Saturday, September 1, 2007

The IMF & the Ministry of Females

"Again???!!" The copier was out of paper. Again. And the second copier was out of ink. And paper. Again. By the time I finally unearthed a functioning copier, printed my document, and raced up the stairs to the 10th floor conference room --the elevator had been out of order for two weeks already -- the opening meeting of the visiting IMF mission was already underway.

My tardiness meant that everyone was already seated around the conference room table when I arrived. The scene in front of me was almost too striking to be true. With their backs to me sat a row of seven Caucasian men in stereotypical dark suits and smart eyeglasses. Across from the suited men, and with the windows and the clamorous noise from Broad Street behind them, sat six African women. Several of these women were wearing brightly colored African suits, and all of them wore smart eyeglasses. So extreme were the contrasts between the two sides of the table -- in terms of gender, race, geographic representation, fashion -- that the only visible similarity was the preponderance of eye glasses.

While it may not be surprising that the suited men represented the IMF -- although I was assured later by the visiting IMF team that the teams are normally more diverse -- the fact that the senior Ministry of Finance team is overwhelmingly female has turned many heads. Not only is the Minister herself female, but seven of the top ten deputy and assistant minister positions are held by women. In my opinion, it is no coincidence that this female leadership has coincided with a reputation for effectiveness and some of the biggest successes of the Sirleaf administration, including a doubling of revenues.

The women of the Ministry of Finance: me, Dabah Varpilah, Minister Antoinette Sayeh, Elfreda Tamba, Aletha Brown, and Angelique Weeks
Absurdly dorky picture of me with Revenue Growth sign. Negative five points for posting a geeky photo of myself on a blog; plus two points for finding any photo whatsoever that illustrates revenue growth.

The stark visual image of the opening IMF mission meeting turns out to be quite deceptive. Despite the observable differences, the Government of Liberia and the IMF have a great deal in common, and an exceedingly positive and collaborative relationship. Much like the IMF, the senior leadership of the Government of Liberia is dominated by economic technocrats with years of prior work experience at the World Bank and international institutions. Not only does the President actually welcome the IMF's advice and scrutiny, but there also exists a great deal of synergy between the IMF's philosophies of economic reform and macroeconomic stability and the policies of the Liberian Government.

Moreover, the IMF team that works on Liberia -- including in particular the resident representative of the IMF who is based in Monrovia -- is constructive, dedicated, collaborative, helpful, and involved. Even the much maligned conditionality that the IMF imposes has been largely productive in Liberia. The policy benchmarks tied to the IMF's "Staff Monitored Program" carry with them very weighty carrots and sticks (particularly eligibility for multilateral debt relief), and thus are among the highest priorities of the government. The result is what I call the “‘very urgent’ breakthrough:” the ability of a specific deadline to rise above the mountainous stack of "very urgent" memos and directives -- a stack so monstrous that even the most committed and competent staff cannot attend to all of the demands -- and command the attention of senior management, all the way up to the President.

During my time in Monrovia, I was struck by the impression that everyone was on the same team, the IMF and Government alike, all working towards the same goals. And yet had the IMF and Liberian Government actually been on the same team, it is simply inconceivable that the coach would have distributed the team's talent, remuneration and assets as it stands now. Virtually every single member of the IMF team held a doctoral degree; on the Government side, just one person in the entire ministry (Minister Sayeh) held a doctoral degree. The disparity in pay scale was equally as stark, with the senior Liberian civil servants in our Ministry having undertaken enormous pay cuts. The IMF offices in Monrovia stand in complete contrast to our Finance Ministry building. With its high speed internet access, pristine office, supportive administrative staff, and functioning copier machines, the IMF operated like a well greased machine, whereas we at the Finance Ministry squeaked by on a shoe string. Getting things done was infinitely easier in the IMF setup, and seeking their assistance was sometimes the only way to get things done. For instance, our malfunctioning copy machine proved a very large glitch the night before an important two-day budget cycle workshop that we had planned for weeks. To print copies of the presentations for the donors and government officials attending the workshop, we had to outsource our copying to the IMF office -- which, for a staff less than 10% of our Ministry's staff, had a very advanced (and functioning!) copy machine.

Beyond the obvious equity considerations, the very effectiveness of the IMF is called into question by this distribution of resources. Unlike many donors that operate their own programs independently and could arguably make a case for their employment of the best talent, the IMF in Liberia does not actually do anything per se. (At this point under the SMP, the IMF is not even providing funding.) Their primary purpose is to advise, monitor, and evaluate. Thus while their mission ostensibly is to ensure that Liberia's macroeconomic policy is sound and that public financial management is strengthened, it is the Liberian government that will actually do this, not the IMF. The IMF, for its part, observes the Government's efforts, double checks every number, re-crosses every t and re-dots every i, and gives Liberia performance marks in the equivalent of a report card. To be sure, in countries with weak political commitment or bad policies, the pressure of the IMF breathing down the necks of finance ministries may avert the worst policy decisions and motivate reform. Yet in a country such as Liberia -- where the Government is wholeheartedly committed to the reforms but where weak internal capacity limits the speed and quality of progress --- what is needed is not someone to check their work, but someone to do the work!

Short of revamping the infrastructure of international financial institutions, a low hanging fruit that the IMF should consider is salary compensation for senior civil servants in developing countries. Relying on the good will and civic mindedness of grossly underpaid civil servants is simply not sustainable. If the IMF and its donor siblings are serious about their lofty goals of promoting macroeconomic stability and economic growth, they need to adequately support the only team that can pull off a home run: the governments they work with. Otherwise, even an all star IMF team may just as well sit on the bench.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Liberia's Budget Battles: A National Soap Opera

When I arrived in Monrovia, I was informed by Minister Sayeh that the scope of my internship would include a focus on Liberia’s budget. A draft of the national budget had been submitted by the President to the Legislature less than two weeks before I landed in Monrovia. I was just in time, the Minister explained, to work from the end of the Ministry of Finance until it was passed. Stacked against the other issues I had been tasked to work on --- investment policy, debt relief, fiscal policy – the budget seemed, well, a bit dull.

What I did not realize then was that the Minister had just given me a front row seat to the summer’s most explosive drama. In fact, the high profile budget saga that unfolded over the next two months had more sensational plot turns, surprise twists, and preposterous characters than in an entire season of the soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” (Even in its most ridiculous heyday, when Marlena was possessed and Stefano died and came back to life, again.)

