Thursday, July 8, 2010

Liberia's Debt Relief Party

Congratulations to Liberia for a major milestone: $5 billion debt relief.

From my colleague Ben Leo's blog post on the Center for Global Development's website:

"This week, Liberians celebrated in the streets – faces painted, drums blaring, and dancing with abandon. They’re not rejoicing over some recent triumph by the Liberian soccer team or a local festival. The streets of Monrovia were overflowing because of debt relief. That’s right, debt relief. On Tuesday, Liberia secured nearly $5 billion in irrevocable debt relief from the World Bank, IMF, African Development Bank, and bilateral creditors. It’s a massive sum – the equivalent of roughly $1200 for every man, woman, and child in Liberia. As President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stated, “today, ladies and gentlemen, is a day for us, as Liberians, to celebrate.” And celebrate they did. And so should we."

I took Ben's advice already and joined the celebrations at the CGD event last Tuesday. It was great to see so many familiar faces from my Liberia chapter there: Planning Minister (and my former classmate) Amarah Konneh, Steve Radelet, Conor Hartman, and several Ed Scott fellows, to name a few. (Dan Honig, you were with us in spirit!)

Hats off to all who were part of this huge accomplishment.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Made in Liberia

One of the most innovative and exciting programs I've been following in Liberia is the Liberian Women's Sewing Project. A dear friend and classmate of mine, Emily Stanger, has been working tirelessly to help get this program off the ground. Here is her latest update from Monrovia, sent by e-mail this week...

"Over the past few months, I've been assisting with the start up of a new export-oriented fair trade sewing factory in Liberia. A dearfriend of mine, Chid, is a Liberian who grew up in the US and returnedto Liberia to invest in a sustainable, fair trade apparel factory.

After over a year of work, the project is now well on its way with 32 women employees, a parallel nonprofit for reinvesting funds into thewomen's communities, 30 industrial sewing machines, a generator thatruns on biofuel (hurray for green energy!!!), and an order for 100%African organic T-shirts that will be sold in Spring 2011 fashion lines.

Teaching these women economicsin Liberian English (they are now fluent in supply chains, fair trade,supply and demand, shareholders & dividend payouts, and socialenterprise) and helping them develop into a business-minded workforcehas been one of the most rewarding experiences.

Chid's first investors (a great organization called Root Capital) visited last month. They put together a video to share theirexperience of LWSP and I thought I'd pass it along to all of you as anintroduction to my world in Liberia.... lots of chanting, lots ofsinging, lots of clapping, and LOTS of amazing women."

I am very impressed with this project and see a great deal of potential for it to really take off. I am looking forward to tracking it closely. Further updates from Emily to come!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fulfilling President Sirleaf's Mandate: Ensuring Women Their "Proper Place" in Liberia's Economic Development

"You know what we really need?"

Minister Antoinette Sayeh and I were sitting together in her office on the ninth floor, pausing our frenetic workday in Liberia's Ministry of Finance to eat lunch together in what had become one of my very favorite rituals of my summer internship. At this moment, we had just turned to a discussion of the Gender Ministry's role in Liberia's Poverty Reduction Strategy.

"To really advance the cause of women in Liberia," she said," "what we need is data. Hard data and rigorous economic analysis." Without such data, the policy agenda for Liberian women would be more of the same: one-off benchmarks (training xx numbers of women in sewing, for instance, or providing xx numbers of women with business training), without a broader strategy to fundamentally change economic opportunities for women. And, importantly, without the ability to measure progress.

That night I went home to the "Baptist Compound," to a late dinner with the fellow members of Team Liberia. Over fried plantains and jollof rice, I shared my lunchtime discussion with my rock star classmate, Emily Stanger. Minister Sayeh's comments were music to Emily's ears. A deeply passionate advocate of women and a dynamite intern in Liberia's Ministry of Gender and Development, Emily also happens to be a brilliant economist who loves data.

