MUSINGS FROM MONROVIA – BY EMMA WILLENBORG

 

My arrival in Monrovia coincided with some upheaval, both climatic and institutional. Our airplane had to circle the airport three times before landing due to a thunderstorm, which was my first introduction to the intensifying rainy season. More relevant to my work though, the Minister of Agriculture that I had intended to work with was fired on the night that I arrived. This was my first introduction to the unpredictable nature of working in the Government of Liberia, particularly given the upcoming presidential election in October.

The entrance to the Ministry of Agriculture in Monrovia.

The entrance to the Ministry of Agriculture in Monrovia.

Since the initial uncertainty, my work has solidified a bit and taken some interesting turns. One of my main responsibilities will be leading an eight-week training for eight Ministry staff to build their skills and knowledge to oversee and implement the Liberia Agricultural Transformation Agenda (LATA). The training will include a wide array of topics, including value chain development, basic statistics, presentation skills, and agricultural economics. I quickly learned that the training will go both ways, as I have a lot to learn about the burgeoning agricultural development happening in Liberia. I sit right outside the office of the Deputy Minister for Planning and Development; a short, lively man who is passionate about urban farming and who manages to make everyone laugh. Sitting outside his office means that I meet a lot of interesting people passing through the Ministry, from agribusiness entrepreneurs to policy officers to agricultural financing specialists. I have been integrated into work and life at the Ministry, taking the large Ministry bus to work every day with my colleagues, and eating traditional Liberian food such as potato greens or cassava leaves with rice in the cafeteria.

Training participants discuss the appropriate level of government intervention in agriculture.

Training participants discuss the appropriate level of government intervention in agriculture.

Reminders of Liberia’s past are everywhere, and persist in an eerie way. The old Congolese embassy is visible from where I am staying, but all that remains of the building are crumbling walls. The Ducor Hotel, one of the first five-star hotels in Africa that hosted many continental leaders and events, is now a skeleton of a building with empty rooms covered with graffiti. At the same time, the city of Monrovia feels bustling and full of life. The streets are busy with people informally selling their wares, children playing and lining up for school in the mornings, and women cooking roadside corn. Liberia is a small country with only 4.5 million inhabitants and even the capital city feels like a tight knit community that unfolds as the bus winds in and out of different neighborhoods. The colors of the traditional lapa, or local fabric, are vibrant, and the fashion sense is impeccable. I have a few things to learn in that area as well.

Graffiti and view of the Atlantic Ocean from the remnants of the Ducor Hotel, Monrovia.

Graffiti and view of the Atlantic Ocean from the remnants of the Ducor Hotel, Monrovia.

A few years prior to joining GHD, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Madagascar. Going from speaking the local language, being integrated in a small community, and living and breathing the traditional way of life – to living the “expat” lifestyle in Monrovia and working in a government office, has been an adjustment and a challenge. It feels like a constant internal conflict between two strangely disconnected components of a development process that is working towards the same goal. My Peace Corps experience provides an invaluable perspective though and is one I hope to never forget, because a lot of development work seems to involve sitting in offices in capital cities. One of my main goals here is to apply my Peace Corps lens to my day to day work, both in terms of integrating into my work community, but also trying to find ways to bring the Ministry staff out into the field to hear from the farmers they are supporting. Given limited resources for logistical support provided by the Ministry, this happens far less often than it should. Additionally, it is often not the staff of the Department of Planning and Development, who provide policy advice, strategic planning, and sector coordination, that have explicit mandates to conduct fieldwork. However, this component is essential for the Department staff to be able to understand the needs of the ultimate beneficiaries of the important policy and planning work that they do. It will also help me to learn more about the challenges and opportunities for agricultural development in Liberia from the people that live and breathe it firsthand.

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