My initial read of the draft budget didn’t give even the slightest hint of the ensuing controversy. In fact, during my first tasks of writing talking points for the Cabinet and press releases for the newspapers, I could find nothing but good news to tell. Thanks to robust revenue growth, the draft budget represented a 40% larger pie than the previous year. It was hard to argue with the sectors that stood to benefit from this growth: compared to the previous year, education was to get an additional 44%, health an extra 28%, and public works (and in particular roads!) a needed 59% boost. Civil servants and retirees were designated lucky winners, with well deserved salary increases bound for grossly underpaid government employees. The pot of funds for community development in Liberia’s far flung villages would grow a bit fuller. And more money would be spent on job creation to make a dent into the country’s 85% unemployment rate. Clearly I didn’t need to be a spin doctor to tease out good PR for this budget. Liberia may not have a lot of zeros in its $180 million draft budget, but there is no question that it was aligning all of its pennies with the most important priorities.

Before I could kick up my heels and celebrate, however, the proverbial shit hit the fan. And who was doing the tossing? The Auditor General: the new bully in town, who catapulted overnight from total obscurity to (in)famous national figure. Who is the Auditor General, you might ask? Functionally, the Auditor General is an independent auditor appointed by the President to oversee post-audits of government spending. Reporting directly to the Legislature, the office of the Auditor General is designed broadly to strengthen public financial management and accountability. Normally this role is quiet, behind the scenes, and technical in nature. Normally, of course, but not in this instance. Personally, the Auditor General in Liberia is a relatively young and inexperienced Liberian named John Morlu who returned from many years in the United States to assume his new post. Mr. Morlu’s most distinguishable physical characteristic -- his short stature -- may not have merited psychological analysis, were it not for his decision to wear chunky platform shoes.

Despite his legal mandate to conduct post-audits of spending (translation: after the budget is implemented), Mr. Morlu quickly proved himself trigger happy. After only two months in the country and without ever consulting the Bureau of the Budget or the Finance Ministry, Mr. Morlu authored a dramatic 96 page treatise about the draft budget submitted by the Executive. Translation: a pre-audit. His complaints lodged against the draft budget ranged from the nit picky, such as a lack of page numbers, ironically written in his own page number-less report. To the misguided: criticisms based on misunderstandings that could have easily been cleared up had he simply consulted the government. And finally, to the sensational: allegations of an egregious lack of transparency, disclosure and accountability, and a bold statement that the Legislature’s passage of the budget would constitute a failure of their duty to the Liberian people.

Mr. Morlu unleashed a media frenzy when, without any warning, he brazenly fired off his 96 page treatise along with a confrontational cover letter to the President, the Legislature’s leadership, and the media, all at the same time. Suddenly the rosy front page headlines I had helped craft about the budget were replaced with the damning allegations of the Auditor General. Our team went into rapid response mode. We toiled on the ninth floor of the Finance Ministry until far past my bedtime and drafted the official response for the newspapers and media. The Minsitry chose to toe a sober, fact-based line and clarify the many incorrect accusations put forth by the Auditor General. In the meantime, the President sent a three page letter to the Auditor General that packed a lot more punch and put Mr. Morlu squarely in his place. And left me cheering over the tenacity of the “Iron Lady.” The letter was subsequently leaked to the press and soon became more ammunition in what was rapidly becoming a sensationalized battle, played out on airwaves and newspapers across Liberia.

The real firestorm was still yet to come. In an interview with Voice of America just a few days later, Mr. Morlu declared to the world that the current government was “three times more corrupt than the former interim transitional government of Charles Gyude Bryant that it replaced.” Morlu contended that he had proof based on a “risk analysis of government performance.” Yet this claim is as outrageous as his allegation of corruption: after just eight weeks on the job, the Auditor General had yet to conduct a single audit of either the interim government or the current government, and could not possibly have had valid data to defend such a sweeping assessment.

Mr. Morlu’s statement proved to be the figurative shot heard round the world, or at least around Liberia’s corner of West Africa. Over the next few weeks, the radio and newspapers talked of little else. “Three times more corrupt” was discussed all over Monrovia and everyone seemed to have a view: senators, government officials, men on the street. In the midst of this highly charged controversy, the Legislature announced a public hearing to debate the Auditor General’s concerns with the draft budget and called upon Mr. Morlu, the Budget Director, and (Finance) Minister Sayeh to testify. Another late night was pulled to help the Minister prepare her testimony, including her opening remarks and the responses to questions about the budget and revenue projections.

The atmosphere at the hearings was nothing short of a circus. The stage was actually set more for a circus than a government hearing: two floors of stadium-style seating overlooked the ground floor of the immense conference center, where the Legislature’s leadership and the key speakers sat. Filling one half of the seating on the ground floor were the members of the Legislature. On the other side and above sat the public: a rowdy group of some 200 men whose selective cheering revealed their overwhelming support for the Auditor General. (Or, perhaps, simply an opposition to the Executive). Filling the rest of the space were scores of journalists and armed UN security.

The hearings, dubbed by one newspaper as the “most anticipated” event of the year, commenced with opening remarks by the leadership of the Legislature, followed by statements made by legislators from their peanut gallery. The pomp and circumstance of these statements was striking. 20 journalists with microphones would swarm around a bellowing legislator as he stood shaking his fists, and would then sprint to the next ranting legislator and thrust their microphones in his face. The speeches were rewarded with loud cheers from the crowd, forcing the Speaker to repeatedly pound his gavel to maintain order.

The Auditor General was the first to be called to speak, and speak he did. For over an hour. Two weeks of national controversy served only to egg on Mr. Morlu, and his testimony was even more sensational than his earlier treatise. Minister Sayeh spoke next, and delivered her concise but extremely pointed opening remarks. The highlight: her line, “If the Auditor General needed to be educated about the budget process and public finances in Liberia, all he needed to do was ask.” Boo-ya. The Budget Director picked up where Minister Sayeh left off, delivering such an impassioned and hard-hitting oration that the crowd went wild. Unruly spectators from the stands spilled onto the main floor, angry legislators jumped to their feet yelling, and the futile gavel pounding of the Speaker did nothing to quell the chaos. In a matter of a few frenetic minutes, the hearing was cancelled, Minister Sayeh and other senior officials were evacuated by UN armed guards, and – at the height of absurdity – one of the most senior Cabinet members was accused of threatening a journalist. Which was later twisted to even more far fetched accusations of his threatening the Auditor General himself. The front page of all of the newspapers the next day showed a dejected journalist laying on the ground, a photo of the accused minister looking as if in a mug shot, and highly dramatized accusations that, in the US, would have led to lawsuits.

In the end, the Legislature did pass the budget last week. After two months of debate, one of the only changes that the Legislature prioritized was a very large increase in their own pot of money and personal benefits: far less attention was paid to addressing the concerns raised by the Auditor General, several of which were valid. Lost in the fist fighting was the actual substance behind the controversy: the budget. What the media, the public, and the legislators seemed to focus on were the sparks flying and not the source of the fire, and in the end very little was gained. The opportunity to constructively engage the public and the government on important issues of public financial management and the budget process, and ultimately raise the standards of the budget, was lost entirely. The budget that ultimately passed was not only no better than the draft critiqued by the Auditor General, in my opinion it was worse, with a disproportionately large budget for the Legislature that rivaled the entire education budget and dwarfed the spending in far more crucial sectors.

