Monday, September 6, 2010

Lasting thoughts from this summer

Before I left for Liberia, I had set out to learn more about the world of philanthropy (through Government's perspective), and I believe I was able to do this. In my short time with the Philanthropy Secretariat I was able to see the struggles that (third world) governments face when working with philanthropic funders, specifically: turning keen interest into actual financial support, making sure foundations align themselves with the country's development goals, and encouraging foundations to collaborate to scale up their initiatives. 

This summer I was also able to catch a glimpse of the struggles which local NGOs face while working with international funders.  NGOs must adhere to grant stipulations, even if this puts them in a bind (this is in addition to the struggles of their day-to-day operations). I witnessed the struggles which NGOs face when they lack the capacity to provide funders with all the necessary documentation and information they require. On the flip side, now I better understand the frustrations of international funders as they try to operate within the Western system, while assisting these third world NGOs. The need for an office like the Philanthropy Secretariat is great in a place like Liberia.

What I was able to do in Liberia was minimal compared to the work that needs to be done, but I m happy that I was able to help plan the annual Foundation's Meeting (which will be September 20th in New York). Each year, the Secretariat hosts all its international philanthropic partners to discuss the year's successes and challenges. This year, the Secretariat will feature one government agency at the meeting in hopes that foundations will collaborate to fund one project. I was fortunate to assist in the request for proposals process, and in the selection of the project which will be featured at the meeting. 

My greatest accomplishment this summer was working as the liaison for Redemption Hospital. It was great to see something tangible come out of the meetings with hospital personnel and the discussions with the foundation representatives.  Indeed one of the greatest challenges of this type of work is finding the appropriate amount of funding which will cover the needs of the grantee and fit the funder's goals.

Last Post from Liberia

Another draft, which I had not posted. Apologies!

This will be my past post about Liberia.

Cute anecdote: I was riding the elevator with the Minister of State, and he was telling Jennah and I about a visit that he made to a school the the previous day. In talking to the students, he came across a boy of about ten years, and asked him what he would like to be when he grew up. The little boy said, "I want to be Vice President when I grow up!" According to the Minister, the way in which the little boy made the declaration, he had to ask why he wanted to be Vice President and not President of Liberia. The little boy replied, 'because that's a woman's job' :) I could only smile when I heard that.

Last semester, I took a class on Women in Leadership with Dr. Kellerman, and one of the things we discussed in the class was the notion that one way to change people's perceptions of women in leadership is to actually put women in places of leadership. Seems to be working for the youth of Liberia.

Rotary: I had the privilege of visiting the Rotary club of Monrovia a few weeks ago. A friend of mine is a Rotarian, and as soon as he heard that I was an ambassadorial scholar in 2008-2009 hosted by his own district (district 9100, which includes most of West Africa), he made sure that I was at the next meeting. Rotary clubs around the world can be so different in style, but the ones in Africa, particularly W. Africa have the same flavor. When I got to the meeting I felt as if I was home, I felt as though I was in a family meeting. At this meeting, the club was discussing funding for a school which they were building, and the discussion was nothing short of lively. With the few rotary clubs that I have visited in Africa and in the US, gender representation isn't always the most ideal. One thing I loved about the Rotary Club of Monrovia was that their President was a female!

Taxi situation
I don't think that I ever explained the transportation situation in Monrovia. Unlike like other African cities where 12-20 seater vans and large buses are used in addition to taxis as a means of public transport, in Monrovia taxis are essentially the only means of public transport. Given this, taxis are piled into with people going similar directions. There are a few official stops, but for the most part people can hop on and off at any point on the route of the taxi. It quite confusing if you do not know the routes. I've seen 5+ people in the back of a taxi before, and 2 people crammed into the front passenger seat. The supply of taxis aren't enough for the demand as well, so people fight for taxis. There are private taxis which will take you around the city for roughly $5 an hour. I've been privy to a list of private taxi drivers which most expatriates use. I know some people who use pen pens (which are motorcycle taxis). These are cheaper and maneuver through traffic easily. I've only been on one of these once, and this was in Yekeba, where there was no traffic. I wouldn't ride this in Monrovia, there's too many cars on the road.

