06 July 2007

Sheltering from the rain

I'm spending the summer in Liberia, West Africa, working for the government as an intern. The connection is through my university: a number of Liberians have been educated at the Kennedy School of Government, including the new President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Seven of us (me, Molly, Emily, Zach, Yesenia, Yue Man and Jesse) were sufficiently curious to follow her call to do some government work over the summer. We are joining the large Liberian diaspora that has returned to rebuild the country, at the President's personal invitation.

Liberia is the wettest country in Africa and we are here in the rainy season. The capital, Monrovia, gets 4,000mm of rain annually. (London gets about 800mm, Boston 1,500mm and Manchester maybe 2,000mm.) Last weekend I went into town to have lunch with a friend. 5 seconds after getting out of thecar, the heavens opened. Within 30 seconds, the streets had turned into rivers. I had to borrow his umbrella just to cross the road. Where the drains are blocked, vehicles plow through half a foot of muddy water. Poor sanitation and a complete lack of waste disposal have contributed to Liberia's catastrophic public health: 135 children out of every 1,000 do not live to see their 5th birthday.

I'm working in the Ministry of Agriculture. I am not trying to teach Africans how to grow cassava. Instead, I am helping to develop the budget, financial and administrative systems of the ministry sothat they can spend their money wisely and honestly. This is crucial if we ever want to reduce the 2/3 of the population that is malnourished. The Ministry's budget is currently $3m, i.e., about the same as,say, the X-ray department in your local hospital. The government spent $140m last year, or about the same as your local hospital. Income per head is about $150 a year. The UN and NGO expats who took over most government functions earn more than that in a day.

Still, I have come to respect the 15,000 UN troops and 1,000 or so UN/NGO expat workers, because they provide the security that makes reconstruction possible. Professor Paul Collier, a former World Bank official now at the University of Oxford, has worked out that 50% of African civil wars break out again within 5 years of their supposed end. Liberia has had 4 years of peace and every passing year strengthens the capacity of the Liberian government and the resolve of its people not to let the war break out again. As we recoil from the disaster in Iraq, it's worth remembering that foreign military occupation can sometimes be a good thing. Even if the annual bill for the UN peacekeepers is greater than Liberia's GDP.

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