Thus the seeds were sown for a year-long collaboration. Heeding Minister Sayeh's call, Emily and I came together, combining the mission of the Ministry of Gender with the Ministry of Finance's purview of technical economic policies. The former our inspiration, the latter our medium for impact.
A woman in rural Gbarpalu county, answering the question posed by our Team Liberia group about what the greatest needs in their community were. (Her answer: better income-generating opportunities for women, such as peanut farming)
Returning to our final year in the MPA/ID program at Harvard's Kennedy School just a few weeks later, Emily and I endeavored to co-write our masters thesis (under the advisement of our professor Rohini Pande) on the following questions:
  • Where are Liberia's women in the economy? What sectors do they work in, and what are characteristics of their work and pay?
  • How will Liberia's projected growth over the next three years affect women? Do women stand to benefit from this growth?
  • What are specific actions that the Liberian government can take during President's Sirleaf to fulfill her pledge to Liberia's women, particularly in three sectors: agriculture, the informal urban sector, and formal employment?
Our premise was that Liberia had abundant political will to address the economic plight of its women. Indeed, President Sirleaf was elected in no small part because of the electoral support of women, deemed her "greatest constituency." She had vowed in her inaugural address to "try to provide economic programs that enable Liberian women - particularly our market women -- to assume their proper place in our economic process." (See my earlier blog post about Sirleaf's commitment to women). Rather, what was missing in turning this campaign pledge into reality was data and some hard-headed analysis, which we set out to provide.

After a bit of cajoling and relentless pestering, Emily and I got our hands on our gold mine: Liberia's first sex-disaggregated household data in nearly two decades. Two data sources had just emerged, after nearly two decades of civil war: the Core Welfare Indicator Questionnaire (CWIQ), a nationally representative household survey, and the Comprehensive Food Security and Nutrition Survey (CFSNS), which had three separate reports including a rural report, an urban report, and a market review. So new was this data and so eager was Emily to dive into it that our research was the first time that the CWIQ analysis was presented to the Government of Liberia.

Where are women in Liberia's economy?

Through this data, we were able to paint an economic picture of Liberia's women. The following are a few of the most salient characteristics. Unfortunately I haven't been able to upload Emily's gorgeous charts and graphs to this blog, so please see our 4-page policy brief to do justice to Emily's masterful work.
  • Liberian women comprise the majority (54%) of Liberia's labor force
  • The vast majority (90%) of women workers are clustered in the least productive sectors
  • Urban working women are predominantly self-employed (74%), mainly in street vending and as market women. Men are 2.5 times more likely to be skilled workers.
  • Women conduct 85% of marketing and trading and contribute 75% of all cash and food production.
  • As major economic actors, women make significant contributions to household income; alone and with other household members, women contribute to 65% of urban household income and 45% of rural.
Women left out of Liberia's projected economic growth

Now the bad news for the Sirleaf Administration and Liberian women. Looking ahead to the next few years of economic growth and revitalization in Liberia, male-dominated sectors stand to grow the most: timber, mining and extractive industries in particular. Men greatly outnumber women in all of these sectors, which has alarming distributional effects for women workers. As male-dominated sectors grow as a proportion of Liberia's GDP, women's labor contribution to GDP will fall from 44 percent in 2007 to 36 percent in 2011. Although the absolute labor contribution of women will increase, this proportional reduction in women's contribution shows the unequal distribution of Liberia's growth. Female labor will contribute to, and thus benefit from, less than one-quarter of the new growth over the next three years.

Why does this matter? If men earn more, would not households still benefit? We argue that the distributional consequences are very serious and do, in fact, matter a great deal. Liberia's protracted civil war claimed the lives of thousands of male breadwinners, placing women as the heads of some 18% of urban households. In other words, providing a better livelihood to Liberian women means supporting entire families. There is also extensive research that shows that increasing women's income and household resources has direct development implications -- it improves child welfare and development, and can reduce fertility and promote growth.
Beyond these reasons, our primary justification is more basic: that improving the economic opportunities facing women is development, in and of itself. Today Liberian women are fully engaged economic actors, comprising more than half of the total labor force and leading many of the most vibrant sectors of the economy, including the markets. Helping these women eke out a better living, to be more productive, more prosperous, to access better resources, to bolster their capacity and abilities, and to take advantage of improved economic opportunities -- we argue this is not only politically necessary in Liberia, but also development at its core.

