31 August 2007

Four stations on the slave trade

Last week I travelled from Monrovia to Dakar, Senegal and then to Brussels and Lisbon. This unusually indirect itinerary (the product of indecision and obscure ticket conditions) has made me think about something that rarely occupies a white European: slavery.

We spent two months living in the Baptist Compound, Congo Town: named after the ‘Congos’, as the freed slaves who founded Liberia were called. Monrovia was built by them, funded by their guilty ex-masters and grew rich on enslaving the locals in their turn. The Americans who settled in Liberia created plantations whose rubber still contributes half their country’s exports. Only one of Liberia’s presidents was not Liberian-American: Samuel Doe, a semi-illiterate brute whose vindictive rule so incensed the elite that they helped fund his removal. He was succeeded by Charles Taylor, a pale-skinned, white-suited Baptist preacher. Taylor’s concrete palace, freshly painted, is right opposite the Baptist Compound.

I flew to Dakar on Slok Air. Its clapped-out 737 performs the West African stopping service the Royal Mail steamers used to. We stopped at Freetown to take on passengers. Across the river, a peak shone in the late afternoon sun. You could make out scattered houses on it: this is Hill Station, where the ‘Krios’ who founded Sierra Leone built their bungalows well above the malaria-infested ‘native settlement’ down below. The Krios were freed slaves too, but after 50 years of self-government the British decided they were getting ‘uppety’ and took over on the pretext that the Krios were excluding the natives of Sierra Leone from power. You guessed the next bit: a century of resentment and rivalry, boiling over in a bloody civil war . . .

Senegal is a complete contrast. It is the model of a self-confident Africa: it celebrates its French administration and bread as much as its Islamic heritage and vibrant music. A little offshore of booming Dakar, the Ile de Goree welcomes visitors. I went on Sunday, along with thousands of Senegalese, to delight in the colonial architecture. One of the prettiest buildings is called ‘La Maison des Esclaves’. Each room has a label: ‘Hommes’, ‘Femmes’, ‘Jeunes filles’ and so on. An arched door leads straight into the Atlantic ocean. Through this door, it is estimated that some tens of thousands of slaves were packed into waiting ships. There were many such houses on Goree, which was so lucrative that it changed hands repeatedly between 1650 and 1815, captured and recaptured by Dutch, French and British navies. Just like the Portugese, Arabs, Germans and British fought over Zanzibar.

What the guide on Goree didn’t tell us was that Mauritania, 300km to the north, tolerated slavery until 1981. Indeed, while I was in Senegal, the parliament of Mauritania voted to make slave trafficking a crime, so as to be able to prosecute it (see this article in Jeune Afrique, or the BBC for background). Mauritania’s democratically elected president – its first since 1960 – had made the issue a central pillar in his campaign.

I flew to Belgium on SN Brussels, a fading relic of empire whose Airbuses are still the best link to Kinshasa and Kigali. Belgium was the last European country to get into slavery. To make up for lost time, they kept the slaves right in the Congo where they came from. The pompous palaces of Brussels were paid for with Congolese copper and diamonds. In Tervuren, near the airport, King Leopold built the ‘Royal Museum of Central Africa’. It is still open, but when I visited in 2004, the ivory tusks and photos of happy natives dancing were being replaced with maps and mementoes of slaughter: for when Mr Kurtz died, he took an estimated 5 million Congolese with him.

Finally to Lisbon, from where Europeans first set sail for Africa and the Carribbean. Portugal was the first country into Africa and the last out: Angola and Mozambique didn’t attain their independence until 1974. The picture below shows the Cap Sao Vicente, the most south-westerly point in Europe. On the cape is an old fort: a naval college built by Prince Henry the Navigator. Its style reminded me of a fort in Mombasa, on the Kenyan coast some 5,000km away: not surprisingly, since that too was built by the Portugese. When Portugal abandoned East Africa in the 16th century, the Arab traders took it over.

What, if anything, links these four stations?

First, it turns out that the slave trade was the largest mass movement of people in human history. Some 12-15 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic between 1500 and 1900. 5 million went to Brazil and another 5 million to the Carribbean – mostly Cuba and Hispaniola. Less than half a million ended up in the USA. In countries like Jamaica, Haiti or Guyana, Africans essentially replaced the native population. Yet it is estimated that FOUR OUT OF FIVE captured slaves died before they got across the Atlantic – half of them didn’t even make it onto the ship. This puts the total captured at something closer to 25 million. To that add millions sent through Zanzibar to the Arab world or bought and sold in countries like Mauritania. (See here for details on the Atlantic slave trade or here for the Arab - though they were really part of the same phenomenon).