Liberia’s budget saga raised several lessons. The first is the challenge of effectively communicating facts and engaging the public on policy matters in the Liberian context -- one characterized by widespread illiteracy and very low levels of education. In such an environment, nuance and factual details are too easily trumped by a simple, powerful message like "three times more corrupt" that can easily be communicated, irregardless of its analytical merit. Magnifying this challenge is the weakness of Liberia's media. Far from playing a critical arbitrar in the sensationalized debate, helping readers sift through the hyped accusations, Liberia's newspapers simply played agitator.

A second lesson is the fragility of the reform process. Liberia's government is deeply committed to reforming its governance architecture, and has set off on an ambitious set of simultaneous reform: public financial management, legal and judicial reforms, and more. Troubling is the reality that an imperfect reform in one area can severely impair progress in another, derailing even the best of efforts. For instance, hiring an Auditor General should strengthen accountability and governance. Yet in this case, hiring the wrong Auditor General led to a mammoth distraction from the Government's earnest efforts to tackle corruption, and has resulted in the country losing some of the ground it worked so hard to gain. Likewise, a poorly functioning media can, counterintuitively, hinder efforts to inform the public and communicate facts over hype. And when self-serving Legislators are elected to serve the country, "good" democracy can be antithetical to good governance.

Far from being dull Liberia's budget process was, as it turns out, unforgettable.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Lots of love for Team Liberia

Family dinner

Celebrating Yue Man's completion of Liberia's application for (many millions of dollars of) funding for a tuberculosis program fom the Global Fund.

Our daily commute (in a 15 passenger van) to work
Two words describe my feelings toward Team Liberia: "the BEST!" [Team Liberia, this refers to "the best" as in the "the BEST best," and not just "the best."] Team Liberia has been the source of endless giggles, hilarity, memorable adventures, and just plain joy. We've morphed into a hybrid of summer camp (with girls vs. boys waterballoon fights), family (eating dinner every night together) and Real World Monrovia (with just a tad less drama). Consumed by intense work schedules and equally intense surroundings, it has been a great relief to have such a fabulous group to come home to every night. Monrovia, surpisingly, has its fair share of nightlife: a handful of outdoor bars with live music, a few favorite spots right in the beach, a hotel restaurant-turned-coffeeshop, and even a fabulous sushi restaurant. These have given us enough enough escapes to keep our spirits and energy up. Most evenings, though, we bond at the Baptist Compound -- feeding our addictions for mindless TV series (the OC and Sex and the City), teasing each other about our eccentric personality traits, and reflecting on our experiences and work. To put it mildly, I adore Team Liberia.

A Diamond is (Not Liberia’s) Forever

Liberia is poor. Its people are poor, its government is poor, the state of the country’s infrastructure is poor. You’d be hard pressed indeed to find a country much poorer than Liberia today.

And yet, paradoxically, Liberia should be filthy rich. From the perspective of its natural resources, Liberia boasts a literal gold mine. Open a map of Liberia, close your eyes and draw an X, and you may very well have located your fortune. Dig below the ground and you’ll find diamonds, iron ore, gold, and other lucrative minerals. Look up and you’ll run straight into one of the gazillions of trees that comprise Liberia’s vast and valuable forest. And, if you’re the kind of pirate who is willing to take a gamble on your treasure, head straight for Liberia’s continental shelf and be first in line to discover possible new reserves of oil and gas.

Tragically, Liberians know precious little of the bling bling from these riches, and far too much bang bang. The hefty profits from extractive industries – diamonds, gold, forestry – have for decades been used against Liberia’s people instead of for them. These riches fuelled the prolonged civil conflict, putting hundreds of thousands of guns into the hands of rebel factions and child soldiers. Corrupt business deals and outrageous plundering by (morally repugnant) political leaders from previous governments meant that Liberia saw almost none of the proceeds from the sales of its diamonds and trees.

The solution seems all too obvious and basic. Governments should be the honorable stewards of a country’s resources. Any leader who steals should be locked up. Private (and particularly foreign) companies should not get away with highway robbery: a reasonable share of their profits should be transferred to the country from whose land these companies are getting rich, and used responsibly to fund schools, hospitals, and roads. And the ultimate consumers of these products --- in particular the millions of love-struck American men who purchase the bulk of the world’s diamonds for their future brides --- should take great care to ensure that their insatiable demand for Liberia’s buried treasures results in development, and not destruction.

For their end, the Government of Liberia is now doing its part. Last week the Government launched its participation in the “Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative” in a jubilant ceremony at City Hall, complete with balloons, singing teenagers and the requisite presence of government and donor dignitaries. At the fanfare event, President Sirleaf announced the Government of Liberia’s voluntary pledge to enact a more transparent, accountable and equitable management of its extractive resources. Basically, this will entail publication of all payments made by mining, petroleum and forestry companies to the government, and the reconciliation and external audit of payment and revenue information.

Me, Minister Sayeh, Dan Honig, and Dabah (special assistant) at the EITI launch

A similar program in Nigeria has made progress in ensuring that oil revenues actually end up in the coffers of the national government. Whether or not this money escapes Nigerian’s notorious corruption as it filters to the local level is a separate question, of course. And a skeptical reader may also question the effectiveness of governments in spending this money and at the end of the day, whether it will actually improve the lives of everyday citizens. However limited this progress, though, it does suggest that the marriage of strong political commitment at the top and watchdog programs can help avert the flagrant robbery of the past.

As Liberia now throws open the doors of its mining and forestry operations, the challenge ahead lies in translating this political commitment into urgently needed revenues, employment, and infrastructure. Liberia's development prospects in the next decade will depend heavily on these extractive industries. In the absence of reliable electricity, a trained workforce, and uninterrupted peace and stability, I'm dubious about the prospects for much other private sector activity, like tourism or manufacturing, at least in the short term. Liberia's natural resources are so valuable to the rest of the world that they will attract investment, regardless of the constraints that scare other nervous investors away. The huge Mittal Steel deal and other new concession agreements will soon revive these critical industries and jump start the economy. Perhaps this time around, Liberians will finally get a piece of their treasure.

**To learn more about Liberia's efforts to comply with the Kimberly certification for its diamonds, see Kaysie Brown's recent blog posting

** For anyone in the market for a diamond engagement ring, check out Amnesty International and Global Witness for more information on how to purchase a conflict-free diamond.

