Kevin in Liberia

Its Purpose: to raise awareness of current social, political, ethical, and spiritual issues within a relief and development context in Liberia. Its effectiveness is simple: It relies on me, the author, to provide insightful, and often debate-sparking material that will encourage you, the reader to get engaged through comment contributions, emails, and promoting others to read, re-think, and respond to the important issues discussed.

I know not which is most profitable to me, health or sickness, wealth or poverty, nor anything else in the world. That discernment is beyond the power of men or angels, and is hidden among the secrets of your Providence, which I adore, but do not seek to fathom. ~ a prayer by Blaise Pascal

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Addressing the Poverty Trap - Imposing Outside Structures

Why is it that African countries such as Liberia struggle to re-build themselves? I believe a part of this can be explained away by the imposing of outside structres such as geopolitical boundaries created by colonialist powers - whether it be the French, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English and the like. Africa is comprised of hundreds of tribal groups (approximately 28 here in Liberia alone) and it was only after the colonization of what we now know as African countries that these political boundaries came into being; regardless if they are now ‘independent’ African countries or not. With the amount of dependency on the continent of Africa the term ‘independent Africa nation’ seems a near oxymoron. Presently you’ll find numerous examples of areas of African land that has been carved into pieces by colonialist governments without much, if any, regard for tribal idiosyncrasies, feelings of community, or senses of belongingness.

So what does this have to do with why a country might struggles to rebuild itself? I believe that with the creation of this political divide has come a social divide as well. Similar to this would be the institution or imposition of a Western rule of law onto indigenous or tribal rules of law. In Liberia, the current judicial system has essentially taken power out of the hands of the Town Chief and into the hands of a national judicial system whose basis for justice is more based around what we may know as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights than anything known to be tribal (whether or not I agree with either the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights or tribal styles of instituting justice is another issue).

Any time you impose something against someone's will, such as the colonialist powers have done with political boundaries and Western rules of law in many parts or Africa it will not go without consequence. I believe political boundaries and a Western rule of law are two tools that have prevented and are preventing Africans from culturally exercising what they know in the process of rebuilding.

Finally, the term ‘rebuilding’ implies that a country such as Liberia was once ‘built’. I suppose the better question would be to ask yourself “What would a ‘built Liberia’ look like socially, economically, spiritually, etc?”

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Addressing the Poverty Trap - Seemingly Ceaseless War and Civil Strive

Recently, one of my readers posed the following question. In the next series I want to title "Addressing the Poverty Trap" I hope to address and share my opinions in an attempt to educate and create discussion on the idea of 'poverty' as we currently know.

Why is it that African countries such as Liberia struggle to re-build themselves? I could probably make educated assumptions, but from your perspective as having worked there, what do you think and what are the reasons as to why, despite Western aid, there appears to be little or no progress or improvement on the poverty. Can countries like Liberia ever realistically rise out of the poverty trap and its associated difficulties and if so how can such prosperity and advancement be properly achieved?

My Response:

Ok, I'm going to try and scratch the surface as to why I believe that African countries such as Liberia have a hard time rebuilding themselves after war or maybe a more general question as to why Africa in general has had a hard time 'developing' in general - and I use that word very gingerly. And before we get started I'll just offer a brief disclaimer that this is a question that the entire world needs to be faced with and I believe that nobody but God has the answer for. These are strictly my views on the situation and I challenge any readers to challenge me on my views or my hypotheses so long as the discussion moves us forward in our thinking on the causes for and reasons why, currently and in recent history, Africa is in the state that it is.