For Liberia's 163rd Independence Day Celebrations our office traveled to Nimba County to take part in the festivities. Each year the government chooses a different county to celebrate Independence day. The drive was about 5 hours, and it was nice to get out of Monrovia. The minister gave us his car to use, so the drive was relatively comfortable. I was able to see a lot of the rural areas of Liberia while driving the drive up to Sinniquelle (where the festivities were). We actually stayed in Yekepa, which was about 20mins North of Sinniquelle. Yekepa is a mining town essentially on the border of Guinea.

West Point Visit
I traveled with Jennah to West Point, which is a sea-side slum in Monrovia. The township has a large population of Ghanaians, so I was curious to go and see the place. The area is right by the water and the primary livelihood of township occupants is fishing. I got to see how they smoke the fish in the huge barrels. Sorry, I didn't snap a picture. I was taken around the community with a lady who pointed out just about every Ghanaian we walked past (which was a lot!). These Ghanaians have settled in Liberia primarily to make money from fishing. I hear that some of these are quite wealthy, but chose to live in West Point because of the proximity to the sea. I was told people take the boats and travel by sea to Ghana frequently.

The reason for our visit to West Point was to visit West Point Women. West Point Women  is an ngo which works with women who have been abused.
The ngo does skills training and offers assistance for women in disputes with their abusive husbands. Here are a few pictures of me, Jennah, and the President and Vice-President of West Point Women.

Here is a shot of West Point. I took the picture from the West Point Women building. 

West Point has just received some funding from a few foundations. For more information on West Point Women, visit: . The NGO has been featured in a few articles, including one on huffingtonpost.

As I said earlier, this is my last post on Liberia. I've had a great time here! I will be leaving for Ghana in a few days, and will spend 3 weeks spending time with my family and interning for the MTN Ghana Foundation.

(Long overdue) Miscellaneous

I had put this post in a draft, and never uploaded it. 

I've gone around snapping some random pictures around Monrovia. Enjoy!

Yes, it will.

Redemption Hopsital. They are finally confirmed to receive their grant!
Don't 'pepe' here!

JFK - the hospital I was born in
Your internet speed = crap!
Rainy Monrovia

Ghana/ Africa/ Worldcup fever

We drove to Robertsport (a popular beachside town 2 hrs outside of monrovia). I caught a snap of our driver reading. He's raising money through driving to go to school...

 Pictures from the 163rd Independence Day Celebrations in Sanniquellie, (Nimba County) Liberia

The entire office at me and Roland's going-away dinner. Jennah, Shedrick, Margaret, Dan, me, Minister Davis, Roland's wife, Roland, Osman

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Madame President

Sherick (a PYPP fellow within our office), Jennah, Her Excellency, me, and Dan

Last Wednesday, our office had the privilege of meeting with Her Excellency. Originally, our meeting was set in order to discuss the future of the Philanthropy Secretariat (the office's 3-year pilot period ends next year). The discussion however quickly turned into the value of philanthropy in Liberia.

I'm not sure what I expected from the President, but a few things surprised me: 1. she came in by herself - not one aide with her 2. she had read our report entirely and was very clear about what she agreed and disagreed with 3. Along the same lines of the first two surprises, she had no notes with her.  I was pleasantly surprised at all this, because I know there are many initiatives under the President's office, and she has a lot of engagements inside and outside the country. The President's main message to us was that she wanted to see foundations align their investments more with Liberia's Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). She also wanted to see more harmonization among the various philanthropic initiatives in Liberia, so programs could be scaled up for greater impact.

