Here we go

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.

Donor fatigue for soap making

The Niapele Project‘s country director in Liberia, Megan Sullivan, often sends hilarious  email updates about her adventures navigating the intricacies of Liberian bureaucracy. With her permission, I’m posting the email she sent today about a meeting at the Ministry of Gender and Development (slightly edited, for privacy and clarity).

“So, yesterday afternoon was my second try at carrying [NDLR: carrying = Liberian way of saying “bringing someone”] Finda to the monthly women’s empowerment meeting at the Gender Ministry.  If you recall, we went last Wednesday of last month but it had secretly been converted to a memorial service for a deceased Min employee.

So it’s not setup at all like a dialogue of women NGO leaders as I had been explicitly told.  Instead, it was like a lecture where about 50 women gather to voice concerns and then receive a lecture on a topic of interest.

When the minutes from the late June meeting were passed around the tone of every meeting immediately became clear.

For example, under AOB [Any Other Business]:

  • Korpu from War Widows with One Leg Vocational School stated that the Ministry of Gender should empower the women of Liberia by giving them support.  But the GoL [Government of Liberia] is not supporting (ie funding) the women’s groups like they promised.
  • Annie from Good Lord Jesus Praise His Name Help Us and Save Us Tie and Dye expressed concern that the GoL is not supporting and empowering the women of Liberia and her organization needs supplies and the staff has not been paid.
  • Hawa from Bless Jesus who Died for Our Sins Hair Plaiting Academy mentioned – as she has mentioned at every monthly meeting since 2006 –  that she would like for the Ministry of Gender to please give her funding.
  • The women present decided to form their own committee to investigate how exactly they can better convey to the Ministry that they need some support.  Findings will be reported at the next meeting.

Ok, so I was a little loose in my interpretations but that’s TOTALLY the gist.  This next one, my fave, is a verbatim quote though:

“Rita Harper of the Women’s Empowerment for the Upliftment of Females in Liberia through Microloan said that she was promised rain boots by the Her Honorable Minister at this meeting and where are they?”
🙂

Approx 3:15 of the 1:00 (scheduled to begin) meeting we move past the prayer, greeting and reading of minutes and the surprisingly contentious voting on the acceptance of said minutes, and onto the main presentation of this month’s meeting.

Reproductive Rights.

Which is good and relevant but it doesn’t really help these women improve their businesses and you will see why the info was not incredibly helpful.

The guest speaker seemed like a bright, friendly successful Liberian woman in her late 50s (I would guess?) She has been at the Ministry of Health in the Division of Family Health for 30 years and recently became a consultant (or something) with the UNFPA for women’s health in Liberia.

Seems great to promote the importance of family planning within this demographic.  She starts off with some stats (no visible notes with her)

  • 983 Liberian women die during childbirth every SECOND (the crowd gasps)
  • 983 Liberian women out of every 1,312 die during child birth
  • you need to switch the type of birth control you use every 2 years or it will make you sterile
  • a woman loses half of all her ovaries by the time she is 18, so she should finish school right away so that she can start having babies by 19
  • The egg waits in the fallopian tube for the sperm to come and fertilize it (maybe thats correct, but it didnt sound it).

The women had a MILLION questions that were the equivalent of 7th grade sex ed in the US – which I guess is not totally shocking, but wow.  One man there said that he had done his own research at a hospital in Lofa County and 70% of the children in the hospital had HIV.  So he had the idea of asking the 70 % if they had been circumcised in the bush and then if they had used a clean blade.  Which led to huge discussion on FGM etc.

And back to birth control — is it true that if you have sex standing up you can’t get pregnant?  etc etc. One woman asked if there were different sizes of condoms, the guest expert said no, only one size.  The questioner said “but my friend has a man that it can’t fit”  Expert “he’s not trying hard enough.”

(I took detailed notes cause it was pretty amusing).

At the end Finda was like “So when do I talk about the work that Malaya does?” [NDLR: Malaya is the agricultural co-op The Niapele Project is sourcing food supplies from for our school nutrition program]

The words “business strategy” “planning” and others like that were never mentioned.

