Sitting in a rooftop bar in central Monrovia, slowly realizing that I’m finally here, in Liberia, a country which I have thought about at least 10 times a day over the course of the last three years. It’s surreal. My last visit to West Africa was in April 2008, when Celina (The Niapele Project’s co-founder and director) and I spent a month in the Buduburam refugee settlement towards the tail end of a crisis pitting Liberian refugees against the government of Ghana. Since then, so much has changed for this community of displaced Liberians, and, consequently our work with them. I’m so glad to finally be able to experience Liberia, to finally wrap my mind around the realities of this fascinating country. As I write this, my senses are overwhelmed with sounds and smells – things which I know I will be getting used to in due time; there is always a short adaptation period when one comes from the comfort of a place like Vancouver.
The next 2 months will be dedicated to fine tuning The Niapele Project’s existing programs – the school nutrition initiative and the Happy Family center for disabled children – and exploring opportunities to collaborate with other organizations working at the grassroots. The Niapele Project is fairly unique in the NGO landscape in Liberia – we are a micro international NGO, which is unusual here. There are over 200 NGOs here, but most are significant players, like the International Rescue Committee, BRAC or Merlin. It’s interesting to be working alongside these organizations, particularly when it comes to developing working relationships with government agencies: Niapele is expected to have a solid financial backing, and our modus operandi is – apparently – unusual. Scaling up and improving the sustainability of community-based initiatives may seem a rather ordinary activity in development. However, we’ve found that there is little trust in the ability of community leaders and their organizations to bring about positive social change.
We, at Niapele, strongly believe in the effectiveness and importance of strengthening community processes – and it’s not just about “top down” versus “bottom up” approach, or “local ownership”. It’s about the fact that, everywhere in the world, civil society has a critical role to play in filling the gaps where the government cannot provide. This holds true in the United States, in Canada, in France, in the UK etc. – we recognize (quasi instinctively) that non-profit organizations, charities, non-governmental organizations, political action committees and the like are essential actors in society. Some provide direct services, others keep authorities accountable, while others are pushing for systemic change. Moreover, they contribute to the vitality of societies: this sector creates vocations, jobs, and contributes to the economy in a significant way.
Owen Barder, a development thinker with an impressive depth of knowledge of the industry, doesn’t think the proliferation of small community-based NGOs is beneficial. I see his point, but disagree. I think that there is a crucial role to play for these institutions in development, as demonstrated by Niapele’s focus on working with community-based organizations. I’ll explore this theme further – but for now, my friend Clem, a JSI fellow at the Ministry of Finance, just joined me for an over-priced pizza.