My first impression of the President was that she was indeed the iron lady that everyone describes her as. She had a very stern look on her face as Minister Davis spoke about the things that the Philanthropy Secretariat has been doing. The meeting lasted about 45 minutes, and it was only after about 30 minutes that she started getting softer around the edges. After giving us some constructive criticism, she praised the work that we were doing. I had the opportunity to speak towards the end of the meeting; after telling her Excellency some of the things that I was working on this summer, she asked me if I was being stretched to my capacity. I told her yes :)

FYI: The President's Young Professionals Program (PYPP) is a program which funds recent University of Liberia grads to work in government for two years. The program is very competitive, and this year there were less than 10 recipients. 

Work Work Work Work Work Work Work

So I realize that I haven't discussed work much, so I've devoted this post to some work related things.


Top two pictures are of the UN officers that guard the front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (yes they're women, fitting I know). There are some men soldiers that guard the entrance, but the majority are women.
The bottom picture is the ministry of Foreign Affairs. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, the building doubles as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Executive Mansion (5th and 6th floor).

What can I say about the protocol at the mansion, well in one word: frustrating. It's frustrating because we are at the mercy of the security, and whatever they feel like doing one day, despite the fact that it was different than the day before, will be the protocol of the day. One day they will stop our car and make us do the entire security check (under the hood, pop the boot, check under the vehicle), and the next day they'll wave us through without getting out of the security booth. Sometimes I can predict correctly what they're going to do (it is highly dependent on whether the President has come in, or whether official state visitors are coming to the mansion). It's annoying. What's worse is that we have to deal with them three times a day. 

Once we're in the compound, then we have to deal with the security at the front door, another hassle. 
One day it's 'put your bag down then walk through the metal detector', another day it's 'we won't search your bag we've seen you everyday for the past 6 weeks' (yes, but yesterday you searched my bag and you've seen me everyday for the past 6 weeks). 

Once we get through the front door, the elevator becomes the next hurdle. One day it's 'the President's coming' (so we have to have the elevator available for her when she comes), or only ministers get to use the elevator (which is a LIE!). My favorite is when they just blankly stare at me like they do not know what I'm asking them; my second favorite is 'i like it when you take the stairs'. I'm not sure if I have mentioned that we have to ask for the elevator to come down to the bottom floor. So that people don't jam up the elevator, there is an operator inside who controls it (you're not allowed to touch any of the buttons). It usually sits on the 6th floor (the President's floor), but when people need to go up, the security at the front desk radios the elevator operator to come downstairs and pick us up.

My frustrations have been lessened because I've decided that the best way to get what you want is to befriend the security officers. They all know me now, 'oh Afua, Ghana girl'. Sorry, Ghana gets more of the response that I want than 'oh Afua, US girl'; and the US usually doesn't stick because people know that afua is a Ghanaian name. I identify myself as Ghanaian, and just explain that I live in the states.

 Ministry of Gender visit

Our boss, Minister Davis gets invited to many government functions. He isn't able to attend some, so sometimes he sends people in his office to go on behalf of him. A couple weeks ago, Jennah and I went to hear a discussion on the Economic Empowerment of Adolescent Girls & Young Women (EPAG) project at the Ministry of Gender and Development. We sat in a room with about 50+ people from various government ministries as well as various local NGOs and international organizations. Two consultants from Denmark had conducted a report on the progress of this project. The project is a collaboration between the Liberian Government, the World Bank, the Government of Denmark, and the Nike Foundation. EPAG seeks to smooth the path of young women to productive employment through job skills training and business development services. It's a pretty extensive 3-year pilot project; there are four NGO training providers aiming to train 2500 young women in nine communities in Liberia. The consultants spoke a lot about coordination challenges among the different programs, and encouraged more collaboration. The second major issue brought up was the reporting across programs. Reporting issues ranged from getting uniformed financial statements turned in on time (from all the programs), to 'how does one measure whether or not a young lady has been empowered?