In other non useless details — the Director of Women’s Empowerment mentioned that women’s empowerment programs that make soap and tie dye need to move in a different direction so that women can build real skills.  (The Nike/Clinton Foundation has multimillion dollar project on vocational training like mechanics and engineering and nursing and stuff for women in LIB).  She said “there are no more grants for tie and dye.  The international community has donor fatigue for soap making.”  🙂

The high stakes of the Taylor trial

A fascinating new phase in the trial of Charles Taylor, Liberian warlord and President of his country from 1997 to 2003, is underway. Following 18 months of proceedings, the defense case for Taylor – charged by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) with 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other violations of international humanitarian law, to which he pleaded non guilty – began on July 13.  This has been getting some international media attention. As noted by contributors to the Trial of Charles Taylor blog, a project of the Open Society Institute:

“[Taylor] is the first sitting African head of state to be indicted and prosecuted for his alleged responsibility for some of the worst crimes known to humanity, the laser beam of international attention will zero in as he tells his side of the story.” 

International attention, however, has been more like a faint gleam than a “laser beam”, and I have yet to find commentary that focuses on what, as far as I’m concerned, seems to be the most significant aspect of these historic proceedings – the fact that, if Taylor is found guilty, this trial will set a critical precedent in international law. Indeed, while there have been past indictments – and even convictions – for war crimes and crimes against humanity, no head of state has yet to be found personally responsible for atrocities committed during his or her tenure.

In this post, I won’t be discussing the history and specifics of what led to Taylor and a dozen other war criminals to be indicted by the SCSL – suffice it to say that there is ample evidence (in spite of Taylor’s pleading not guilty and his vehement denial of charges during his opening statement) that these individuals committed unbelievable atrocities in the context of the Sierra Leone conflict. (A key prosecution witness, Joseph Marzah, described how Taylor allegedly encouraged – even ordered – the killing of women and children or the eating of human flesh). 

Above all else, I believe it is crucial to highlight the importance of Taylor’s trial not only for Sierra Leone, and more generally the West African region, but also the implications for international law and the international criminal justice system specifically.

In the case of Charles Taylor, the fact that the charges against him are explicitely linked to his involvement in the conflict in Sierra Leone – and not Liberia, the country he presided over for 7 years – complicates the picture. Stephen Rapp, the prosecutor of the SCSL, has to prove Taylor’s personal, criminal responsibility in the events that unfolded in Sierra Leone between 1996 and 2002, when the civil war came to an end. Including Taylor’s, the court has brought 13 indictments against individuals who “bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996.” 

So far, three guilty verdicts have been pronounced against former rebel leaders, with sentences ranging from 15 to 52 years – out of the three judgments, one may still be appealed. It should also be noted that four of the 13 indicted have either died or are presumed dead, leaving nine individuals in the custody of the SCSL. 

One might wonder, then, what purpose might the conviction of Charles Taylor and a dozen others serve? Particularly as so few of those who perpetrated atrocities in Sierra Leone are being tried, will all these lengthy, costly legal procedures provide any solace for the victims of the conflict? Will justice be served? What, if anything, would the sentencing of war criminals achieve for Sierra Leone? for West Africa? for international justice? 

The Special Court for Sierra Leone prides itself on contributing to the re-establishment of the rule in law in the country – in addition to court proceedings, the SCSL also facilitates capacity-building for judges, legal experts and lawyers. And, indeed, the judicial institutions of Sierra Leone are being strengthened thanks to the SCSL. Beyond this, of course, the main objective of the SCSL is to bring justice to the people of Sierra Leone. Already, legal proceedings have yielded a number of firsts and have established important precedents. The Special Court:

  • Was the first to rule that national amnesty does not apply to the prosecution of international crimes, and was the first court to adjudicate the limitations of immunity by a head of state before an international criminal court.   
  • Was the first to enter convictions for the forcible recruitment and use of child soldiers for acts of terrorism in a non-international armed conflict and for the crime of attacks on UN peacekeepers.   
  • Also pronounced the first-ever convictions on the charge of sexual slavery and forced marriage as crimes against humanity. 

However, despite this important jurisprudence and the benefits to the local judicial system, many argue that the SCSL – as well as other international criminal courts – can make the process of reconciliation much more difficult and that, ultimately, convicting and sentencing war criminals achieves little for the victims. 