Women in a village in rural Gbarpalu county during a visit in August 2007

What Sirleaf's Administration can do for Liberian women

After looking at where women are in Liberia's economy and estimating how they will (or will not) benefit from the country's projected economic growth, Emily and I then turned to the pertinent question: what can Sirleaf's government do, in the next few years, to deliver on the President's political promise to improve the economic conditions for her country's women? In our thesis, Emily and I put forth three sets of policy recommendations that we considered feasible and realistic for Liberian government action: for women in agriculture, women in the informal sector, and women in the formal economy.

(1) Women in Agriculture: Build More Rural Roads.
To strengthen opportunities for rural women, the Government of Liberia should prioritize the construction of farm-to-market and rural access roads. Roads -- identified by rural Liberians as the primary constraint to development -- are critical for the agricultural work of rural women. Across the rural areas, Liberians must travel an average of three hours to reach food markets. Women conduct 85% of agricultural marketing and trading, and bear much of the burden of inadequate roads and transportation infrastructure. Prioritizing roads will decrease this transport burden on women, enhance their efficiency, and create income-generating opportunities for rural women.

(2) Women in the Informal Sector: Expand Access to Credit
In urban areas, 75% of women are self-employed. Yet as of 2007, less than 1% of these women access formal credit to support their businesses. In all of Liberia (in 2007), just two MFIs were serving 5,726 women. This number pales in comparison to the estimated 174,000 market women in Liberia, to say nothing of the greater number of female petty traders. The Government of Liberia should create the appropriate regulatory environment for the expansion of the microfinance sector, and ensure that small-scale micro enterprises are prioritized in SME financing strategies. (Less than 20% of informal enterprises are owned by women, whereas 85% of petty trading and marketers are women). Microfinance should also be paired with skills and business training.

A woman selling vegetables on a street in downtown Monrovia
(3) Women in the Formal Economy: Improve Business Climate
Many countries with successful labor-intensive industries have employed a very large percentage of female workers: in horticulture, jewelry making, garments and toys. In Liberia, it might be tempting to attempt to stimulate these types of industries through the creation of an Export Processing Zone (EPZ). Yet EPZs have had little success in Africa, would be administratively and fiscally infeasible right now in Liberia, and most importantly, would not address the most serious underlying constraints on investment. Instead, to lay the foundation for the emergence of nontraditional industries over the next 5-10 years that employ women, the Government should take steps to improve the overall business environment and investment climate.

Research to Policy: Sharing our Findings in Liberia
Once Emily and I finally had our research findings and our thesis in hand in the spring of our final year at the Kennedy School, this was really just the beginning. While our academic requirements box had been checked, we were both bound and determined to make our research useful and have an impact on policy in Liberia and, ultimately, Liberia's women. Taking a page from the Center for Global Development's smart and savvy communications, we turned our unwieldy 80-page thesis into a short, colorful, heavily imaged 4-page policy brief, based on the assumption that busy policymakers would never read our long thesis. (Let's be honest, I'm not even convinced our parents read every last page, and they are as proud as parents can be!)
Our next step was to share the brief and our findings with those that could actually act on them. Emily sent our research to her colleagues at the Ministry of Gender and to their partners in the international community. When Minister Sayeh was in Washington for the IMF-Spring meetings, Emily and I traveled to Washington for a reunion and shared with her the brief.

Emily and I with Finance Minister Antoinette Sayeh
Serendipitously, just a few months later, President Sirleaf was invited to deliver the commencement address during our graduation from the Kennedy School. Moments before President Sirleaf was to address the graduates and our families, our Dean invited "Team Liberia" into his office to visit with the President. Emily and I presented President Sirleaf a copy of our thesis, which had been recognized the day before with an award from Harvard's Women and Public Policy Program. Emily and I were thrilled to have the opportunity to share our work directly with the President herself. A few weeks later President Sirleaf sent us a request for 500 of our policy briefs to "disseminate widely" in Liberia. (Proving our theory that a 4 page brief is eminently more useful to policymakers than an 80-page thesis.)