Redemption Hospital
In addition to working on the website and helping plan Liberia's annual Foundations Meeting in September, I have my very own project: Redemption Hospital. Redemption Hospital is a government hospital in New Kru Town. A funder is looking to provide them with a grant, and I've been put in charge of assisting the hospital personnel get together all the requested documents, and itemize their needs for the hospital. I've been inspired by the leadership team at the hospital, and have enjoyed getting out of the office and visiting another part of town.

The Beach!

RLJ Kendeja

A couple weeks ago, a friend and I went to the beach :) It was nice to get away on a Sunday afternoon and sip some drinks, read, and splash in the water. Currently, I am reading a book about Liberia The House at Sugar Beach’. The author, Helene Cooper, is a writer for the NYTimes  and has written a few articles about Liberia.

Kendeja  is a villa-style hotel with a private beach front. The hotel is owned by Bob Johnson, founder of BET, so it's a popular expat spot. Their internet is also super fast! Jennah and I actually ended up coming to Kendeja on Monday when the internet wasn't working in the office.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Liberian? cuisine

My new favorite food is attieke. "Attieke is a staple starch of Ivorian cuisine (food of the Ivory Coast) ... it's a couscous-like grain made from grated, fermented cassava, and is often eaten with fish, either braised or fried."Pictures below. The restaurant that I go to eat attieke puts chopped tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers, and I usually have it with grilled chicken or fish.  MmmMmmm. Though it's from Ivory Coast, they serve it a lot in Liberia. Like I said in an earlier post, a lot of food served in Liberia is from other West African countries.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Waterside (Market of all markets in Monrovia)

Today I went to Waterside Market to buy some cloth to make Lappas (or traditional Liberian skirt and top outfits). I am not new to the market experience, I've been to Makola market and Kaneshie market in Accra, but each time I travel to an African market, my senses still get hit like a ton of bricks. Sight: so many people, everywhere. so many vendors and stores, outside along the sidewalks and in store establishments. so many different items being sold, I'm pretty sure if you can imagine it, it's somewhere to be found in the market. Hearing: all the vendors yelling about the products that they have. Though I didn't stay too long at the market, in comparison to Ghana I didn't get people calling me sweetie... young lady... and touching me so that I would come into their stores. A lot of the fabric 'stores' were actually run by Lebanese, so I'm not sure if that makes any difference here. Though I wasn't touched by overeager vendors, walking along the sidewalk and trying not to bump into people or into any vendor stands, while watching out for little kids running around and any piles of garbage and dirt on the ground was not easy. When I first got out of the taxi with Robtel's aunt, I stepped right into a pile of mushy wet garbage/dirt/food... great, welcome to the market. As an aside I forgot to mention that we are in the beginning of rainy season and it rains, no, excuse me, there is a torrential downpour EVERYDAY. I'll probably do a whole post about this later, but needless to say rain does not help the outdoor market situation. My sense of touch was less of an issue as my sense of Smell. I couldn't make out all the smells, but none of them were pleasant- food, sweat, garbage, sewer. I have to say that thankfully one of my senses did not have to partake in my market day experience (Taste).

I'm not sure I could accurately articulate the experience, so hopefully the few pictures I took will help.
I picked out a few pieces

I'm not big on loud and busy prints. Hopefully I can get some really nice stuff out of these 4 cloths.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Ghanaian embassy across the street from me

My street
Jennah and Shedrick (another colleague that works under Minister Davis) out at lunch

pictures :)

Or... 'A' pic
My apartment building (I live on the top floor)

Slow and steady wins the race, more pics to come...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

It has been one eventful week (and a half)

In my stubbornness to make sure this post had some photos, I've delayed uploading this by 5 days. It's difficult to get my photos to upload, so bare with me.

I'll run through a few things briefly:

My flight to Liberia last Saturday was without incident for 1hr and 45 mins. However, when we reached Liberia it was raining heavily and we experienced a lot of turbulence on board. Needless to say, when the pilot announced that we were about to land, I was a little nervous. We began to descend and mid-descent, the plane started to climb. Seconds later, the pilot made the announcement that we could not land after all and that we were headed to Abidjan (the capital of Ivory Coast- about an hour between Accra and Monrovia).