** Click here to read the full text of the President's speech.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Colleen has arrived!

Colleen has arrived in Monrovia! My little sister (and favorite side kick) Colleen will be spending the next two weeks with me in Liberia, followed by a two week adventure in Senegal and Mali. Colleen -- a third year student in the University of Iowa's nonfiction writing program -- and I made a pact to travel as much as possible together while we're both in graduate school, capitalizing on our overlapping breaks and our mutual wanderlust. Traveling with Colleen is always a joy. Not only do I relish her writer's eye-view of her surroundings (which contrasts nicely with my policy wonky lense), but I also cherish the quality sister bonding time. During her time in Liberia, Colleen will be writing an article for Ms. Magazine about women leaders in Liberia ,and will be retracing and updating some of Graham Greene's novice meanderings from his book "A Journey Without Maps." And of course making me giggle incessantly. Catch us soon in Timbuktu...

**For more on Colleen's writing, see:

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The bold and the beautiful: Liberian lapa

Me, Emily, Matilda, JR and Yue Man shopping for lapa in the Waterside market in Monrovia

It's not exactly a well kept secret that I worship bright colors. Green, yellow and most of all red: the brighter the better. My recent year in India unleashed my inner Crayola crayon box and my wardrobe hasn't turned back since. Liberia, remarkably, has managed to take this up a notch by adding a new twist to my affinity for shockingly bright colors: big, bold, beautiful patterns. Here in Liberia, female fashion is characterized by suits (i.e. matching long skirts and tops) made from "lapa" cotton decorated in daring patterns. Guided by the expert fashion advice of Emily's colleague Matilda, the female contingent of our intern group has become regulars at our tailor's shop, growing more and more adventurous with each of our orders for lapa suits. So far I've shied away from the matching headdress, out of fear of looking like the single most preposterous (and gigantically tall) expat in West Africa. If my Liberian colleagues have their way, though, I may soon be decked out like a full on African princess. Or spotted giraffe. Jury's out.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Cabinet Retreat

Yesenia, Yue Man, Emily and I with (my boss) Finance Minsiter Antoinette Sayeh

Finance Minister Antoinette Sayeh presenting a retrospective on the fiscal year

On Friday our intern team was (generously) invited by the President to the Cabinet Retreat, which was held at a Baptist retreat center and attended by members of her Cabinet . The all day event proved an incredibly memorable opportunity to be a fly on the wall of President Sirleaf's government and to see policymaking in action. My boss, Finance Minister Antoinette Sayeh, dazzled all of us with several excellent presentations on restrospectives and lessons from the fiscal year and on progress with poverty reduction deliverables. Overall, the day provided us all with quite a bit of food for thought and insights into policy.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Bring us (back) our best and brightest

Until very recently, Liberians were fleeing the instability of their embattled country in droves. Over the course of the 14 year civil war, half a million Liberians took refuge in neighboring countries like Guinea, Ghana, and Sierra Leone, many in overcrowded refugee camps. Those with the means (or a fortuitous stroke of luck) made a beeline for the United States, establishing a highly educated and professional Liberian diaspora in American states like Maryland and Virginia that, ironically, bear the same names etched on Liberia’s map 150 years ago by the freed American slaves who arrived on Liberia’s shores.

President Sirleaf’s election in 2005 immediately halted this hemorrhage, and has even begun to turn the tide in the opposite direction. Displaced Liberians, returning in mass from refugee camps, have swelled Monrovia’s population and have begun to piece together the remnants of their previous life. Strikingly, President Sirleaf has also inspired a dramatic reverse brain drain. Drawn by personal invitations from the President and a soaring optimism in the country’s direction under her leadership, Liberians living abroad are now coming home, bringing with them decades of professional experience, impressive diplomas, and an often zealous commitment to moving Liberia forward and to regaining the country’s lost ground.

The presence of returned Liberians from the United States is unmistakable. Take President Sirleaf’s administration. The vast majority of Cabinet ministers have just spent upwards of 20 to 30 years in the US. In fact, it is a rare occurrence indeed to find a senior-level decision maker who wasn’t in the US during the war. (A very notable exception is the Minister of Health, a US-educated Liberian doctor who spent 30 uninterrupted years running Liberia’s largest hospital outside of Monrovia, forgoing lucrative medical positions abroad and braving dangerous fighting to keep the country’s medical lifeline going). Returned Liberians are opening banks, revamping entire industries, deftly administering government ministries, and bringing new ideas and urgently needed investment.

A mission to give back

When I’ve asked these returned Liberians why they have come home, I invariably hear the same answer: “Because the President asked me to.” This response appears to be equally about the President herself –- and the reverence, admiration, and loyalty that she inspires in people – as it is about a patriotic duty to public service at such a watershed moment in Liberia’s history. The President’s extensive Rolodex, developed through her many years working abroad, enabled her to tap many of the diaspora’s best and brightest for influential positions within and outside the Government. And while it is difficult for anyone to say no to this “Iron Lady” President, the affirmative response to her invitation was to a large degree an expression of a sincere desire to make a difference.

Ben, a 42 year old Liberian who was educated at Virginia Tech and left a successful technology career outside Washington, DC to resuscitate (at the President’s request) Liberia’s struggling state-owned telecommunications company, explained this sentiment to me: “Many of us who were fortunate enough to live in the United States have, through a great deal of hard work, achieved success in a traditional sense. We attended good universities, went on to impressive jobs, made money, bought a house, and did well for ourselves. And then at some point we asked, ‘Now what?’ What we’re searching for now is something bigger than this material success, some way to contribute to a larger picture. That’s why so many of us have come home to Liberia: to give back.”

Yesenia, Emily, Yue Man and I with Mary, a recently returned Liberian who is tackling corruption in the passport office.

Coming home is not easy, nor is it without sacrifice. Public sector salaries in Liberia are a pittance compared to the compensation that is commanded in the United States. And after 20 years abroad, many overseas Liberians face such financial realities as mortgages and expensive college tuition bills, not to mention a vastly higher standard of living. To overcome the financial hurdles to returning home, several inventive donor-funded programs have been implemented to help cross the financial t’s and dot the salary i’s of seasoned professionals who accept low paying jobs in the capacity-strapped Liberian public sector. While these supplemented salaries are still often a third or less of US salaries, they go a long way towards narrowing the gap between good intentions and financial reality.

In discussions of challenges they face, returned Liberians frequently cite culture shock, difficult living conditions, severe limitations in the skills of their staff, and the deep frustrations that arise when high expectations clash with reality. It is increasingly clear that the challenge of rebuilding Liberia amounts to a long gruelling marathon, and not a high octane sprint. One of the key challenges facing the returned diaspora then is to sustain their commitment and energy after mile 1, when the initial euphoria has worn off and the road ahead stretches on another trying 25 miles.