Emily and I presenting President Sirleaf with our masters thesis
Looking Forward: Advancing the Cause of Liberian Women
For me, this is largely where the story ends. But for my partner-in-crime, Emily Stanger, this was just the start. After a brief stint working for Cherie Blair on her new womens-focused foundation after graduation, Emily has been back in Liberia for the past year, working as an Ed Scott Liberia Fellow in the Ministry of Gender and Development and helping to manage the Nike Foundation-World Bank project for adolescent girls. She is currently working for the UN on these same gender issues. I am so proud of Emily's commitment to Liberian women, for continuing to advance these causes on a daily basis, and for contributing her boundless energy, unparalleled talents, smarts, and economic know-how to this endeavor to advance the economic plight of women in Liberia. Emily, you are a marvel and a role model in so many ways.

Emily learning how to process maize

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Liberia signs historic debt deal

Earlier this month, the Government of Liberia signed an historic agreement that wrote off some $1.2 billion in commercial debt. Impressively, the Government was able to purchase this debt -- held by private foriegn creditos, such as banks and hedge funds -- at a steeply discounted rate of 97%. According to my colleague Steve Radelet, who has played an instrumental role over the past two years in securing the debt buy-back, this is the "deepest discount ever negotiated on developing country commercial debt." The deal amounts to an enormous victory for Liberia.

According to Steve's recent blog post, much was at stake in the deal.

"The amount of debt was huge – nearly twice Liberia’s GDP, far more than the country could ever repay. And many of the creditors had legal judgments or other recourse that could have derailed the process and led to delays, litigation, or the seizure of Liberia’s meager assets. The negotiations have been unfolding for two years, and at many points it was far from clear that the deal would be successful."

Steve Radelet with President Sirleaf

Steve goes on to explain the origins of the commerical debt buildup and the key steps that had to be taken to arrive at the debt deal. In highlighting the key factors that underpinned the successful deal, Steve notes:

  1. The official debt reduction process known as "HIPC" imposed restrictions limiting a country like Liberia from paying more than a very small percent of the face value of debt without undermining the HIPC debt process.
  2. President Sifleaf's international reputation and credibility made a big difference.
  3. The liquidity-constraint financial institutions were more eager to accept readily available cash from the debt deal in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Liberia is not out of the woods quite yet. Just two years ago, Liberia had the highest debt ratio (compared to GDP and exports) in the entire world. Thanks to several important milestones in reducing multilateral and bilateral debt since 1997, this debt burden is slowly but surely being eased. According to Steve's analysis, "with this week’s commercial debt buyback, Liberia’s total foreign debt is down to $1.7 billion, a reduction of over $3 billion. You can see the Liberian Ministry of Finance official data on debt here, which they released earlier today. Most of the remaining debt will be wiped out when Liberia reaches the HIPC Completion Point, hopefully later this year or early next year."

President Sirleaf reflected on what this debt write-off will mean for Liberia: "The successful resolution of this inherited debt, which had ballooned through interest and penalty charges during a period when my country was wracked by civil war, is an important step on our road to recovery. This puts us on a firmer footing to attract investment and accelerate economic growth.”

Congratulations to Liberia.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Want to work in Liberia?

Ed Scott with some of the first Liberia fellows in 2007
If you are interested in making a difference in Liberia and are keen to gain hands-on policy experience in President Sirleaf's historic government, I strongly encourage you to apply to the Ed Scott Liberia fellows program. (See here for job description and application instructions). The program is a fantastic year-long fellowship -- run jointly by JSI, the Government of Liberia and the Center for Global Development -- that places fellows as special assistants for senior-level members of the Government of Liberia. The fellowship is named after the original funder, Ed Scott -- a very generous and committed philanthropist who is the founding chairman of, among other initiatives, the Center for Global Development. I have known Ed since the earliest days of the Center for Global Development, where I first started my career in development nearly seven years ago (and, incidentally, where I again work now). He is a wonderful human being, and with this program continues to impact development across the globe.
**Note: Resumes + cover letters are to be submitted by close of business Monday, April 27, 2009.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Moderate Pomp: an essay by (my sister) Colleen Kinder

My wondrous sister Colleen recently published her timeless essay about Liberia's 160th independence day celebration. The essay, entitled "Moderate Pomp," was featured in Witness Magazine's 2008 Africa issue, and has been nominated for the 2008 Pushcart Prize , the country's most prestigious literary award for best essay in a small press.

