Read on for highlights, reflections and anecdotes from my summer internship in Monrovia with Liberia's Ministry of Finance. Comments are very enthusiastically encouraged!
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
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.**
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.