Second, nobody escapes from blame. All maritime powers were involved in the slave trade and many African rulers connived in it. Christian preachers like William Wilberforce and David Livingstone fought against slavery, but the slave traders of Lisbon, La Rochelle and Liverpool were Christian too. The great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, writing in the 14th century, described Africans as “the only race who willingly accept slavery, owing to their low human state and closeness to animals”.

Third, slavery doesn’t end with being freed. The sad stories of the three republics founded by freed slaves – Haiti, Sierra Leone and Liberia – should make that clear. Haiti spent 100 years trying to pay ‘damages’ to France and the next 100 years oscillating between dictatorship and chaos. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and Sierra Leone the poorest country in the world. In the early 20th century, Liberia exported slaves to the Spanish colony of Fernando Po (now Equatorial Guinea) to work on the cocoa plantations. The League of Nations censured it for this in 1929 and when President William Barclay came to power in 1931 he largely ended the practice.

Growing up in Central Europe in the 1990s, my history teachers focused on the twin horrors of the 20th century: the Holocaust and the Gulag. The slave trade deserves similar attention: not just in Africa or America, but in Europe and Arabia as well.

21 August 2007

The lighter side of Liberia

Expatriates and visitors to Liberia often become disillusioned: by the persistence of poverty and slow pace of change. Such sentiments are common, even predictable, in Africa and even more so here. As the government and UN agencies begin to count, survey and enumerate their people, the grim realities of life are crystallized from anecdotes into statistics. Like a road accident victim recently admitted to intensive care, completing the diagnosis in its full horror is an essential step to recovery.

Our small Team Liberia has had its moments of disillusion around our dinner table in the Baptist Compound, but we have tried to keep our frustrations to ourselves. Most Liberians I know have little time for them. Our friends, colleagues and casual acquaintances – not a representative sample I know – are always ready to share a joke about "this is Liberia" and display a healthy skepticism of government and other authorities; but they are also cautiously optimistic. Anyone asking "How can you live like this?" would deserve a terse reply: "You should have seen it 5 years ago."

Government posters tell us "the process is on", but actions speak louder than words. Actions like those of our driver Ernest, pictured above with his family, who is building a house complete with zinc roof (the zinc is very important). Actions like my friends from the Ministry and CARI, some of whom are pictured below, who are preparing to leave Monrovia and reclaim their old offices in Suakoko where 15 years ago Charles Taylor trained his boys. Actions like those of Sampson, a friend from Buchanan who is travelling through villages that were depopulated only a few years ago, selling anti-malarials and antibiotics that might just keep a few more children alive.

The confidence of Liberians goes beyond their deep religious faith. I have not encountered the fatalism that I found so prevalent in (peaceful, stable) Tanzania. Nor have I met anyone who wanted to emigrate like in (peaceful, stable) Cuba. Many Liberians have emigrated or fled in the past and now want to stay put. I am writing this in Senegal, along with Nigeria one of the main sources of the thousands of young Africans who die from drowning or dehydration trying to get to Europe overland. I have never heard of a Liberian taking this route.

It has been a tremendous privilege to witness the rebirth of a nation at close quarters. I hope that future visitors to Liberia will be able to see beyond the grim statistics and experience the lighter side.

11 August 2007

Management or policy?

Thank you to various readers for posting comments: I have been pleasantly surprised at your level of interest in what a bunch of graduate students are trying to do in one of the world's smallest, poorest countries!

On the question of improved rice varieties, Africa got left behind in the Green Revolution but is catching up. I share an office with the Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI), a highly dedicated, enthusiastic bunch of people who have worked in agriculture all over Africa. They are introducing improved varieties of rice, cassava and yams that have been developed by researchers in Nigeria and Benin. These are not the super high-yielding varieties found in Asia, as those require heavy fertiliser and pesticide use. But they have been bred for African conditions and when grown in swamps yield 2-3 times as much as the traditional 'red rice'. When Zach and I visited CARI's research station, we were excited to see how much they are doing - especially as UN soldiers from Bangladesh occupy most of their site (below)!

One reader mentioned Professor Dani Rodrik's work. Let me clarify: none of us have been able to do anything like growth diagnostics, or formulate a growth strategy - even if we knew how, Liberia doesn't have the data. But I will hazard a guess at what the binding constraint to Liberia's development is: not tariffs or taxes or prices or interest rates, but management.

The Center for Global Development's Peter Timmer lists the policies that are required for agriculture to grow. There are four main ones: One, a stable macroeconomic environment. Two, open trade policy (including a competitive exchange rate). Three, publicly funded agricultural research - like what my friends at CARI are doing. Four, rural roads, so that goods can get to market. Get these right and all else follows. We have the first three of these and the government is doing what it can to build roads. The World Bank has allocated $30m to repair the 500km of paved highways and regrade rural feeder roads, but only $3m has been spent. This isn't a problem of policy - it's a problem of management.