I love this essay, and have re-read it countless times. For those who have never before stepped foot in Liberia, or in a post-conflict country for that matter, Colleen's powerful imagery is like a specially guided tour to a time and place your imagination could alone not lead you. And even for those who have spent years in Liberia, Colleen's perceptive eye for detail and her ability to capture that Liberian moment -- equally fleeting and timeless, mundane and monumental -- will shed new light on a familiar backdrop.

A must read!

Monday, February 9, 2009

President Sirleaf's Challenge: Reversing the Course of Liberian History**

On November 8, 2005, Liberian women had cause for jubilation. The presidential candidate who had just been elected to Liberia's highest political office was, for the first time in history, one of them: a woman, "Ma Ellen," Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Weary from fourteen years of civil war, women across the country had responded overwhelmingly to Sirleaf's rallying cry: "All the men have failed Liberia; let's try a woman this time!" Promising to bring a "motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency," Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won a commanding victory to beat former soccer star George Weah by a margin of nearly 20 percentage points.

President Sirleaf's watershed victory marked the first time that a woman in Africa was elected as head of state. Her win shattered a glass ceiling in a continent ruled for decades by an exclusively male roster of African leaders. Yet her victory was more than emblematic. It carried with it an unequivocal mandate to improve the lot of her country's women, the core base of her political support. Deeming women her "greatest constituency," President Sirleaf has reiterated that she has a "special, special obligation and responsibility to them." In recognition of the centrality of women in her election, President Sirleaf declared in her inaugural address:

"My administration shall thus endeavor to give Liberian women prominence in all affairs of our country.... We will also try to provide economic programs that enable Liberian women -- particuarly our market women -- to assume their proper place in our economic process."

Thus from her very first day in Liberia's highest office, President Sirleaf has declared her unambiguous commitment to strengthening the economic opportunities facing Liberian women.

Lessons from Liberia's history: Dashed hopes and missed opportunities

Yet Liberia's history serves as a cautionary reminder that ground-breaking leadership alone has not necessarily translated into economic improvements for constituencies in the past. Twice before, the identity of Liberia's political leadership had posed an unprecedented historic opportunity, not unlike the one facing Liberian women today. Yet in both instances, instead of ground-breaking leadership translating into improved welfare for the constituency that might have been represented, precisely the opposite transpired.

The first instance of missed opportunity was the very founding of the Liberian nation as it is known today. In 1817,a society of white American knows as the "American Colonization Society" purchased a stretch of land in present-day Liberia, with the intention of creating a new homeland for several thousand emancipated slaves from the United States. Renowned Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuściński captures the significance of this great historical experiment in the following passage from his masterpiece, The Shadow of the Sun:

"The fate and behavior of these settlers (they called themselves Americo-Liberians) is fascinating. Yesterday still they were black pariahs, slaves from America's southern plantations, with no legal rights... And now they, the descendents of those unfortunates, until recently slaves themselves, found themselves once again in Africa, in the land of their ancestors, among kinsmen with whom they shared common roots and skin color. At the will of liberal white Americans, they were brought here and left to themselves, to their own fate. How would they conduct themselves? What would they do?"

The answer, according to Kapuściński, is startling. "In contrast to their benefactors' expectations," he wrote, "the newcomers did not kiss the ground or throw themselves in the arms of local Africans." Instead, they declared that only this small group of Americo-Liberians -- less than one percent of the total population of their new homeland -- had the right to citizenship. Damning still, Kapuściński wrote on, "as early as the middle of the nineteenth century, long before apartheid was instituted in southern Africa by the Afrikaners, it had been invented and made flesh by rulers of Liberia -- descendents of black slaves." Ethnic homelands were established for Liberia's distinct tribal groups, who were in turn forced by coercion to live in their assigned territories. It is from these homelands that the ruling Americo-Liberians looked to capture slaves for labor on their own plantations and sell abroad.