When faced with this question, and its one that I toy with quite often and one that is up for a lot of debate. There are a few ideas that initially come to mind and its those that I'll elaborate a little more of:

1. Seemingly Ceaseless War and Civil Strife (divisions between Opposing Tribal Groups and Clan)

2. Colonial Geopolitical boundaries

3. Widening Gap of Realities between Western Donors and Recipients of 'Aid'.

4. Corruption of Power-mongering African Governments

5. Increasing Dependence of Local Populations on Foreign Aid

6. Lack of a True Indicator of Well-Being (GDP does not account the for progress of social, religious, and community-centered goals - economic progress is only one aspect of an individual)

1. Conflict - Seemingly Ceaseless War and Civil Strife

If we're going to look purely at the economic development of a country and what falls under that umbrella (infrastructure and transportation networks, currency valuation, and attractiveness of the country to foreign investment, among others...) there is no wonder Africa is 'undeveloped' economically speaking just due to the frequency and duration of varying conflicts on the continent.

Taking Liberia as an example, we need to understand that the Liberian Civil War did not only affect Liberia and Liberia alone. The countries immediately surrounding Liberia were affected on a number of different levels. One of those was the fact that when war was present in Liberia a vast number of refugees migrated to areas of Sierra Leone, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, and Ghana and therefore causing shocks to the local economies of those countries. War affects not only the country in which it is taking place but those who have any immediate interest in the country as a whole.

A couple weeks back I was driving back to our office with our Chief of Security and I asked him how he saw the rebuilding effort coming along in the four years since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2003. I cannot quote him word for word but in essence this is what he said,

...In war, you can tear down and destroy in minutes what it can take years to build up...

If you reflect on the Liberian Civil War that lasted 14 long and destructive years, the nation's entire, and I emphasize ENTIRE, infrastructure was destroyed. Never in my life had I imagined the destructive power that war can have on the physical backbone of a country. Monrovia, until the last 12 months, was the only capital city in the world to hold the claim of not having running water or power to supply to its citizens. The Freeport of Monrovia is the grave for, and don't quote me on this, 17 shipwrecks in the area of possibly three square miles. Most visibly in the harbour is one ship actually on top of another ship, not to speak of the freighter that is completely flipped over Currently there are dirt roads in the bush, 10 hours from Monrovia that are in better condition than those in downtown Monrovia. If it has taken 14 years to destroy this country that has been called by locals 'The New York City of Africa' prior to the Civil War, how long do you figure it will take to rebuild the country to its prior state of existence, if that is even possible? This is just looking purely at the physical infrastructure of the country and not taking into account any social or moral damage done by the atrocities carried out throughout the war.

Diverging from the Liberia example for a minute, not because it isn't relevant or doesn't have tribal issues of its own, I want to bring attention to conflicts between tribal groups or between tribal groups and local governments. Rwanda is an excellent/terrible example of the irreversible damage that can be done through the clashing of tribal groups, especially when spurred on by provocative propaganda encouraging ethnic cleansing. If one looks at the potentially violent conflicts between nomadic tribes such as the Touregs and local governments trying to establish land reform in certain regions inhabited by the Toureg people it is no doubt that violence has and will continue to exist. Any time you impose a Western style of government upon people with a very different way of living, no matter how 'primitive' it may seem to Westerners, it will cause distaste and discomfort in the mouths of those it affects. This is and has been very prevalent in Liberia with the Americo-Liberians imposing a Western rule of law on a pre-Liberian society that was, and still is in some parts dominated by a tribal, chiefdom-based method of administering justice.

There are so many relevant examples of and causes of conflict within Africa but I think the main thing to understand is that conflict is definitely a major problem in Africa and something that plays a major role in keeping the continent from benefiting from the gifts that God has given them (ie. culture, natural resources, etc.)

In the next segment I'll attempt to shed some light on the effects of Colonial Geopolitical boundaries established in Africa and the role they might play in it all.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

A Small Cockroach Problem at the SP Guesthouse

Well, lately we've been facing a problem with cockroaches and ants in our kitchen. They tend to come out at night so if you're up late at night going for a drink of water in the kitchen you could spot what seemed like hundreds of ants and the odd cockroach scampering here and there. Well, we sprayed some magic 'SpryGone' spray and these pictures are the results we got. It seems like the spray worked. I seriously wanted to vomit as we cleaned this mess up. It was absolutely disgusting and wrong on so many levels!