In West Africa, the rainy season is so long and intense that you can't build roads for 6 months of the year - they would wash away before being sealed. Last year, the Bank missed the dry season window because they couldn't procure the equipment in time. There were essentially no mechanical road graders or surfacers in Liberia, so the Ministry of Public Works arranged to buy some in Nigeria. By the time they finished their tenders, approved the funds and cleared the shipment from Lagos, the rains had started. Last week, President Sirleaf called an emergency cabinet meeting to get updates on 'dry season deliverables' - all the projects the ministries must implement before April 2008. They are already a month late, because we only just got our budget (click here for Molly's gripping account of that sad tale).

Liberia has excellent macroeconomic policies, a budget surplus, a stable currency and rapidly improving security. It has always been West Africa's most trade-friendly country (ever noticed that half of Europe's shipping fleet is registered here?). Donors are pouring money in and supplying hundreds of technical experts and policy advisers, many of them returning Liberians. The problem is: how do you build hundreds of schools, clinics, offices and roads, all at the same time? How do you monitor what teachers and community nurses are doing if the only way to reach them is by helicopter? How do you motivate people who are paid $30 a month and have not been challenged, praised or coached for 25 years?

Management is two things: people and processes. There are very few skilled people in the government or private sector; many of the best are with the UN or NGOs, and the rest are under-used and under-paid. The Minister of Agriculture is doing a good job of identifying who his best people are and deploying them where they are most useful - but all of them need coaching and development and we need many more them. Processes are what I have been doing: how do you write a budget? how do you hire people? how do you buy procure pickups quickly and cheaply? how do you run a meeting? how do you schedule diaries? how do you do an overtime calculation in 10 minutes in Excel that would take 2 days to do by hand?

Apart from the excitement of policy work, the most useful things we have done this summer are really, really basic things. Taking minutes and following up at meetings. Sharing policies between ministries. Creating a standard budget template. Inviting the right people a training workshop. Creating a vehicle register. It doesn't sound like a lot, but if you multiplied this a few thousand times, you would be getting somewhere. How to do that, and finding the people to do it, is a management problem.

05 August 2007

Let's start at the very beginning

The picture above shows some of the children of the village of Nyaluai, Gbarpolu County, Liberia. Nyaluai is 150km north of Monrovia. To get there, you drive 2 hours on a paved, but potholed road and then 2 hours on a dirt road which peters out into little more than a track by the time it reaches the St Paul River. The final stage in the journey is to cross the river by dugout canoe and then a ten-minute walk to the village. We were met by the village elders, who dispatched runners to neighbouring villages to invite more elders. The women and children were on their farms and came back at nightfall to find some curious white-skinned giants who were inexplicably excited about taking pictures with them!

Molly and I are tall: but more importantly, these kids are short. They grew up in refugee camps a few days' walk from the village, near the main road where the UN soldiers protected them against the fighters roaming the bush. Food was scarce in the camps, because the aid they were sent was diverted and sold before it reached them. Vitamin A deficiency and anaemia are endemic, kwashiorkor (swollen belly from protein deficiency) universal. 40% of Liberia's population are substantially, 80% partly malnourished. As the camps have closed and people move back to their villages, they are able to grow their own food again: but even if there were enough, kids can't live on rice alone. They don't, our guides assured us. Sometimes, they get greens and palm oil to mix with the rice. Once a week if you're lucky, once a month if not, they get some stringy chicken or bony fish.

Nyaluai has always been poor: the superficial boom years of urban Liberia passed it by. The difference between the 1980s and now is this: then, there was a rice mill in a neighbouring village, so the women didn't have to pound rice all afternoon. There was a district health post a few hours walk away, so childhood bouts of malaria were less likely to be fatal. Then, a few children got scholarships to attend a town school. Two of them ended up at university: Moses and Henry, founders of an NGO that aims to help their home region improve its living conditions, our friends and guides. When the war broke out in 1989, these services collapsed. When the village was abandoned in 1993, the rice fields were swallowed up by the bush. Charles Taylor's rebels burnt the huts - how does a mud hut burn?

Now, Nyaluai is at the most base level of economic life: it is literally subsisting. After 12 years in the camp, the villagers returned in 2005 to rebuild their huts and employ the tools and seeds the UN gave them - distributed by my Ministry - to restart agriculture. But the most basic level of economic life - growing slightly less food than you need to survive, but surviving anyway - is not the most basic level of human life. For the people of the village, things are looking up. They don't have to rely on NGOs for food handouts any more. They are back in their own homes, which they have rebuilt with thatched roofs because zinc roofs cost $100. The war is over: the children with guns have left the bush. They sleep well at night. I slept on a straw mat on the mud veranda of a mud hut. With the full moon, and without the whirring of a generator or distant sound of traffic, I slept better than I ever do in the city.

