Three weeks have passed since I stepped foot in Africa and I know that some of you are waiting eagerly for wordz from my side to describe life here. It is quite difficult to convey the mix of sights and sounds that I’m surrounded by. All the more so becoz we live in a parallel world UN-touched to a fair degree by the realities of life for the average Liberian.
Monrovia, the capital city, has at least 1 million people of a total population of about 3.5 million. My first question upon arriving was, ‘what is the power schedule?’, expecting to be told it was ‘4-on: 2-off’ or something similar. In truth, it is ‘24-off: 0-on’! The city has not had flowing water and electricity for 15 years! And so I realised that there is no need for ‘daylight saving hours’ in a country that runs on the rhythm of real time – sunrise and sunset….! Whatever power there is across the town, and the country, comes from generators, and of course the UN ‘bubble’ has constant generated power. Consequently I drive from my air-conditioned house in an air-conditioned UN vehicle to my air-conditioned office where I have all the facilities I need to be comfortable. If it weren’t for the market area and the bridge where all traffic is terribly congested, I could probably move fast enough not to see the misery on people’s faces.
Thankfully I had a trip to the 2nd largest port town, Buchanan, 3 hours to the south of Monrovia with the Head of Civil Affairs sector (my boss) for 3 days. It was great to get out of Monrovia and have a chance to wield my camera and meet some people! The hotel we stayed in was basic and clean-ish, with an air conditioner, shower, TV and reasonable food in the restaurant. (USD65) I’m told that Buchanan is the only field location where I’ll find such good facilities.
There are a few disturbing facts I’ve learned since arriving. Think about this…
• The city and the entire country, has not had flowing water and electricity for 15 years! Power has been restored to about 3% of Monrovia since 2006.
• The majority of people live on less than 1 USD per day and UNDP calculates that 64% of people are surviving below the poverty line, and 48% struggle in extreme poverty.
• There are 51 qualified Liberian doctors to care for the 3.5 million people – yes, only 51 – average 1 doctor to 70,000 people!! (The UN and Peace-keeping troops have their own doctors and medical support)
I’ll add some perspective by comparing Liberia with other countries I’ve been in:
GDP per capita (PPP) purchasing power parity
Australia IMF Rank 17 $36,226 USD per capita
Albania IMF Rank 94 $6,298 USD per capita
Nepal IMF Rank 159 $1,078 USD per capita
Liberia IMF Rank 177 $358 USD per capita (out of 179 listed) The Liberian GDP sank from 800USD in the mid-1980s due to 14 years of brutal civil conflict.
Official Unemployment rates
Australia 4.70% – 2007 estimate
Albania 13% – 2007 estimate
Nepal 42% – 2004 estimate
Liberia 85% – 2003 estimate (only Nauru is worse with 90%!)
Australia Male 77.80; Female 83.59; All 80.62 – (9th in world)
Albania Male 74.95; Female 80.53; All 77.60 – (50th in world)
Nepal Male 60.78; Female 60.33; All 60.56 – (175th in world)
Liberia Male 38.93; Female 41.89; All 40.39 – (216th in world – out of 221 listed)
How does a country rebuild from this baseline? Where do you begin?
Education; Electricity; Water and Sanitation; Housing; Employment; Reintegration of Ex-combatants; Governance; Rule of Law; Build roads???
All of the above…plus!
If you think about the practical implications of the things I’ve mentioned, it would be easy to be paralysed by the overwhelming needs and obvious poverty. I’m trying not to think about it too much, but of course, seeing it everyday makes it impossible to ignore. My initial response is to commit to do my job the best way possible. On a broader level, the only way to reframe it is recognise that from this baseline, anything that is done in a positive direction, is a useful contribution!! Rebuild 1 classroom; Train 1 Police officer; Vaccinate 1 child; Encourage 1 person to practise safe sex; Convict 1 criminal; Pave 1 kilometre of road…in the end, the smallest intervention will be noticed.
But, let’s see how long this approach lasts, especially when I personally don’t have the capacity or authority to make any of those direct interventions…
Til next time, see if the fotos in Flickr are accessible to you with this link – or if not try this link to see the folder of Liberia fotos. http://www.flickr.com/photos/fayzfotos