A binding constraint to Liberia’s development

The return of Liberians like Ben is more than just inspiring. Some would even argue that it is crucial for Liberia’s development. More than any other obstacle – crappy roads, low foreign investment, a feeble budget, annihilated infrastructure, crushing unemployment --- weak human capacity is one of the most central, if not the central, binding constraint to Liberia’s development in the next decade and beyond. Of course, “human capacity constraint” is a pleasant sounding euphemism that encompasses a range of damning shortcomings that boil down to individuals’ skills, motivation, and capabilities. Two decades of war had the effect of hitting a national pause button in Liberia. Education was almost entirely disrupted, which meant that no lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, judges, technicians, or engineers were trained. A whole generation reached their productive years without developing skills and with little hope of actually being productive. Liberia’s entire economy came to a screeching halt during the war, gradually eroding people’s work ethic and initiative and fuelling a pervasive culture of petty corruption that continues today. For those who were educated or skilled before the war, these same endowments that are now so desperately needed in Liberia were the ticket to people getting out of Liberia. This has left the country today with a gaping hole of middle managers and qualified staff at all but the very top levels.

To understand the impact of this human capacity constraint, consider for instance the impossibility of building an effective judicial system without enough lawyers and judges and with an under-trained staff that can take months to process claims. What are the prospects that war criminals will actually be persecuted, that women will be able turn to legal protection against widespread rape, or that nervous investors will trust that their property would be legally protected? Or the difficulty in educating Liberia’s children when less than half of school teachers have any formal training (or, in some cases, education!). Or of getting anything done efficiently when civil servants have little experience with the sort of follow through, computer skills and productivity that underpin any effective administrative apparatus.

This last point may sound harmless, but I can attest from personal experience that it is a very, very serious challenge. Case in point: the hellish 18 hour day I endured on Thursday, during which I worked with some 7 government ministries and managed several staff to collect and analyze data for two Cabinet presentations reviewing the fiscal year and poverty reduction deliverables. What should have been an exceedingly simple and straightforward missive proved to be, in very crude terms, a “cluster f*ck.” Halfway through the day I unleashed a militant micromanager that I never before knew existed (and who I hope never rears her scary head again!) and began to pray for the gray clouds overhead to rain down follow-through and initiative all over downtown Monrovia. By 1:30 AM, through a super-human effort, I finally had two Power Point presentations, an updated matrix, a growing ulcer, and a renewed appreciation for everything I just wrote in this blog entry.

No matter what name you give it – institutions, governance, human capital – there is little question that the availability of effective, skilled people is essential to Liberian’s Herculean task of fixing the country’s governance architecture and implementing the ambitious development agenda. Since human capital cannot be developed instantly overnight, a crucial stopgap measure is the immediate infusion of people like Ben.

Exacerbating historical inequalities

And yet, despite the many benefits associated with these measures, they also raise some troubling concerns, first and foremost about inequality. Inequality has been one of the most salient features in Liberia throughout the country’s history. Since the first ships of freed American slaves arrived on Liberia’s shores nearly two centuries ago, the inequality between the native population and these Americo-Liberians -- in everything from wealth to power to education -- has been immense. Making up only 5% of the country’s population, the freed American slaves and their descendents maintained an exclusive monopoly over the country’s wealth and power structure. Little effort was made to raise the living standards of the native population, who were even subjected to forms of slavery. Despite the success of decades of Americo-Liberian elite rule in creating a high profile for Liberia within Africa and in sustaining strong economic growth rates, the native population exercised little power during this time and enjoyed few benefits from the country’s gains.

Resentful of these age-old inequities, most Liberians jubilantly rejoiced in 1980 when Samuel K. Doe, a 29 year old uneducated military sergeant, overthrew (and killed) then Americo-Liberian President Tolbert to become the very first ever native leader of Liberia. Samuel Doe proved to be the foil of today’s technocratic President Sirleaf. When asked by international reporters what economic policies he would pursue in office, he stared blankly at the camera, with his mother by his side, and nervously answered “the same.” History proved this timid response wrong: the economy took a nose dive throughout Doe’s corrupt and inept ten year rule. As a result, the same people who celebrated his ascension fell deeper into poverty, and the country ultimately unfolded into civil war.

Samuel K. Doe

Twenty five years later, the country’s leadership has once again undergone a coup, albeit through democratic means. Reacting this time to decades of egregious corruption and conflict, the majority of Liberians in 2005 caste their votes for a leader who represented integrity and competence, as opposed to ethnic affiliation. Yet the lessons from Doe’s rise simply cannot be ignored, particularly as the return of overseas Liberians threatens to exacerbate the country’s inequality: this time, enlarging the gulf between those (mostly native) Liberians that remained during the war and suffered, and those whose privilege enabled them to seek refuge in the United States and leap to a new standard of living. Now home in Liberia, the returned Liberians form an even more elite class than ever before seen in the country’s history. The elite circle of Americo-Liberians-returned-from-America --- brandishing impressive (and often intimidating) credentials from US universities and companies, residing in Monrovia’s choice real estate , and wielding a disproportionate influence in the highest echelons of government -- contrast wildly with their fellow citizens, who earn on average 30 cents a day and, if lucky, live in an even remotely permanent shelter.

To be sure, this elite class is different than its predecessors. By and large, their wealth was not gained through plundering (as was the case with the corrupt rulers of the past thirty years who withdrew from the Central Bank like a personal bank account), and the commitment of the Government to poverty reduction and development for all people is unshakeable. Still, concerns arise. In a country as poor as Liberia -- where unemployment stands at 85% and the private sector is barely functioning -- government positions are the be all and end all: the highest forms of influence, the best paid positions, the most prestigious, the way someone “arrives” economically, politically, and socially. Restricting access to an elite circle of skilled returned Liberians may well maximize the Government’s effectiveness, but at the cost of excluding native citizens and fostering potentially destabilizing resentment, whose cost may again prove fatal.

In my conversations with my Liberian co-workers – secretaries, drivers, administrative assistants – I have been very impressed by the genuinely welcoming attitude that many have expressed towards the returned Liberians, and of their earnest desire to learn from them. The concerns that have aired in these conversations, however, include the condescension that they feel is often directed at them, the lack of respect, and the perception that skilled locals are often overlooked in favor of expatriate Liberians. A lingering challenge that I, too, face is to be patient and understanding, and to find ways to respectfully empower my colleagues and help close the capacity gap.

Ultimately, it is my hope that the differences that divide Liberians will be dwarfed by the power of what brings Liberians from all ethnic and class divisions together: a deep desire for a better future for Liberia. President Sirleaf has proven remarkably skilled at attracting people home, and she now faces the task of drawing her disparate people together, whether they be former rebel leaders, educated telecommunications experts, or rural families struggling to put rice on the table. The President herself has proven an adept chameleon: switching from “simple English” with a thick Liberian accent to a technocratic speech depending on her audience, and wearing hats ranging from courageous opposition leader to international role model.

Today in Liberia, with the landscape of “home” quite literally transformed by war, Madam President faces the challenge and opportunity of reshaping her home, Liberia, in a more equitable, just image. It is in this endeavor that I, too, give her my vote.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The worlds of poverty and policy: Can compassionate be an adjective describing a technocrat*?

My smashing roommate/classmate Emily Stanger just posted a must-read entry in her blog, reflecting on the tensions between hard-nosed technocratic policy and compassionate connection to the poor. This issue has been the subject of many, many late night conversations over the past week, and Emily's entry has captured beautifully the complexities that have quite literally kept Emily, Yue Man and I up all night. As I write this at the end of my third consecutive 15 hour day working (until 11 PM) in the uber-technocratic Ministry of Finance, I'm crossing my fingers that her conclusion is right! In any event, definitely take a look at Emily's blog for some insightful food for thought.

And thank goodness for brilliant, passionate, and amazing people like Emily!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Making magic for Liberia's children

It is little wonder that Liberians suffer from ill health. The country’s hot, rain-soaked climate provides a feasting frenzy for dozens of dreadful diseases: cholera, lymphatic filariasis, yellow fever, and river blindness, to name a few. Above all, just one disease --- malaria --- poses the single greatest health threat. Spread by the bite of an infected mosquito, malaria is so pervasive in Liberia that it is deemed hyperendemic. The disease kills a staggering number of children – one of every two children that dies before the age of five is killed by malaria -- and is one of the primary reasons that Liberia has the fourth highest rates of child mortality in all of Africa.

Yet in the face of these pernicious diseases, the government’s capacity to fund life-saving medicines, clinics, and health programs is woefully inadequate. Liberia has only recently emerged from two decades of civil war, which left the government saddled with more than $3 billion in foreign debt and constrained by a shattered revenue base. Last year, the entire budget of the Government of Liberia was just $129 million and was divided among many additional pressing priorities. Thus while the health needs of the country are mammoth, they dwarf the government’s ability to finance them. Today the Government of Liberia spends less than $5 per person per year for health, a teeny fraction of the average $5,627 per person that the United States spends annually, and hardly enough to keep its citizens healthy.

Worrisome still is the shortage of trained health care workers in Liberia. For a country of more than three million people, there are fewer than 40 Liberian doctors and 50 nurse midwives. To put this into perspective, the building on M Street in Washington, DC that houses my primary care physician has more doctors sitting together under one roof than there are Liberian doctors in the entire country of Liberia. Moreover, years of destruction and looting during the war severely damaged the health infrastructure throughout the country.

Perhaps most damning is the reality that Liberia does not yet have the tools in its arsenal to win the battle against infectious diseases. Without a vaccine to prevent malaria, treatment efforts have been undermined by the increasing resistance of mosquitoes to antimalarial drugs, and prevention efforts with treated bednets have made only modest strides. Yet success is possible. In spite of all of the deficiencies in Liberia’s broken health system, one of the most stunning accomplishments has been the immunization of more than 95% of Liberian children with the measles vaccine and the subsequent slashing of measles deaths. Imagine the sheer number of lives that could be saved if Liberia had a malaria vaccine!

Today the world – and Liberia – still waits for a malaria vaccine to be developed. Unfortunately, the shallow pockets of Liberia’s citizens alone will not induce the private sector to step up to the plate. Three quarters of Liberia’s citizens live on less than a dollar a day and few if any have access to health insurance. This poverty makes Liberians – and their neighbors in Africa, a continent which accounts for 90% of malaria deaths worldwide -- unlikely customers for expensive new health technologies, and provides little financial incentive for costly investments by pharmaceutical companies in the discovery and development of life-saving vaccines. Too often, diseases like malaria are then sidelined from the global research agenda.

Thankfully, there exists a promising new solution to this colossal market failure. This year marked the launch of the first ever "Advance Market Commitment," an innovative financing mechanism that creates commercial incentives for pharmaceutical companies to invest in the development of life-saving medicines that they may otherwise ignore. To do this, the Advance Market Commitment enables international donors to make a binding commitment to finance a specific vaccine (such as a malaria vaccine) if and when it is developed, at a price that is profitable. The brilliance of this scheme is that it allows donors to unleash the powerful ingenuity and innovation of the private sector, aligning technological advances with the greatest social good. In February donors committed $1.5 billion to such a mechanism to spur the development of a vaccine to prevent child pneumonia. Should donors decide to act, a similar mechanism for malaria may not be far behind.

A sobering year of grad school has already drained from me any illusions of holy grails or “silver bullet” solutions for ending poverty. To be sure, a malaria vaccine is not a panacea -- it cannot fix the gaping weaknesses in Liberia’s health system, nor perform miracles with Liberia’s budget – but it sure comes close. Saving the lives of half of Liberia's children who die before they reach their fifth birthday with just one powerful shot? Sounds pretty miraculous to me.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Meeting Madam President

On Sunday our group had the distinct honor of meeting the wondrous President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Giddy with excitement, the females in our group prepared for the big event by recruiting my most fashionable colleague to bring us to a tailor to have African dresses made. (Word to the wise: Liberian dresses are gorgeous). Donning our new getups and with great anticipation, we headed to meet the President.

The President arranged a reception in her backyard for our group of interns and the Ministers with whom each of us work. After greeting us and listening to a description of our internship projects, the President -- who had just returned from a football match against Equatorial Guinea (with a final score of 0-0) -- strongly encouraged us to take on challenging work and to contribute substantive policy analysis to her Government. Her razor sharp analysis of our internships -- immediately picking out those who were underutilized and offering great suggestions on additional work -- made a strong impression on all of us. Also, I was very touched to see the President working so closely with her sister, who presided over the reception. I too am very close with my own sisters and will even be joined in Liberia this summer by my beloved younger sister and writer extraordinaire Colleen, who has been commissioned to write some magazine pieces about Liberia.

During our conversation with the President, Emily asked how the President sustains herself through all of the many challenges and frustrations in her job. "The possibility of transformation" was her answer, a very fitting response to a group of students who believe firmly in her potential to make that possibility a reality.

**For more on President Sirleaf and her heroic efforts in Liberia, see the first post in this blog.**

Team Liberia

I am extremely fortunate to be accompanied in Monrovia this summer by a stellar cast of 6 other graduate students from the Kennedy School. From the MPA/ID program are Yue Man Lee, Rupert Simons, Jesse Torrence, and Emily Stanger, and the MPPs are represented by Zach Neumann and Yesenia Mejia. We've also adopted Jeff, a law student at Columbia University, into our merry family. I've relished the group's endless comic relief, lively entertainment, and the invaluable sounding board as we process and reflect on our experiences in Liberia. Moreover, my learning has multiplied many times over as I learn from my classmates' perspectives from each of their respective ministries of gender, agriculture, health, and state.