What motivates, what drives these people who have suffered so much to return to a life of such incessant toil? The women of the village had arms like steel pistons: they spend all day either planting rice, or weeding it, or pounding it to separate the husk from the grain and cook it. Their daughters fetch water and mind the babies. The men's work is less regular, but gruelling: every year, they have to clear the bush to create new fields. Shifting cultivation means: you spend two months thinning the brush, a month felling the trees and another month burning the stumps and grubbing the small roots. The big roots stay in the ground, because even the strongest man cannot pull them out. Then you plant rice and get a harvest, if the birds and groundhogs don't eat it all. The following year, replant and harvest again. Then, you move on and let the field lie fallow for EIGHT YEARS. Small wonder that the end of the war also marks the end of a 15-year reprieve for Liberia's dwindling rainforest.

Yet the villagers do this, because the alternative was worse. Living in refugee camps, or the hellhole slums of the capital, they were cut off from their land and their livelihoods. The children of the war may scratch a living hawking peanuts and cassette tapes, but the elders and farmers have reclaimed their land, their poverty and their dignity. They were not proud of their living conditions, but they were proud - so they told us - of their traditions and their resilient spirit. They were proud to present us with a few chickens, which we gave our driver, Ernest, to thank him for taking us across flooded tracks and the raging rivers to the remotest village any of us have ever been. We brought them a sack of rice, a sack of salt and a box of soap. We gave them 50kg of rice, which will enable them too save more of this year's harvest for replanting. This is the grim essence of economic growth: starve yourself this year and if you survive, there will be more next year.

They have plans: they held a 2-hour village meeting to talk about them and exchange gifts. The chief elder told us about his dream of getting a rural health post like he used to run. The women asked us whether we could use our contacts in the Ministry of Health to get them some training on safe birthing practices. (More Liberian women die in childbirth - often after days of agony - than almost any other country in the world). Moses and Henry briefed us on their scheme to develop one of the swamps for rice cultivation. They asked me if I could get them any help from the Ministry of Agriculture. No, I said: the Ministry can't come where there are no roads. But if you cultivate a swamp by working together and grow enough rice to sell it on the market, they will want to know how you did it.

As we drove home, we spent hours discussing with Moses and Henry what we had learnt. We plan to buy tools and seed for them to develop the swamp, as well as vegetable seed to diversify the diet. Nobody asked us for a handout: this is an investment to feed those kids and maybe a small surplus to buy drugs and send a few of them to school. We are also looking for a small, manually operated rice mill. Any ideas?

Nyaluai is the poorest place we had ever been, but it is far from hopeless. There are thousands of villages like it that are rebuilding, working all hours to try to reclaim their old life and maybe one day improve it. Development happens one rice field, one clinic, one child at a time, but it happens. The government's slogan says it all: the process is on.

02 August 2007

A tribute to two Team Liberias

Last week, Liberia celebrated its 160th birthday, making it the second-oldest state in Africa after Ethiopia. We were fortunate enough to be invited to the official ceremony in Buchanan, some 150km south-east of Monrovia. It was a memorable occasion: glamorous dresses, over-elaborate protocol, a fiery speech by Kimmie Weeks, a youth activist originally from Liberia and an inspiring one from the President, whose calm confidence never fails to impress me. Madam President thrilled - and humbled - us by mentioning in one passage "people from all over the world who are flocking to help us, including interns from Harvard University in this very room".

Working for the Liberian government has indeed been a humbling experience: it has shown me how a few dedicated leaders, like the President and her key ministers, can turn their country around. It has also reminded me, if I needed reminding, of my own inadequacy in the face of such enormous challenges. Finally, it has confirmed my belief in the power of teams - of two teams in particular.

The first Team Liberia is on the picture above: the family of interns. It has been great fun living with the family, but it has also been a privilege to learn from them. A few highlights: watching Yue Man pilot a multi-million-dollar grant application through the Ministry of Health. Emily's perfectly judged speech to the elders of the poorest village I have ever seen. Molly's inextinguishable enthusiasm for late nights in the Finance Ministry hothouse. Thank you Zach and Yesenia for late-night chats and encouragement, Jesse for opening all doors to us, Jeff for being the voice of reason and Colleen for surpassing Graham Greene in charm, talent and tolerance. (Hopefully your essays on Liberia will surpass his sales figures too).

The second and immeasurably greater Team Liberia are the dedicated people we have worked with in government. The President is one of many Liberians who have given up high-flying careers in the USA to go home and rebuild their country. Many have followed her personal call. Even more heroic, though perhaps less celebrated, are the ordinary Liberians who lived here throughout the war and refused to give up hope. Molly has a fantastic post on this, to which I can only add: if the returning diaspora and the survivors can pull together, this country will go far.

To the family, who leave this week: thank you and safe travels. To our generous friends and hosts: you have inspired me. This, too, is Liberia.