I, on the contrary, believe that the sentencing of war criminals and perpetrators of crimes against humanity is fundamentally important. In addition to the signifcant advances for Sierra Leone’s judicial system listed above, should Taylor be found guilty, it would set the standard for accountability and send a clear signal to current and former heads of state that a culture of impunity will not be tolerated by the international community. As prosecutor Stephen Rapp notes, “this is an enormous test for international justice.”

With Taylor’s trial, the stakes are high – the former president still has a strong following in West Africa, and no clear popular consensus has emerged around the man who (in)famously ran for president in 1996 with the slogan “He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, but I will vote for him.” A conviction would at least contribute to the delegitimization of movements supporting him – which, in a still fragile Liberia, will be critical to the country’s long term political stabilization. 

Particularly as heads of state like Bashir in Sudan, Mugabe in Zimbabwe or even the military junta in Burma, continue to oppress and victimize their populations, the ever growing jurisprudence reinforcing the international justice system would receive an adrenaline shot should Taylor be sentenced. 

As with the prosecution by the ICC of Thomas Lubanga for his crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, many claim that the international media and public attention detract from the validity of the proceedings. As Catherine Mabille, Lubanga’s head defense lawyer notes: “In the press he is already convicted, convicted before being tried. And in the eyes of a vast majority, as soon as there is an arrest warrant and as soon as the charges are confirmed and the matter is committed to trial, the presumption of innocence disappears.”  

However, all those indicted by international criminal courts, including Taylor, are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and given a chance to present their side of the story. For all intents and purposes, they are guaranteed a fair trial. This is especially true, given that, as mentioned previously, the media and public opinion are not nearly as mobilized as they could be – frankly, even searching for material to compose this blog post, I was surprised by how little analysis and commentary Taylor’s trial has generated (leading me to conclude that Lubanga’s defense lawyer may be slightly delusional.)

Considering how many times throughout history leaders have abused, oppressed, manipulated and murdered their own populations, the need to establish a standard for accountability is of paramount importance. For now, even as the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest, he remains free to roam around the African continent (having already made several trips abroad since the warrant was issued), as the African Union decided not to honor the warrant for his arrest… 

(In an interesting twist of fate, it’s worth noting that Taylor’s son, Chucky Taylor, was convicted of torture last year, in the first prosecution under the United States’ Extraterritorial Torture Statute.)

Of course, the evolution of institutions – such as the international justice system – is always complex, and for every achievement, there are set-backs. But there is no doubt in my mind that if Taylor is convicted and sentenced for his crimes, entrepreneurs of violence, warlords and other small or big tyrants the world over will hear the message loud and clear: the culture of impunity is coming to an end.

This ‘n’ that

Amazing conversation/fight between Bill Easterly and Jeffrey Sachs going on right now over at Huffington Post – the “Cliffs Notes” of it are available here. I’m pretty amused by all of this – it seems so very modern for two of the world’s most renowned development economists to duke it out via their blogs and columns. And Easterly just joined Twitter: 

penelopeinparis@bill_easterly vs. J. Sachs: http://ow.ly/aInw.amusing – although I wonder if this is sorta lowering the standards of educated debate.
bill_easterly@penelopeinparis @saundras_s u mean that educated debate that includes Bono&Angelina?
penelopeinparis@bill_easterly – touche. Still, 2 bad muck raking takes over the constructive discussion,& thats what ppl will focus on,instd of real issues

I’m so very entertained by modern media and information exchange. 

In other news, I just finished reading Tears of the Desert, the memoirs of Dr. Halima Bashir, a woman doctor in Darfur. In spite of the fact that I spent most of the second half of the book swallowing my tears, I really enjoyed her story. The horror… Goodness. We have all seen, read or heard accounts of rape as a weapon of war (in Liberia, in the DRC, in Sudan….), but the personal nature of her account made it even harder to bear. It almost makes me in favor of celebrity advocacy – how could you not want to be outspoken if you knew you could draw media (and potentially, political) attention? 

Meandering again

It’s been a while…. Lots of things happening professionally, personally, all across the board, it’s been a rather eventful Spring. Except it’s not *really* Spring here in Vancouver – the weather gods have been particularly ungenerous, save for the few nice days that they kindly (and I’m pretty sure begrudgingly) bestowed upon us. 

