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women Report
• Offered written feedback on monthly Gender Based Violence Statistical Report
• Spearheaded and facilitated revitalization of the MoGD Website

Other tasks / achievements
• Composed a Briefing to President Johnson Sirleaf on the Coordination Structure proposed by the MoGD, in regard to the Danish MDG 3 Project; attended and prepare materials for related meetings.
• Wrote 3 letters of recommendation on behalf of the Minister for Liberians pursuing higher education
• Occasionally offered colleagues assistance in their graduate school application process
• Occasionally created agendas / minutes for meetings held in MoGD

Constraints (Note: there were no major constraints during my Summer Internship)

• The nature of summer internships is that they are brief, and it was a productive summer, but nine weeks was not long enough for me to complete all that I would have liked to.

• Sharing electronic documents was difficult, given the prevalence of viruses. Despite my extreme caution and anti-virus software, my flash drive, laptop, and MoGD desktop were all infected during the summer. This wasted time and effort, and debilitated the devices.
• I kept longer working hours than the MoGD was open, and our apartment did not have Internet access. Thus, I spent most evenings and weekends at hotel restaurants in order to access electricity and Internet. This was not a problem for me, but I am noting that it was a constraint.
• Internet and electricity at the MoGD were occasionally limited, sporadic, or slow, which sometimes limited the pace of work, but were generally fine.

• I was in close contact with the intern from the previous summer (Emily Stanger), who gave me a lot of help and feedback during my preparation for the summer,
creation of my ToR, questions about job-related issues, etc. I highly recommend the creation of a system that enables such “mentorship.”
• I was given all the resources I needed at the MoGD: office; desk; chairs; telephone; internet; electricity; resource books; access to employees and meetings; MoGD car if necessary, etc. This greatly facilitated the ease with which I completed my work, and also enhanced productivity; I encourage other Ministries to do the same, if possible, with their interns.
• The Ministry backed all of my projects, especially at the highest levels of senior management. And they gave me exciting, fulfilling, and interesting assignments. I encourage all Ministries to find supervisors who really want the interns there and can assign the same caliber of assignments: meaningful, important, challenging, etc.
• The Ministry was very personally supportive: ensuring I was picked up from the airport, was driven to the airport on departure; enabled me to go out into the interior for Day of the African Child and for Independence Day in Kakata. They also held a farewell party for me at the end of the summer. This sort of support made the summer incredibly fulfilling; I felt extremely “looked after” and it inspired me to work harder. I recommend that all interns receive such care.
• I could not have envisioned a more rigorous and fulfilling summer; the MoGD was extremely supportive, both personally and professionally. I am grateful to everyone involved.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Independence Day!!

On July 26th, Liberia celebrates its independence (as the oldest Republic in Africa). Yesterday it marked 161 years!

All of us on Team Liberia managed to secure invitations to the Independence Day Celebrations in Liberia. Independence Day fell on a Saturday this year, which allowed for a weekend-long celebration.

(Like in the USA, some civil servants joked they were disappointed the holiday didn't fall on a weekday so that they got to take a day off! The Ministry of Gender and Development gave all of its employees a large sack of rice, as a holiday gift.)

Celebrations were held in Kakata, which is a city in Margibi county, northeast of Monrovia. One of the Harvard Liberia interns, Tamara Heimur, got to write an article on the significance of Kakata and Margibi county to Liberia and spent a lot of time researching the region and its history. (Fun fact: NASA has Margibi County as an alternate shuttle landing space.)