A few individuals have been particularly helpful to our group. Steve Radelet, principal economic advisor to Liberia and Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, has been an amazing mentor and an invaluable fountain of knowledge and contacts. Mrs. Thelma Johnson in the President's Office has been an angel: setting us up with housing, arranging all of our logistics, and very warmly welcoming us to Liberia. Zach, Emily and I are also deeply grateful for the extremely generous financial support of the Nancy Germeshausen Klavans Cultural Bridge Fellowship, and to the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard.

Unthinkable atrocities

Until two weeks ago, my answer to the question “what is the worst problem in the world?” would have been “poverty,” without any hesitation. Since I first looked it in the eye in Mexico City’s sprawling slums more than a decade ago, grinding poverty has moved me more deeply than any other issue on the planet. The inhumanity of millions of families living in, quite literally, the scraps of human existence -- in miles of slum dwellings made of squalid refuse, in impoverished rural communities barely eeking out a subsistence living – has been the driving force in my career path and current studies in international development.

And yet Liberia has confronted me with an even more shocking face of inhumanity: violent conflict. It turns out that war sucks. Really, really badly. Not exactly earth shattering news, right? But for me, during these past two weeks as I’ve delved deeper into Liberia’s bloody history, it actually has been.

The personal stories I’ve heard from the mouths of survivors have caused me to seriously question the human race, and the male gender in particular. Family members being brutally murdered, raped, and tortured. People repeatedly fleeing as refugees to Guinea, Sierra Leone and the United States. Living in terror without food for days on end. Losing a decade of education. Even more disturbing are the stories printed daily in the newspapers here of Charles Taylor’s alleged war crimes -- so gruesome that I can barely process them as fact, and not the fictitious script of the most violent horror movie in Hollywood history. Women being forced into sex slavery with rebel leaders, children being forced to kill - or even eat - their parents, widespread amputations, and absolutely horrific rapes (that continue unabated to this day).

Thankfully Liberia is peaceful and stable, at least for now -- 15,000 UN peacekeepers will do that to a country -- and there is so much rebuilding and bustling life in the streets that it is hard to believe that this country just went through hell. But it did, and I am amazed by people's resilience in looking ahead to the future and not to the bitterness of the past.

Yet I can’t help but wonder: just how thin the veneer of calm is. How a society so ripped apart by unspeakable atrocities can possibly forgive, heal, and move on. How the small, incremental improvements along the very slow road to rebuilding will be enough to quell the urge of former combatants to return to chaos. How an entire generation of youth schooled with guns and not pencils can ever believe in their future. And how on earth we can stop this from every happening again.

** A fantastic read on this topic is the book "A Long Way Gone," a memoir of a remarkable former child soldier in Sierra Leone.**

Voyage to Sierra Leone Border

On Saturday, Emily, Zach and I headed off on a road trip to Liberia's northern border with Sierra Leone. The spontaneous road trip, organized by Zach's Liberian colleague in Protocol, provided us our first taste of Liberia beyond the capital. Our 5 hour drive along Liberia's best road -- broken up by two dozen UN security checkpoints -- provided us glimpses of rubber plantations, incredibly dense green vegetation, simple villages, and colorful local markets.

During our stop at the (remarkably informal) border, we spent some time wandering through the local market on the Liberian side. Thanks to my penchant for travels to such places as India, Kenya and Bolivia, I've grown quite accustomed to looking like a 6'2 redhaired alien and to eliciting bewildered stares from locals. Normally I deal with the awkwardness of these interactions by using silly/friendly antics to transform the intense stares into smiles and laughs: without a doubt, being a crowd-pleasing clown is strongly preferable to parading as a circus freak. I must say, though, that the women at the Saturday market selling hot peppers, cassava, and dried fish were not an easy to crowd. Not one person cracked a smile, perhaps a reflection of the difficult circumstances of their life (or perhaps our inappropriate foreign presence!), and Emily and I scurried out of there quickly. Much to our relief, the children in the area were much more playful and curious and Emily and I had a blast playing games with them.

One of the most striking images at our stop in the border town was the sight of teenage boys with a great deal of attitude cruising around on motor bikes. We had learned earlier that the money that many of the young ex-combatants and former child soldiers earned when they turned in their guns was, by and large, spent immediately on the purchase of motor bikes. While there is little doubt that the disarmament process was crucial, the byproduct is quite disturbing. These teenage boys are now marked almost like a gang, and their possession of very cool looking bikes undoubtedly incites envy and even resentment in the others in the community. (One sunglass and fancy sneaker-wearing motorbiker had an attractive female on the bike). Emily and I both left questioning the impression that this image is making on the same young kids we played with, and the lesson they are learning about the consequences (or rewards) of partaking in highly undesirable violent behavior.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Putting Women in the Driver's Seat

Liberia's Leading Ladies:
Finance Minister Antoinette Sayeh with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

“It took men three decades to destroy Liberia, and it is now the women who are fixing it.”
-- quote from one very impressed man in Monrovia--

Anyone who questions the promise of female leadership needs only to step foot in Liberia to cast aside any lingering doubts. My experience over the past week has revealed one unambiguous fact: Liberian women are driving this nation forward. President Sirleaf is the most obvious example, but behind her are so many other effective, talented women who are delivering the results that this country desperately needs.

Consider for instance Mary, the dynamic spark plug who our group met our first day in Monrovia. Mary was personally recruited by the President to return to Liberia after nearly 30 years in the Bronx to run the President’s special projects. If the tight ship that she runs in her spare time at her kitchen-turned-restaurant is any indication, I have little doubt that Mary is lighting a fire under the Passport department (which she recently took over) and taking no prisoners in the process.

At the Finance Ministry where I work, evidence of women’s “get things done” approach is everywhere. Finance Minister Sayeh’s results-oriented management has already borne impressive fruits: revenues and expenditures have more than doubled, the budget has been balanced, and responsible financial management established. Likewise, the boundless determination of two other female managers in the Ministry has resulted in record-breaking revenue growth and the elimination of hundreds of “ghost workers” from the Ministry’s bloated payrolls. The competence, integrity, and effectiveness of the female managers I interact with in the Ministry contrasts with the power-seeking, “me first” attitude that so often prevails in governments worldwide.

In very nerdy terms: If government leadership in Liberia under women were a dummy variable (with value 1, and male leadership taking value 0), I would venture to guess that its effect on economic growth, reduction in corruption, efficiency, law and order, and poverty reduction would be enormous and statistically significant.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Arrived in Monrovia!

