Read on for highlights, reflections and anecdotes from my summer internship in Monrovia with Liberia's Ministry of Finance. Comments are very enthusiastically encouraged!
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.
Before graduating from the MPA/ID program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in 2008, I spent a summer internship in Monrovia as a special assistnat to Liberia's Minister of Finance, Antoinette Sayeh. A big thanks to the NGK fellowship and the Women and Public Policy Program for the generous financial support and sponsorship.