We ended up taxied in the Abidjan International Airport for 3hours (at one point there was talk of going back to Accra). We were finally cleared to fly to Monrovia and we flew back without incident. I went through immigration quickly and got both of my bags, my uncle even had someone come fetch me from immigration and saw me through to the driver. The airport is about 30min from the the city, so by the time I got to the apartment it was after 9 (initially my plane was supposed to arrive at 3pm).

I've been blessed with my accommodation situation. Thanks to my parents for hooking me up with our family friend. My uncle has really made me feel at home here in Monrovia (we even live next to the Ghanaian Embassy). The houseboy Gilbert is also Ghanaian, and he is so helpful with getting adjusted to life in Monrovia. I've been fortunate to have hot water, electricity, dstv and fast internet at the house - it's unreal. My uncle traveled on Friday and will be gone for the entire month, so I've got the apartment all to myself for the month of June. Only downside of my place is that I'm not staying with other interns so I have to make more of an effort to get out of the apartment.

Currently, the Office of the President is located on the 5th and 6th floor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building because the Executive Mansion had an electrical fire a few years ago. It doesn't seem like a priority to move back to the Executive Mansion, so for now we're here; I've even heard a few people say they don't want the President's Office to go back to the Executive Mansion because there has been so much bloodshed there.

The Philanthropy Secretariat is located on the 5th floor. We walk when the elevator isn't working or when it is in use and we do not feel like waiting (there's only one elevator working in the building). I hear the President herself walks to the 6th floor when that elevator isn't working. The office that I am in is shared with other initiatives under the Minister of State without Portfolio, so it is a little cramped. We've had to do some adjusting with seating arrangements now that everyone is back at work, so currently I'm camping out with the Special Adviser on Climate Change and his intern.

I really like the people I work with. Jennah is the Program Coordinator for the Secretariat and she has been so helpful. We share a lot of similarities: she left Liberia when she was very young and lived in the US up until last August when she decided to move back to Liberia. We have plenty of discussions about feeling like an outsider in our respective countries, and she's given me good insights into what to expect when moving back to Africa after you've lived all your life outside. Dan is the Program Manager for the office, and he just got back from a trip to the states. He's very open to me adjusting my tasks to my interests, and I'm really grateful for that. I was just told that I could attend the annual Foundations meeting that I am helping plan in September (it'll be in NY). Also, Dan has just confirmed that I will be helping to create a prospects list of corporate foundations that would be a good fit for initiatives in Liberia. I'm excited about this because corporate philanthropy in Africa is my area of interest.

From what I've seen thus far, the government is trying. There are great people working hard to bring about change in the country, and a lot of that comes from the attitude of the top leadership. However, there are major impediments to this, one being slow slow slow internet. I'm amazed at the speed of the internet at the President's Office, because the internet at my uncle's place is night and day in comparison. In observing my surroundings, I noticed that work itself isn't necessarily difficult, it's just getting things done is.

The President had been gone for a couple of weeks and finally returned Wednesday night. Accordingly, security was extra tight on Thursday and Friday. I would be lying if I didn't say I was a little bit annoyed, but I had to catch myself: this is like the White House equivalent.

I've had the opportunity to eat in a few places. The high end restaurants tend to be in hotels, and have cost between 10-20USD per meal. The closest that I've gotten to a local spot is a restaurant called 'The Office' right across from my work. The food was delicious and only cost $6, score! One thing Liberians know how to do is spice food well. There are a lot of dishes from other West African countries, especially Ghana so I feel at home with the food. My favorite Liberian dish is Cassava leaf stew (yummy!). I also tasted a delicious eggplant stew at Robtel's house (she's another repat that works in the President's office, and Jennah and I had lunch at her place during the week).

Misc Observations and Random Thoughts

I have been here one week and have yet to see a single traffic light. I know I haven't been very far, but there is definitely a lack of traffic lights in Monrovia. This makes crossing the road for pedestrians quite challenging.