Thus in a bitter twist, Liberia -- a country ruled by freed slaves and named for liberty -- was investigated by the League of Nations in 1929 over allegations of forced labor and conditions of slavery. The tragic irony of Liberia's failed experiment is captured by Kapuściński:

"From their experience in the American south, the Americo-Liberians knew only one type of relationship: master-slave. Their first move upon arrival in this new land, therefore, was to recreate precisely that social structure, only now they, the slaves of yesterday, are the masters, and it is the indigenous communities whom they set out to conquer and rule. Liberia is the voluntary continuation of a slave society by slaves who do not wish to abolish an unjust order, but wanted to preserve it, develop it, and exploit it for their own benefit. Clearly an enslaved mind, tainted by the experience of slavery, a mind born into slavery, fettered in infancy, cannot conceive or conjure a world in which all are free."

A second time, Liberia again became the victim of its own missed potential. Nearly 150 uninterrupted years of elite Americo-Liberian rule came to a screeching halt in 1980 when Samuel Doe, a semi-literate 29 year-old military sergeant, toppled the ruling government in a bloody coup. Doe came from Liberia's indigenous population: a population that, despite comprising 99% of the country's populace, had historically been denied political voice and economic power. Many indigeneous Liberians rejoiced over the news that a member of their own Khan clan was in charge for the first time.

Alas, any hopes of Doe's presidency delivering improved living standards to Liberia's indigenous majority were ultimately dashed. Egregious economic mismanagement, incompetence, and corruption by the Doe administration and the outbreak of civil war caused a precipitous crash of the Liberian economy. GDP fell by a shocking 90 percent between 1979 and 1996 -- a decline so great it was deemed by the World Bank "possibly the largest economic collapse of any country since World War II." Thus the same people who celebrate Doe's ascension fell deeper into poverty under his rule, and the country ultimately unfolded into a devestating fourteen-year civil war that would claim nearly 300,000 lives.

What it will take to reverse the course of Liberia's history

Liberia's sobering history serves as a guide to the pitfalls that should be avoided by President Sirleaf in her quest to improve economic conditions for women. In short, there are four critical factors necessary for success that were conspicuously absent in these previous instances of resounding failure.

First, President Sirleaf's administration must demonstrate -- and in fact has demonstrated -- a very clear political commitment to the economic plight of women. Such benevolence was visibly absent from the past discriminitary policies of the orginal settlers toward native Liberians, for instance.

Second, is the existence of democratic accountability. Whereas the Americo-Liberian rulers arrived at the whim of a white colonial society halfway around the world, and Samuel K. Doe assumed power by way of a military coup, President Sirleaf was ushered into office by the overwhelming will of her own people through democratic elections. Thus her commitment is more than benevolence: it represents a fundamental responsibility to her electorate.

Third, what is needed is sheer competence: bona fide effectiveness, prudent financial management, and the ability to translate goodwill into concrete results on the ground. Such competence was sorely lacking during Doe's embattled administration. Today, Liberia's improved governance and capacity under President Sirleaf have been recognized internationally, most notably by the recent selection of Liberia for the "threshold program" of the US's Millennium Challenge Corporation and by the IMF in its restoration of proper IMF status to Liberia in March of 2008. Perhaps most illustrative of Liberia's effectiveness is its dramatic improvement on measures of corruption. In two years, between 2005 and 2007, Liberia climbed an astonishing 72 places in country rakings of corruption -- the largest rise of any country in the world.

Despite the fortuitous existence of these three auspicious factors -- commitment, democratic mandate and capacity -- one final question remains: does President Sirleaf's administration have the right policies in place --and, importantly, the right resources (donor and others) -- to translate this goodwill into tangible economic opportunities for Liberian women in her remaining three years in office, and to ensure that the economic fruits of Liberia's post-war development benefit men and women?

This is precisely the question that my colleague and classmate, Emily Stanger, and I sought to answer in our analysis, "Fulfilling President Sirleaf's Mandate: Ensuring Women their 'Proper Place' in Liberia's Economic Development." Read on for our conclusions.

**Most of this blog post is drawn from my masters thesis, co-written with the indomitable Emily Stanger for the MPA/ID program at the Harvard Kennedy School.