Red, white, and blue decorations were everywhere in Kakata, and thousands of Liberians showed up to enjoy the music, dancing, speeches, and guests at and outside the ceremony. Women's groups, youth groups, and an orphanage gathered along the road to greet the President's motorcade with their own welcome messages.
Many international guests came to honor Liberia's holiday. President Johnson Sirleaf had invited five former African Presidents (from Namibia, Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique and Benin) to participate in the 6-hour ceremony. In addition, a special emissary of the King of Jordon (Mr. Nael Salah Hamad El Assad) came to deliver President Johnson Sirleaf a special message from the King of Jordan.
Besides the strong cheers for J J Rawlings (former Ghanaian President) the audience was probably the enthusiastic about the National Independence Day Orator, Dr. Sakui Malakpa. Dr. Malakpa (whose credentials were read for about 20 minutes as an introduction before he spoke, and then repeated after his speech) put forth bold and interesting proposals -- including the belief that Liberia should change the name of its capital as well as many of its street names, country motto, and flag.
In his speech, "Hoping on the Inevitability of Change: Our Challenges, Chances, Choices," Dr. Malakpa argued that "Monrovia" was no longer an acceptable name, as it honored an American President who had "great disdain for the blackman." He acknowledged that "the changing of the name of Monrovia is expensive. Some people will not support the idea. It takes courage and time to change the name of a capital and country." Dr. Malakpa suggested that a new capital name should reflect Liberia's true history and its 15 counties.
Liberia's motto -- "The Love of Liberty Brought us Here" -- also refers only to the 5% "Americo-Liberians," whose ancestors arrived in Liberia as freed slaves in the 19th century. Those who arrived in Liberia went on to deny leadership or rights to its indigenous people (who comprise 95% of the population). Similarly, Dr. Malakpa suggested that the street names within Monrovia (e.g., Gurley Street, named after Ralph Randolph Gurley, one of the leaders of the American Colonization Society) should also be changed.
Dr. Malakpa has a Harvard education (he got his doctorate in education from Harvard Graduate School of Education) and has been a strong proponent of rights for those with disabilities; he, himself, is blind. President Johnson Sirleaf thanked him for his speech and said his proposals were open to national debate.
The ceremony was long, and even President Johnson Sirleaf seemed to tire of the formalities. When it was her turn to speak, she took the podium for only about 2 minutes. Referring to a common etiquette of saying "all protocols observed" at the beginning of a speech, she opened with: "Today I can truly say that ALL protocols have CERTAINLY been observed."
She noted that Independence Day in 2008 was a beautiful sunny day in the middle of rainy season--the first sunny Liberian Independence Day in recent history. She remarked that this represented "brighter days ahead for Liberia."

Friday, July 25, 2008


One-hour north of Monrovia, in Margibi County, lies Firestone – all 117,000 acres of it. The largest rubber plantation in the world, Firestone is deeply embedded in the economic fabric of Liberia. We decided to spend a morning there, to check out this massive natural resource embroiled in controversy.  

Liberians seem to have a love-hate relationship with Firestone, which was granted to Liberia in a concession agreement in 1926. Firestone employs some 7000 Liberians, all of whom live with their dependents on the Plantation. This creates somewhat of a captive community, distant from major towns and cities and reliant on Firestone services.

As a member of the International Labor Rights Forum email list, I have received several “Stop Firestone” emails in my inbox. The charges are grave and verified:

* Impossible-to-meet quotas for Firestone workers who tap trees for latex
* Child labor (children must carry two 70-pound buckets for miles; this occurs when rubber tappers take their families to work to meet quotas)
* Cramped and unsanitary living conditions
* Unhealthily long work hours (it takes an estimated 21 hours to meet one’s daily quota)
* Salaries below a living wage
* Environmental degradation through dumping of toxic chemicals
* Employees forced to apply pesticides without protection

Firestone employees have bravely been trying to unionize and the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL) recently received an AFL-CIO Human Rights Award.

During our trip, the Public Relations Officer – a Liberian who had been born in the Firestone Hospital – had nothing but glowing descriptions of Firestone… for instance, Firestone employees and their dependents have unlimited access to Firestone schools, hospitals, bus routes, etc. His written introductory speech was filled with confident, complimentary, and defensive remarks about his organization.

Firestone employees then gave us a tapping demonstration. I asked about daily quotas, and the representative answered circuitously that each worker is responsible for 500 trees per day, and that the quota is not fixed, but rather depends on the productivity of the trees. I asked about working hours. Though earlier he had said that trees must be tapped in the wee hours of morning and that full buckets were collected in the evening, he answered that work days were 8 hours long. Interesting.