Pretty much everything is closed on Sunday; there are sporadic shops open at night, but everything else is closed. I've heard one rationale for this is because the country is a Christian nation, but I think this is just something that was developed early on and has stuck.

The internet is routed through other countries, so depending on where you access it, your google may appear as Google Israel or Google Lebanon. I usually get Lebanon. Though I changed my language to English, I still get arabic translations on some of my internet pages.

Speaking of Lebanon, I used to think that there was a large presence of Lebanese in Ghana, but there is a larger presence of Lebanese here in Monrovia. The Lebanese run a lot of the pharmacy shops, car shops, restaurants, etc in the country. Something else that also has a huge presence in this country is the UN. I've never traveled to a post-conflict country before, and to some degree I knew this would be the case, but I still am amazed at the amount of UN vehicles on the road.

The UNMIL (United National Mission to Liberia) is one minute up the road from my work

Liberians use both US dollars and Liberian dollars (or Liberty). I have yet to change money, because everything has been priced in USD. I've received change in Liberian dollars however, so I have some Liberian dollars now. The exchange is roughly 70 Liberian dollars to 1 USD. I've noticed that when purchasing cheaper goods and services, Liberian dollars is better: taxi services (non-chartered), leaving a tip, etc. The money notes are quite dirty here (both the US dollars and the Liberian dollars), I find that a lot of the notes are brown in color and damp.

The dynamic between repats and expats is quite fascinating. After the war, expats were first on the scene, however now that more and more repats have returned to the country and want to (and have the capability to) participate in the development of Liberia, it seems a little bit of a challenge for them to find an appropriate fitting (especially for their skills). There will be more on this later, because I believe this is the state Liberia finds itself in as more and more repats return.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Intra-Africa travel and a couple interesting articles

Intra-Africa Travel

I've had a relaxing week in Ghana with family and friends, and I leave for Liberia on Saturday. This is my first trip to another African country by air, and I've been stunned at ticket prices! A 2-hour flight from Accra to Monrovia on Kenya Airways - USD570!!

Two Interesting Articles 

The first article is an AllAfrica interview with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf:  Below is a portion of the interview:

AA:"How do you think development can best be achieved?"
President Sirleaf: "The best way to make development work is to ensure that the priorities are established by the people themselves. This is why our poverty reduction strategy came out of a rigorous process of consultation and participation by people across the country."

AA: "Did your efforts to involve people across the country in the poverty reduction strategy result in a buy-in from the Liberian people?"
President Sirleaf: "A definite buy-in. For the first time, people from the villages could say they sat in meetings and were asked "what do you think you want your government to do?" Three priorities came out quite clearly - roads, education and health."

AA: "And that influenced your strategy?"
President Sirleaf: "Absolutely. We were thinking education would be number one. But they convinced us that roads was number one because, as they said, they couldn't take their produce to market, they couldn't take their children to schools or the health centers if there was no mobility, if there was no way to get there. So our strategy has been to respond to what we know the people want."

My two cents:
The question of 'who knows what's best for a community' is a historic struggle with development. I believe what President Sirleaf stated in her response is spot on, ensuring that Liberians are a part of setting the priorities of their development will go a long way in the success of the country's poverty reduction.

It is normal to have debates on what third-world governments feel are the needs of their country versus what international donor agencies feel are the needs of a country, yet at times we forget to challenge how these governments have come to their conclusions and whether they have consulted their citizens. I am not sure how consultations were conducted in Liberia and whether they were representative of the country as a whole, but it is encouraging that President Sirleaf's administration deemed this component as a priority while devising a poverty reduction strategy for Liberia.

This discussion also links directly to my internship given that one of The Secretariat's primary objectives is to: 'Enhance alignment between Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) and philanthropist-supported activities by identifying specific strategic opportunities.' I know I will be writing more on this in subsequent posts.