I've arrived in Monrovia! After a rejuvenating stop in Paris and London, my classmate and dear friend Yue Man (who will be interning with the Ministry of Health) and I set out June 1st on our epic journey from London Gatwick airport to Monrovia, by way of Brussels and Dakar. Our flight was thankfully uneventful aside from the excitement around the Cameroon soccer team on board, who handled the passengers-turned-paparazzi with impressive patience (and later beat the Liberian team 2-1).

Having never before set foot in a post-conflict environment nor in West Africa, I was unsure of what to expect upon our arrival in Monrovia. In several respects, I have been pleasantly surprised with the conditions of the city. Particularly in the traffic-clogged downtown center, the city is alive with bustling activity, restaurants and shops have a fresh coat of paint and no shortage of customers, and the rebuilding process is very noticeably underway. That said, relics of Liberia's tumultuous recent history abound: the giant skeletons of decaying buildings, the makeshift dwellings that haphazardly house the million plus displaced Liberians who have more than doubled Monrovia's population, and the presence of thousands of armed UN peacekeepers.

Several distinct features of Monrovia immediately stand out. The sheer number of Christian churches is mind boggling: Southern Baptist, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Lutheran, you name it, the denomination is thriving in Monrovia, with a freshly painted Church to match. Our friendly Liberian driver, Collin, suggested that the surge in religiosity stems from the hardships endured during the war, when religion provided comfort and meaning in the midst of chaos. We enthusiastically expressed interest in joining Collin on Sunday for his church service until he informed us that it lasts six hours (!).

Competing with churches for monopoly on Monrovian real estate are the development NGOs that occupy just about every third building in town. Africare, Oxfam, Carter Center, American Bar Association, the list is endless. Magnifying this foreign presence is the endless fleet of UN vehicles with ginormous antennas that cruise the streets and congregate in the parking lots of expat bars, restaurants, and supermarkets, where the cost of a box of imported Pop Tarts rivals the weekly pay of many government employees. So prominent is the UN presence that the busiest road winding through town has been renamed "UN Drive." While few could question the need for the UN and NGO missions during the rebuilding of Liberia, the disparity in lifestyles between foreign expats and the vast majority of Liberians is unsettling at best.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Finance Ministry Internship

This summer I will be interning with Liberia's Minister of Finance, Antoinette Sayeh. The seeds of this internship were first planted in September when I heard President Sirleaf speak at (her alma mater) the Kennedy School of Government, where I currently study. Deeply inspired by the President’s visionary leadership, I decided moments into her speech that I would go to Liberia and support the work of her government. As a student of international development and someone deeply concerned about poverty, I have long been interested in spending time in West Africa, the poorest region of the globe. Liberia, in particular, promised a fascinating case study of the prospects for good governance and sound policy delivering development in a post-conflict environment.

My internship with Finance Minister Sayeh was made possible by the tremendously helpful mentorship of Steve Radelet, principal economic advisor to the Government of Liberia and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. I am also deeply grateful for the financial support and sponsorship that has been generously provided by the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard and the Nancy Germeshausen Klavans Cultural Bridge Fellowship.

In the face of so many urgent social sector needs -- resurrecting schools, training doctors, vaccinating children -- the finance ministry's mandate of financial management and budget discipline can seem impossibly inhuman and technical. Yet establishing an efficient, accountable, and corruption-free public administration is essential to the attainment of all other development goals and to the government’s gaining legitimacy among the people of Liberia. Previously, the finance ministry was the hub of the country's most egregious corruption and plundering. In striking contrast, the current Ministry of Finance under Minister Sayeh has set a remarkable record in less than a year that includes balancing the budget, increasing government revenues by nearly 50 percent, and establishing sound public financial management. This prudential financial management is crucial to Liberia’s objective of attracting international donor assistance to finance its cash-strapped poverty reduction strategy.

My work will focus on a range of development-focused policies, including:
 Debt relief
 Private sector development and employment creation
 Addressing constraints to access to finance
 Investment code and tax reform

One of my primary projects will focus on the issue of Liberia’s external debt and the pursuit of urgently needed debt relief from the donor community. Liberia’s mammoth outstanding debt of nearly $4 billion was accumulated during corrupt military regimes in the 1980s. Today it serves as a formidable obstacle to essential social sector spending, while at the same time distracting limited human resource capacity from priority government tasks. Clearance of arrears and resolution of the debt problem is thus a top priority of the Ministry of Finance.

Liberia: History unfolding

Liberia first captivated my attention 18 months ago, in January of 2006. Virtually unknown to me previously, the small West African nation made headlines worldwide when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as the country’s exceedingly competent president and the first ever democratically elected female head of state in Africa.

Few countries evoke as elevated a sense of optimism, of transformation, and of history unfolding before one's eyes, as Liberia today. Once ranked among sub Saharan Africa's middle income countries, Liberia was ravaged by a devastating civil war and decades of misrule and corruption. Fourteen years of conflict claimed the lives of nearly 300,000 people, displaced another 500,000, and left the country’s social fabric, infrastructure and economy in ruins. Thirty years ago Liberia boasted a per capita GDP comparable to those of Egypt, Indonesia and the Philippines and more than double that of India. Today average income in Liberia is just 30 cents a day: a shocking 30% of the extreme poverty line, and a mere 10-20% of pre-war income levels.

President's Sirleaf's election in 2006 marked the dawn of a new era of hope. Known affectionately as the “Iron Lady,” President Sirleaf is a shining star of good governance amidst a sea of corruption in the African continent. Beyond her impressive credentials -- Harvard educated and years of professional experience in the government and the private sector -- President Sirleaf earned widespread respect for her courageous opposition to the previous regimes, which even landed her in jail. Visionary, competent, incorruptible, effective and development-focused, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is one of the most remarkable leaders on the planet today, and one of my personal heroes.

To be sure, the challenges facing President Sirleaf and her government are immense: For a country of nearly 3.5 million people, there are just 43 Liberian physicians and 21 nurse midwives. Liberia is one of the only countries on the planet where today’s generation of children has less education than their parents. Schools and hospitals have been destroyed, unemployment stands at some 85%, and electricity is limited to just 10% percent of residents in the capital city, and nowhere beyond. Faced with such daunting tasks of rebuilding, President Sirleaf has set out with compassion, sound policies, and bold leadership to deliver poverty reduction and economic development to her country.

It is from the pages of Liberia's unfolding history that I seek to learn this summer, and upon which I will reflect in this blog over the coming 8 weeks. I invite you, too, to learn from Liberia's courageous experience and to share your views and reactions. (Blog comments are warmly encouraged!).