We were given a tour of the 200-square-mile plantation, which involved driving on well-paved roads through beautiful lush forest and emerging tree farms. We saw the current hospital (which was impressive by local standards, yet overcrowded), the impressive hospital-in-construction (which, during the war, was attacked and looted), a high school (with a memorable library and bio lab), and the timber processing factory.

In the United States, it is a traditional rhetorical device to say: “I was talking to a taxi driver, and he said…” to show that one is tapped into “the word on the street.” For me in Liberia, the four to five taxi drivers we regularly charter are not merely a device, but friends—and a source of a lot of good information.

I asked two of our Liberian taxi drivers about Firestone, and they had opposing opinions. Paul said that Firestone workers always seemed to be stirring up trouble, that they lived better than most Liberians, that their rice was cheaper, and that the services provided to them were unappreciated gifts.

Yet, Dollo, who drove us to Firestone, spent much of our journey there warning us that it was a corporation that abused the rights of workers, and he lamented the working and living conditions. He said he’d rather live in the rural interior of Liberia than land a job on the plantation.

After our official tour, Dollo gave us a “real” tour, and drove us through the market, and around a neighborhood where workers actually lived. He wanted to show us the real conditions, as he knew there were many routes intentionally not taken our official Firestone Public Relations tour. He also showed us the mansions where Firestone executives live, and gestured toward their golf course.

There are always several sides to every story and many roads untaken, and Dollo’s initiative encouraged me to be sure to venture through the unexplored routes.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Real World Liberia, Part II

In a previous blog, I introduced the 14 members of Team Liberia II: graduate students, mostly from Harvard, living in the same apartment and working in Liberian Ministries this summer. I want to introduce five more members of the team who arrived later this summer.

Neel (USA)
Harvard College
Bachelors of Arts
Ministry of Health
Our resident pre-med undergrad, Neel has bravely and maturely endured many gender-imbalanced rants at meals.

Monica (USA)
Ministry of Education
North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University
Doctorate of Leadership (Leadership Studies Program)
Our most educated teammate, Monica fell unconscious with malaria, typhoid, and a bacterial infection the day before she was supposed to leave Liberia. A trooper, she spent several nights in a nearby hospital and made a tremendous recovery! We all miss her very much.

Emerson (USA)
Princeton (Woodrow Wilson School)
Master of Public Administration / Juris Doctorate
Ministry of Justice
Plays early-morning soccer with Liberians.

Christina (USA)
Princeton (Woodrow Wilson School)
Master of Public Administration
Ministry of Finance
A fantastic cook—many interns dropped our apartment meal plan to join hers.

Jenny (USA)
Princeton (Woodrow Wilson School)
Master of Public Administration
Ministry of Gender and Development
Jenny speaks Mandarin fluently, is my partner in crime at the Ministry of Gender and Development, and is engaged to marry her high school sweetheart.

Technical Difficulties – A(n) apology / disclaimer!

I lots of blogs during my first month in Liberia, but my pace has slowed down. I apologize to my loyal readers! I have gotten extremely busy at work, but the primary reason for my slow-down is technical difficulty.

My laptop keyboard completely malfunctioned and after a week of trying to solve it, I bought a new keyboard. My new one is soft, flexible, attaches to my USB drive, and the box advertises that it is “virtually indestructible” and “the strong and silent type.” How could I turn it down?

Second, my laptop is suddenly no longer able to read photos from my camera, so I have not been able to attach my most recent picture to my blogs. Coming soon!!!!!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Real Men Don't Rape

I have spent much of my summer focused on the topic of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV). The Ministry of Gender and Development, where I work, has made combating SGBV a top priority. It is a topic that one should not – and can not – avoid in Liberia.

Last weekend I attended the “Stop Rape” concert in Monrovia. Held at the Samuel K Doe Stadium (where I attended the soccer game; see my blog from June), this was the culmination of a six-month rape prevention campaign organized by the United Nations Mission in Liberia. Like the soccer game (but safer), Liberians poured into the Stadium for the 10-hour event.