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Monday, August 06, 2007

The South African Concept of 'Ubuntu' - Present in Liberia

While conversing with Thomas Moore, a recently laid off 71 yr old Liberian National Police Officer of 49 years, I was informally introduced to the African concept of Ubuntu on a very real level. As we talked about life in Liberia and the past glories of the picturesque rural fishing village of Robertsport, it was immediately very evident to me that this sound character carried higher morals and values than your average urbanite living in the capital city of Monrovia. When asked what he did with all his spare time he now had, he proceeded to tell me that he loved to fish – in a location where the Atlantic Ocean meets Lake Piso. Without any further probing he continued to explain that when he sold the fish to a fortunate customer, Liberian or foreigner, his aim was not to attain the highest possible retail value for his commodity but rather to sell it at such a price as to maximize the best interests of all parties of the transaction. “If I sell my fish at a higher price to a white man, I can feel bad inside,” he admitted. This was Ubuntu experienced in its riches form. Thomas Moore obtains self-satisfaction by maximizing the feelings of others - an amazing concept.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Surfing Robertsport, Liberia

One of the few Liberian surfers scouting the rainy season waves at one of the beachbreaks at Robertsport

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The UN - Uninvolved in Africa

A friend of mine recently showed me this picture from the Februrary 2007 edition of Go Magazine. I found it quite thought provoking.


Friday, August 03, 2007

Smacked Upside the Head by a New Paradigm for Development

This chunk of text is so relevant for each reader yet ashamedly embarrassing in the fact that I even have to put pen to paper if you will. Its purpose is to hopefully show an unadulterated attempt at presenting the modern world’s full-hearted, yet retardedly inefficient attempt at addressing the ‘poor’. The word ‘poor’ is put in parentheses because, in specific cases, adjectives in the modern English vernacular have evolved into forms that often put meanings to words that don’t adequately do justice or describe the common use of the word under scrutiny.

In the context that I currently find myself (a 26 year old male working in Liberia and studying an MA in International Development) there is an avid common vocabulary that I have come to learn has been either adulterated or in which the meaning isn’t fully, or arguably, even partially understood in their correct context: ‘development’, ‘developed’, ‘underdeveloped’, ‘poor’, ‘poverty’, ‘leadership’, as well as many others that I’m sure unknowingly exist. This vernacular is as much a lens, or way of viewing the current framework or paradigm of the ‘poor’, as ‘profit’ is a lens of viewing success in the highly competitive business world of the North. Ashamedly enough, what I have been recently convicted of (hold onto your seats folks) is that the way the entire world views the poor is, at the very core of its existence, dehumanizing, unquestionably not merited, and fundamentally wrong! To qualify the last statement I must say that the entire world (because of its power and influence) is a rudimentary yet appropriate generalization of the situation currently faced by those in the ‘developed’, ‘underdeveloped’, ‘undeveloped’ worlds, those holding power, struggling to gain power, and those without any misty vision of what the word power means (except in the context of it being exercised against them), those in the North, South, and somewhere in the middle, and those in other polarities not mentioned.

Spending an intense two and a half weeks at the residency portion of my Masters program has irreversibly opened my eyes in a way very much like that of a new believer in Christ. I have to attribute the new lens to the learning environment created and ideas disseminated by Professor Lindy Backues as well as the ideas presented in the highly revolutionary Daly and Cobb book For the Common Good. The fact that these ideas were disseminated in an Economic Development of Developing Countries course seems somewhat contradictory because, like many others, my initial instinct is to think of conventional economics as the maximization of short-term self interest and the allocation of scare resources. That in and of itself may indeed be correct because this newly enlightened paradigm is as conventional as it is currently implemented or understood by those in the ‘developed’, ‘underdeveloped’, and ‘undeveloped’ worlds, those holding power…you get the idea. This new paradigm transcends most modern, scientific thought, and will arguably receive increasing attention and critique as it gains much-needed notoriety and trust amongst common people as well as intellectuals.