In any case, my Google Reader is finally under control – reading (or skimming through…) the 1000+ articles that have been accumulating in there, in addition to catching up on all the reading and informing myself I have failed to do in recent times was a bit daunting, but here I am again, ready to contribute. 

Before diving back into my favorite topics, I think a Niapele update is in order. 

For the past 9 months or so – basically since the financial crisis and the resulting meltdown occured – we have seen a sharp drop in donations. Truth be told, this also coincided with Celina, my co-director, and myself getting full time jobs (girl’s gotta eat!), and we weren’t fully prepared to cope with dwindling spontaneous donations. In spite of our success as a small start-up organization (feeding 100s of kids for a school year… providing for 20+ abandoned children for nearly 2 years….. supporting a small organization for handicapped children…), we have been struggling to mobilize the funding that we would need to make all of the aforementioned projects true successes.

For instance, the School Nutrition Initiative which we ran during the 2007-2008 school year – we served daily meals to over 600 kids and 30 staff and teachers at the only tuition free school in the Buduburam refugee camp. [Note: After more than 2 years being involved in this project, I have yet to wrap my mind around the concept of private, costly education in a refugee camp as the “best” alternative for schooling for refugee children.] The program cost about $2,000 per month, including salaries of kitchen staff, and had start up costs of about the same amount (pots, utensils, stoves, renovations to the cafeteria space which we rented….). Over the course of the school year, we worked in close cooperation with the Carolyn A. Miller School, its donors and supporters, as well as with an incredible, dedicated Ghanaian nutritionist, Adam Sandow, to develop, implement and continually refine the School Nutrition Initiative. The program delivered positive results, which you can read about here.

Now, we are trying to recreate this same initiative in Liberia, where our partner, the Carolyn Miller School, is now operating out of. While a refugee camp setting was a challenging environment for us to succeed in, Liberia is a whole different story – essentially demolished by the war, Liberia is still reeling. And despite advances on many fronts, there are still some core challenges that need to be seriously taken on. Our very own – and very brave – Megan Sullivan just arrived in Monrovia to act as our Country Director, and assist our Program Manger, Henry Snyder. We are really hopeful that, with her presence, we’ll be making strides towards improving the sustainability of our partner organizations – as well as our own. 

Raising funds for the School Nutrition Initiative in Monrovia is a priority for us at this point. We’ve carried out a needs assessment exercice at the school, and we drew up a budget with them – for $2500, we can restart the program. That’s probably something we can achieve in the next couple of months – however, what’s much, much more difficult is to secure the funding to actually run the program every day of every week…. We feel that starting up the program without the guarantee of funding to make it last would be suboptimal – that goes against our principle of sustainability, and would be devastating for the school, and its students. 

So Megan is initiating a series of meetings with donor organizations and agencies at the country level – hopefully, we will be able to secure the support of a reliable funding partner for our activities. The model is simple and replicable, and by cutting costs and having a lean operation, you can feed A LOT of children, all the while stimulating the local economy by purchasing from local food producers, by employing staff for to run the program. That’s really the beauty of working at the grassroots level, with community-based organizations – with relatively small amounts of money, you can have a significant impact. 

One of my favorite new blogs, Aid Watch, ran a piece (a post?) about aid effectiveness in Nepal – excerpt:

Doing an inventory of small NGOs working in the various districts, then giving out small amounts of funding ($10,000-$20,000 a year) probably gets the most done. Skip the audits and heavy-duty report writing and verify with a small team equipped with a camera. A picture is worth a thousand words (or reports) it’s there or it isn’t and the camera tells you. NGOs with barely enough budget to survive have little motivation and opportunity to corrupt the process. They are community members themselves and the community can police its own quite effectively. Nearly anyone living in a small community in Nepal can tell you in short order who is working for the good of the community and who is lining their own pockets. Snap photos, ask the locals and you’ll know for sure that your aid dollars did something.

I feel confident about Niapele’s ability to make a difference – with Megan in Liberia, I have a renewed sense of optimism. Celina and I are also going to continue finding new ways to raise funds, and, in an effort to be transparent, I’ll be posting updates about our progress. In fact, this is part of our broader attempt to revive our online presence as an organization – new Facebook public profile, new Twitter account, and a new resolve to make things happen.

 

For those who might have missed it, here is the video that Ayoka Productions made for us last year: