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Posts Tagged ‘Liberia’

Sitting on a ramshackle assortment of wooden benches under the shade of a mango tree, we listen to the story of the widow Mary Gargar. An elderly and weathered Liberian woman with a look of determination just short of defiance, Mrs. Gargar tells us of how she purchased land from a man falsely representing himself as its rightful owner. Now that the war is over, a reverend who the government confirms is the rightful owner has returned and wants to build. While she holds a deed for the land in her name, and depends on its crops for survival, he too needs the land for his livelihood. How are they to resolve the dispute and meet their competing needs?

Land disputes are a recurring theme in the developing world and are at the root of much violent conflict. For the majority of the world’s poor, poverty is predominantly a rural issue. More than three quarters of those who live on just one or two dollars each day still live in the countryside. Living further from commercial centers, schools and health facilities and outside the range of many government and social services, the rural poor lack access to the inputs and infrastructure necessary for development. Residence in rural areas exacerbates poverty on nearly every level.

In Liberia, nearly 60 percent of the population is rural. Fourteen years of civil war devastated the physical infrastructure and destroyed what little access to systems and services that Liberia’s rural poor once enjoyed. Slowly, however, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government is working with partners to rebuild, increasing access to the inputs critical for development.

What role can philanthropists play in creating the conditions necessary for wide-spread economic growth in rural areas? While the challenges facing the rural poor are daunting, there are three key areas where strategic giving by private philanthropists can make a difference: agriculture, legal systems and education.

In Liberia’s post-war period, agriculture has accounted for over half of GDP. To ensure that agriculture continues to grow, philanthropists must direct targeted support to rural areas. Projects that improve access to agricultural inputs, including high-yield rice and other new technologies, and those that strengthen agricultural institutions and build supply chains from rural to urban areas should be a priority. Aside from direct agricultural skills training and education, donors can design financial services targeted to small-scale farmers that will enable them to invest and plan for the future with confidence. In a place like Liberia, where the war destroyed the country’s livestock population, the introduction of something as simple as donations or loans to purchase and insure livestock would have a dramatic impact on the capacity for rural development.

But to invest in and develop agriculture on a piece of land, one must first be sure that he or she is the rightful owner, as we learned with the story of Mrs. Gargar. Land and property rights are central to poverty alleviation efforts—to stability, food security, income-generation and status within one’s community. However, legal systems for registering and protecting these property rights face a number of hurdles, particularly in poor, post-conflict settings. As part of its Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), the Liberian government commits to promoting effective land administration and management. Toward this goal, the government has established a commission and works with several key NGO partners, including the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the Carter Center. The NRC works with the government to collect deeds and land records, increase the number of trained land surveyors and put a national system in place for land registration. Through outreach, the NRC spreads information about property rights and facilitates community resolution of land disputes, such as Mrs. Gargar’s. In addition, they put an essential new tool in surveyors’ (and land owners’) hands: global positioning systems. The process followed for making a determination includes the community and is viewed as fair—and the results are uncontested.

Complementing this work, organizations like the Carter Center support small programs in underserved rural areas to educate people about new laws and the legal means for resolving disputes. In a country where illiteracy rates are high, and access to information limited, the Carter Center sends traveling troops of local actors into the villages to perform entertaining and educational skits, followed by Q&A sessions with the villagers. On Saturday, I and 20 philanthropists, who are members of the Global Philanthropy Forum, took a UN helicopter to visit Liberia’s most isolated and rural region, the South East, to participate in one of these village gatherings and the robust Q&A session that followed the play.

We also viewed the re-opening of Tubman University in Harper city, the first and only institution of higher education in the region, which had been closed down during the war. It is nearly impossible to emphasize the importance of education to lifting the rural poor from poverty. Despite the government’s Free and Compulsory Primary Education Initiative, unofficial fees still prevent many children in Liberia from attending school. Over 70 percent of schools were destroyed or damaged during the war, and those that still operate do so with few supplies and poorly trained teachers with poor attendance records due to inconsistent pay. But, by efforts such as underwriting teacher salaries, providing books and supplies, funding the construction of new schools and providing the safe transportation of students to schools, philanthropists can have an enormously positive impact on rural education, and thus economic development.

On the final day of our trip, we visited a safe-house and rehabilitation center for vulnerable girls run by Touching Humanity In Need of Kindness (THINK). Many of the girls in the program were fighters during the war, or were trafficked to Monrovia under false promises of education in the capital city. Families willingly send their children to Monrovia, believing that they will receive an education and a chance for a better life. Too often, however, these children are forced into near slave-labor conditions as market sellers, house cleaners or prostitutes. The stories of these young women, although now on a positive path, represent an ugly nexus between rural and urban poverty. The rural poor are trafficked to the city because of the desperation of the urban poor. If affordable education in rural areas is provided and reliable means for families to make a living through agricultural development and property right protection are strengthened, women may be spared from making these dangerous decisions about how to educate their children.

This all sounds like a tall order, and many of these goals require the investments of governments, but each can be advanced substantially by small grants, especially to organizations like THINK, NRC and the Carter Center, each of which is having powerful impact on the lives of many who have suffered too much—including the strong willed Mrs. Gargar.

– Jane Wales

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“Women are part of the development agenda for the first time—and we are making use of our time. Traditional culture has made us reticent. But, no more. Our eyes are now open and there is no way they will close again.” These are the words of Liberia’s Vabah Gayflor, Minister of Gender and Development. Soft-spoken and patient, when her moment comes to speak, her voice drops to a whisper that commands the attention of all in the room. The 19 philanthropists with whom I am traveling in Liberia are focused; we have met a truly powerful person.

Gayflor, who is not a member of any political party, is an unmistakable champion of the person and policies of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Her colleagues speak of two revolutions led by Liberian women, and the one to come. The first was their struggle for peace in 2003. The second came in 2005 when they registered to vote and stood for election. Now, the third revolution is a more sustainable approach to economic development, one that provides benefits for all.

Quiet power characterizes the women of Liberia with whom we have met. They and their daughters have been the victims of extraordinary gender-based violence throughout the country’s 14-year civil war and still to this day, for the culture of impunity lingers on. However, in Minister Gayflor’s words, “women believe their time has come.” Meeting them persuades us that is so.

Throughout our day today, we met with women and girls who were being given economic opportunity, albeit modest, for the first time. Job creation has not come near to keeping up with the need, and remains an urgent necessity for President Sirleaf, who met with us over dinner last night. While some of those jobs will come from large corporations in search of coffee, rubber and cocoa, Sirleaf notes that the extractive industries are “capital intensive, and will not provide all the jobs we need.” And so the prospect of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) attracts the donors with whom I am now traveling, leaders of the Global Philanthropy Forum and The Philanthropy Workshop West.

In a large building on Monrovia’s main thoroughfare, we met with the exuberant members of the Liberian Women’s Sewing Project, a pilot enterprise of Chid Liberty’s Made In: Liberia, a promising new business to manufacture apparel that would be fair trade certified and a source of employment. Elsewhere in Monrovia, each woman who opens a stall at the Nancy B. Doe Market, funded by the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund, is required to open a savings account at the ECO Bank branch located within the market. And she is given access to daily literacy classes within the market walls. In a country where 60 percent of agricultural output and 80 percent of trading activities are carried out by women, ensuring that they have training and access to credit is essential.

Liberian women have found ways to advance other aspects of the Sirleaf government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). Members of the West Africa Network for Peace Building (WANEP) told us of their efforts to increase women’s participation in peace-building at all levels in the country, through advocacy, capacity-building, radio outreach and rural initiatives.

And the truly extraordinary women of West Point—the largest slum within Liberia—have formed their own West Point Women for Health and Development. Forty eight percent of West Point’s population is comprised of children, 35% women (mostly single parents) and 15% men. In this area not yet reached by government services, these remarkable women concluded that “enough is enough” after seeing too many children raped and killed. They self-organized and took responsibility for their impoverished community, with each paying weekly dues of 30 Liberian Liberty Dollars (roughly 40 cents US). With this money, they fund grassroots efforts to improve health and sanitation, reduce gender-based violence, provide literacy classes, reduce prostitution— and see to it that the police do their jobs. And if the police fail them, as is so often the case, they take matters to higher authorities until perpetrators of violence are prosecuted and some form of order is achieved. Their annual budget is $10,000. With funding, they would like to expand their skills training to teaching a woman to drive a car. Newly empowered with that skill, she could be a taxi driver and make a living for her family.

So what is the role for private actors—philanthropists and social investors? Is the right entry point a community based organization, an NGO that provides skills training and meets basic needs? Or is it to create the conditions for small enterprises to take seed, so that the economy can expand more than its current 5% per year. With funding and technical assistance, increased access to education, skills development, credit and inputs, women will be able to lift their families from poverty.

Women did not get the vote in Liberia until 1948. Their country did not get peace until the women demanded it in 2003. Now a woman holds the presidency, powerful women are heading ministries, holding Senate seats and women with no education and no obvious reason for hope have transformed West Point from being a daily, deadly danger to their sisters and their children. Their eyes are now open to the power they wield. Will they turn back? And how can the rest of us ease their path forward?

– Jane Wales

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“Liberia is not a poor country. It is a country that has been managed poorly,” according Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s president and Africa’s first female head of state.

Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of violent conflict, which decimates economies, destroys infrastructure, and undermines a state’s capacity to meet basic needs. Yet Sierra Leone and Rwanda have each demonstrated that with the right policies and the right partners, countries can emerge from conflict and achieve positive economic results for their publics. Liberia can be a third example—and wealthy countries, far-sighted investors, and strategic philanthropists alike are betting on the policies of its reform-minded leader.

Undaunted by the problems inherited from 14 years of civil war, Sirleaf’s government undertook a highly inclusive public process to develop its Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). It encompasses policies aimed at integrating former combatants, promoting reconciliation, combating corruption, welcoming investment, and encouraging the growth of civil society. It is a blueprint that has persuaded wealthy countries to provide much-needed debt relief and both private philanthropists and investors to work in close coordination with one another—and with a government they feel they can trust.

I write from Liberia, where I am traveling with 19 philanthropists committed to Liberia’s success. The origins of this trip lie in a 2008 Clinton Global Initiative “commitment” undertaken by Pam Omidyar’s Humanity United, the Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF), the Open Society Institute, the Daphne Foundation, the NoVo Foundation, the McCall-MacBain Foundation, TrustAfrica, and the government of Liberia.

As part of the commitment, the grant-making foundations stepped forward to finance the establishment of a Philanthropy Secretariat within President Sirleaf’s offices, with the mandate to coordinate their investments so as to best support Liberia’s reform agenda. For our part, at the GPF, we agreed to expand the number of “new philanthropists” alert to Liberia’s potential and to test and refine this extraordinary model of partnership between a post-crisis government and a consortium of private donors and investors.

Ultimately, our hope is to be able to demonstrate—to our satisfaction and to other donors seeking to engage—that this model of highly disciplined and collaborative philanthropic engagement can be adapted and made portable to other post-crisis situations. Many of the GPF members who joined the trip are also leaders of The Philanthropy Workshop West or members of the Aspen Institute Society of Fellows. They are strategic philanthropists, discerning, intent on impact—and deeply respectful of local voices.

They recognize that many of the prescriptions contained in Liberia’s poverty reduction strategy would apply to most post-crisis states. At the same time, they are cognizant that Liberia’s history is unique.  Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, it became the first independent republic in Africa. It established a constitution that met the needs of those settlers, but excluded indigenous peoples. The inequities inherent in that formula helped lead to political instability and ultimately a brutal civil war, during which the GDP of the country dropped 90%, poverty rates rose 64%, the physical infrastructure was decimated, the management class was dispersed, 270,000 died, and many hundreds of thousands were displaced. Its young population, 75% of whom are under age 25, has spent more time in battle than in school.

As a group, we will explore whether and how private actors can contribute to the public goals that are designed not only to reverse the damage done, but to build a new Liberia that can be a model for others emerging from crisis.

In particular, we will report to you—and gain your views—on four hurdles ahead: improving security, promoting public health, rehabilitating infrastructure, and strengthening government capacity.

As we report out to you on the status of each of these areas, we will be eager to hear your views on the role that private actors can play and how they can best work in partnership with each other and with Liberia’s government. Barack Obama has often said that government alone cannot solve all of our country’s problems. If this is true for us, it can be no less true for Liberia, where philanthropy and investment have a significant role to play.

– Jane Wales

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“I fear my own conscience on Africa. I fear the judgment of future generations,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is quoted as saying.  “I fear their asking how can wealthy people, so aware of such suffering, so capable of acting, simply turn away?”

While in office, that sentiment led Blair to commit British troops to quelling Sierra Leone’s civil war and to later establish the Commission on Africa to advance the continent’s growth and development. Now, as former Prime Minister, it has inspired him to create the African Governance Initiative (AGI), a non-profit foundation that offers African reformers Blair’s personal help and that of teams of up to 15 UK or US-trained technocrats who are embedded in their ministries. Neither Blair nor these teams comes with policy prescriptions, but rather their task is to help far-sighted leaders achieve their own goals—goals that have been vetted by the process of democratic elections.

Arguing that good governance “is not simply the absence of corruption, but the presence of capacity,” Blair and his AGI have worked with President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda on matters as mundane as how to manage the president’s schedule to the harder political question of how to manage public expectations at a time of transition. Each country has made great strides in rebuilding its society and economy. While they are not without problems, they are both expanding their economies and broadening participation in the gains. Blair argues that as a result the citizens have a growing stake in their country’s future and an increasing reason to believe that hard work and merit—rather than political connections and favors—will provide the ticket to a better life.

Blair has now taken his model of philanthropy to Liberia, which its president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, says “is not a poor country” with its rich natural resources, “but is a country that has been managed poorly.” Fourteen years of civil war have decimated its infrastructure and impoverished its young population, 75% of whom are under age 25 and all of whom have spent more time in battle than in school.

But, soon after the country chose peace it also chose a remarkable leader in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. A former Assistant Minister of Finance (in the William Tolbert government), Sirleaf now leads a government committed to transparency and an ambitious Poverty Reduction Strategy.

Blair is not the first to invest in the capacity of Sirleaf’s reform government. Soon after Sirleaf’s election, philanthropist Ed Scott created the Scott Fellowship program, which places young professionals in Liberia’s ministries for one-year stints to work along side mid-level officials in carrying out the day to day tasks of governance.  While Scott fellows were initially Americans without familial ties to Liberia, they are now predominately Liberian-Americans returning to the country from which they, their parents or their grandparents came. Many are hoping to stay.

Philanthropist George Soros has similarly helped to strengthen governmental capacity. And, Pam Omidyar’s Humanity United joined forces with the Open Society Institute, the NoVo Foundation, the Daphne Foundation, TrustAfrica and McCall-MacBain Foundation in creating the Philanthropy Secretariat within the office of President Sirleaf. They did so as part of a 2008 Clinton Global Initiative “commitment” of which the Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF) was also a part.

The grant-makers agreed to finance the creation of the Secretariat. The GPF agreed to expand the number of new philanthropists alert to Liberia’s cause. As part of that effort, I am now traveling with 19 GPF members, many of whom are also alumni and leaders of our close collaborators, The Philanthropy Workshop-West. We will be learning what we can and reporting to you along the way.

We’ll be cognizant that Liberia has a special history—having been settled by former American slaves—which may give us a special responsibility. But beyond that sentiment lies the practical recognition that if Sirleaf—a tough leader with integrity, vision and smart policies—does not succeed, that failure may stand as a discouraging lesson to all states struggling to emerge from crisis. Some might argue that it will tell them whether the outside world will be there for them, or whether we, despite being “so aware of such suffering, so capable of acting, simply turn away.”

– Jane Wales

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This weekend, in honor of International Women’s Day, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia hosted the International Colloquium for Women’s Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security in Monrovia.  The Colloquium, conceptualized in 2006 during Sirleaf’s inauguration (as the first female president in Africa), brought together more than 400 international participants and 400 Liberian national participants, across all sectors.  The Conference aimed to create an environment for women and their champions around the world to discuss, learn, demonstrate and act on the benefits and lessons learned from women in leadership.

Ambassador Swanee Hunt gives a lively first-hand account  of the event here, and Ruth Levinson, another attendee, provides her own narrative here on AllAfricaStar Radio and other Liberian news media covered the event with day to day updates.

The below video was prepared by the conference staff.  To learn more about Liberia, you can join us here at the Council this Thursday March 12th for a screening of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a powerful documentary that tells the inspiring story of ordinary Liberian women organizing to bring peace to their war-torn country. Paul van Zyl, Co-founder of the ICTJ, will discuss transitional justice in action, focusing on the lessons learned in Liberia, and their relevance for other societies struggling to break cycles of conflict and violence.

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A beautiful recording of a Liberian a cappella group singing a song about the struggles of conflict, and its resolution. The song is called “Kuro” (The Devil is a Liar).  The group sings to raise the profile of the West African Children Support Network.

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The Chronicle of Philanthropy published a nice profile of Pam Omidyar yesterday. Pam, co-founder of the Omidyar Network, created Humanity United in 2005 as a foundation to end slavery and mass atrocities, based just down the road in Redwood City. Noticing the disconnect between activists, policy experts, and scholars on these issues, Pam chose to work with all of them, and to encourage them to work together.

Here at the World Affairs Council and Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF), we’ve been thrilled to work with several of Pam’s investee organizations mentioned in the article, including Mark Hanis of the Genocide Intervention Network – one of her first projects, and Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves, who credits Pam and Humanity United for their approach. “They didn’t leap in and just say, ‘There’s a slave child. Let’s help them.’ They said, ‘This is a big problem, and let’s spend time thinking it through,'” says Mr. Bales. “You can’t solve a problem unless you understand it.” Pam has been a stand-out member of the GPF’s Advisory Council, and has helped us better understand issues of slavery and genocide.

Pam also worked with Jane Wales, our CEO & President and co-founder of the GPF, this fall to put together a joint commitment for the Clinton Global Initiative on Liberia. Humanity United, together with the Global Philanthropy Forum, the NoVo Foundation, Daphne Foundation, McCallMacBain Foundation, and Trust Africa committed 15 million dollars to collaborate with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to bring a group of foundations together to comprehensively coordinate their efforts to support Liberia’s reconstruction and development.

And, given that Pam is an avid surfer from Hawaii, she might be interested in a new film, Sliding Liberia, just out by Woodshed Films. It tells the story of Liberia’s first surfer, set against the backdrop of the civil war and the country’s struggle for reconstruction in its wake. Created by local Stanford alums, look for the film to be screened at an upcoming IF event at the Council.

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