Dancers, drummers, singers, acrobats, drama troupes, comedian, movie stars, religious leaders, representatives of the different Ministries, Ambassadors, the Vice President all took the stage to vocalize their concern about rape in Liberia.

Rape is a horrific problem in Liberia and the statistics are shocking. A study was conducted by the World Health Organization in partnership with the Ministry of Gender and Development in 2005. 2,828 women and girls from around the country were interviewed about their experience during Liberia’s civil war.

* 93% said they suffered physical or sexual violence during the war.

* 73% were sexually violated or raped, many of them gang raped.

Sadly, Sexual and Gender Based Violence is still prevalent today. One recent study found that in the last two years, 72 percent of Liberian women faced marital rape and over 50 percent of women experienced violent sexual assault. Thus, the war on women has continued despite Liberia's broader transition to peace.

Another study was conducted in 2006 at the Benson Hospital in Paynesville by Doctors without Borders Spain. They interviewed 658 who reported being raped since the end of the war:

* 85% of the 658 survivors interviewed were children under the age of 18.
* 48% of all survivors were between the ages of 5 and 12.
* In more than 90% of the cases involving children, they were raped by someone they knew.  
* In cases involving child victims, 40% of the perpetrators were also under age 18. In some cases, perpetrators were as young as 6 or 7 years old.
* 66% of the incidents took place in either the victim's or the perpetrator's home.
* 17% of the assaults occurred on during the Christmas, New Years or Liberian Independence Day (July 26).
* 25% of adult women and 18% of adolescents report being gang raped.
* 28% of the victims reported that they had been sexually assaulted by the same perpetrator more than once.
* 88% of victims had a documented physical injury at the time of the examination.

The following numbers were reported to our Ministry (this does not come close to capturing the true number, as only a few organizations / hospitals / partners / counties sent their figures) for the first five months of 2008:

* 450 cases of Rape and 109 cases of domestic violence
* Of the rape cases, 84% (379) of the survivors were younger than 18; 45% (201) were younger than 13; and 9% (39 cases) were between one (1) and five (5) years old.

At the Stop Rape concert, the messages displayed on the Megatron at the concert were memorable, if not sometimes disturbing or bizarre:

“Real Men Don’t Rape”
[this was also chanted as a call and response throughout the day. Call: "Real Men?" Response: "DON'T RAPE!!!"]

“Stop rape, prevent it, report it.”

“Make love not Rape”

“Mutual Understanding is the best way out”

“Whatever I wear, wherever I go, Yes means Yes, No means No”

“My strength is not for hurting, so when she was drunk, I backed off.”

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry”

“It’s absolutely wrong, stop it now!”

“Not in our city. End sexual violence.”

“Choices. Keep it in your pants.”

“You hold the power to stop rape in your hand. It could be your mother, sister, aunty, or niece”

One speaker -- "Lady Love," who is a Liberian singer / performer -- chastised women for dressing in short skirts, and chided the men by saying: "As the Bible says: ASK, and it shall be given unto you." My guess is that the UN had not vetted her speech.

For the event at the stadium, I helped prepare a speech for the Assistant Minister for Gender and Development. It concluded with the following words:

“Those who endure rape are NOT victims – they are SURVIVORS. We must ensure that we do not unintentionally rob them of their inherent power. When we speak of rape survivors solely in terms of vulnerability, we do not do justice to the courage, ingenuity, and capability they display on a daily basis. Survivors must be empowered, not stigmatized. Let us work together to make Liberia a place where all people can stand under God with dignity, grace, integrity … and also in security...

I’d like to conclude with a segment from a poem. It was written by an award-winning African-American Poet, Maya Angelou, who herself survived sexual assault at the age of eight. She wrote:

You may trod me
in the very dirt
But still,
like dust,
I'll rise.

In Liberia, survivors of rape WILL RISE. And we, as a Liberian people, will work together to end this horrible travesty that threatens our nation. Please join me in this important, necessary, and urgent endeavor. I thank you."