So by now you’re most likely wondering what exactly this new paradigm entails and how something can be so revolutionary, life-changing, and thought provoking. In order to best understand the new paradigm and what changes it can potentially bring to the common understanding of the ‘poor’ it is, no doubt, necessary to understand just exactly what paradigmatical umbrella under which we are currently living, working, and breathing. Ultimately, this will enable us to see its fatal flaws and how we have come to our current state of approaching the ‘poor’ the way we do.

Currently, all humanity, not just those of us who find ourselves working and living in Africa, unknowingly finds itself operating in a very contradictory world. A Western world often commonly known for their social marketing strategies and corporate responsibility towards humanity is currently part of a paradigm that, to its core, is dehumanizing.

Following WWII, our post-war, neo-colonial world, has been defined by often confusing terms such as ‘development’, ‘developing’, and ‘developed’ – just to name a few. These are terms that are common to most lay people, not only people in an international context and although we might think we have an idea of what these words mean, we are probably kidding ourselves. What I have come to learn is that the current framework in which we live and operate is not nearly adequate or representative of the reality faced by its recipients or actors. Taking the word ‘developing’ for example, and all the others listed above could be analysed in a similar manner, let me present some hopefully though-provoking questions that will ultimately lead into how our current paradigm is fundamentally wrong.

What initially comes to your mind when you hear the world ‘developing’? Perhaps acquiring new technologies? Something related to eradicating economic poverty? My question would be “…developing towards what?” In order to be ‘developing’ there must be a goal in mind. The paradigm in which we currently find ourselves has defined our goal as economic maximization and the creation of ‘wealth’. If anyone questions this notion, one only needs to look at the use of indicators such as per capita GNP as monitoring tools or gauges of the ‘development’, or financial success, of a country. I would argue that there are more factors at play that ultimately determine the well-being of a country. On numerous occasions I find myself questioning our current paradigm when I see local Liberians, a lot of whom have recently lost family due to the fourteen year civil war, markedly happier than our brothers in the ‘developed’ world whose per capita GNP is arguably far higher. According to 2004 statistics, Liberia was tied for having the second lowest per capital GNP of any country in the world - $110 USD/capita ( GNP lacks in the sense that it does not account for the social, physical, and spiritual well-being of a nation and therefore is not an adequate indictor of the true well-being of a nation.

Separating the world into the ‘developed’ (the North – Canada, the United States, Western Europe, and arguably parts of Asia) and the ‘undeveloped’ creates a reality in which the citizens of ‘undeveloped’ nations are placed on a lower pedestal and therefore looked upon as objects needing to be ‘developed’. Ashamedly enough, us as NGOs often carry the same mindset into projects that are implemented on the ground and at the community level. For many reasons, but I believe largely due in part to this current paradigm we find ourselves in as well as the fact that African culture is not a written culture and therefore we don’t know much about its history, we often approach communities with a God complex thinking that our projects have the solution to some or all of their problems they are facing.

A large reason why projects and programs are looked upon in this manner is that in many ways they are strategically driven by large multilateral organizations such as the United Nations. Their various development arms each carry burdensome development agendas of their own and ultimately misjudge the true problems faced by communities in the field. I have always been sceptical of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and these recent insights I have discovered have cemented my previous thoughts on the subject. I find in them a weakness in that they do not directly address the issues of social and spiritual well-being.

So if you are reading this and wondering to yourself, “…who is this guy and who does he think he is? If he is so critical of the current paradigm then let him suggests some changes.” Well, and hold onto your seats folks, I don’t have a magic wand and I’m not going to pull rabbits out of hats because I believe that if anyone in the world had the formula to ending global poverty they would have written a best-seller book about it by now. Up to now, what has been exercised in the past 50-60 years as far as ‘development’ in its known context has not worked!

Some discussion, please.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Packed Fishing Boat - Robertsport, Liberia

A Liberian fishing canoe waits packed and ready for its next outing to beat the breakers at Robertsport, Liberia. Prior to the civil war, Robertsport was a former tourist destination and busy fishing village located near the border of Sierra Leone.

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