Breakfast with a $1,000,000- aire, Dinner on less than $1

Blog from Liberia on January 15, 2012

This week is the second presidential inauguration in post-civil war Liberia. It’s a joyous occasion as Liberians celebrate a democratically elected president who is also a recent Nobel laureate.  The lawns of ministry buildings are set with chairs and look like a university campus on graduation day. Red, white and blue ribbons, draped over crumbling government buildings, give Monrovia- a small, dirty, barely functioning city a festive and happy feel. (Although, I doubt many of the foreign dignitaries invited here would notice). The streets are filled with lights and hotels in the city are booked with parties accompanying the 7 heads of state, US Secretary of State, and other important diplomats and business people who have come to Monrovia as special guests of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Just last week, I arrived, for the third time, to the tiny dusty Roberts Field International Airport, which sits 45 minutes from the city along a newly constructed highway. It’s the same airport that all of us- from top level diplomats and millionaires down to grassroots aid workers arrive on.  Since the 14-year civil war ended in 2004, I’ve heard that there have been major changes for the better at the airport. Yet, for me, arriving in Liberia still feels like a mad rush. Since my flight was delayed, two flights arrived at the same time, absolutely overwhelming the airport. The four immigration officers sitting behind their desks quickly stamped passports and asked to see Visas, which are scanned, sent over email, and then printed. I didn’t actually have a valid visa, but somehow had the name of an immigration official who took me into a back room. After waiting for 5 minutes with other desperate looking foreigners trying to gain entry into Liberia, I was released to the madness of baggage claim. The carousel delivering huge bags- I’ve seen people bring in paper towels and toilet paper move very quickly. Usually there are so many bags on the carousel that they pile up until they spill over onto people waiting to grab their bags. No one bothers to move unclaimed bags so that people standing near the carousel are literally trapped among piling suitcases.  I saw my suitcase and made a mad dash. As I grabbed my bag, it knocked into a lady who couldn’t move so she was almost completely knocked down.

It was now out to Bong County where I work with people who survive on $1 to $2 a day. I’ve been working with a youth group and we are organizing a soccer game as a hands-on way for the kids to learn basic business skills- they have to sell refreshments, invite people, and market the event much like the functions a business carries out. I provide key materials like soft drinks to sell and a soccer ball. They provide labor and can keep any proceeds they earn. After a week strengthening their group and running really simple lessons, I headed back to Monrovia.

On a Sunday morning, I decided to have breakfast at the Mabma Point hotel- one of the more sought after places to stay. It was booked, of course, with VIPs to attend the inauguration. At breakfast there were no empty tables, so I looked around and noticed a strong looking older guy (probably 70+ years old) eating cucumbers, olives and an open faced sandwich. I thought it was an interesting choice for breakfast, so I asked if I could join. As it turns out, this man is the oldest living diplomat to Liberia who happens to be Greek. In my usual, perhaps naïve style, I began asking this guy questions: What does it mean to be the oldest diplomat to Liberia? What is the connection between Liberia and Greece? I learned that the connection was through shipping- Greece a small country of 10 million people owns and operates the largest fleet of sea-going vessels in the world. Liberia, a war-torn country of 3.5 million people maintains the world’s first or second largest registry of sea-going ships. I didn’t quite understand all of the technical details of the shipping industry, but I got the point that Liberia and Greece were related through the ownership and operation of commercial sea vessels.

I learned that this man started his career in the Greek Navy and could remember being trained by Americans during Greece’s own civil conflict in the 1940s and 1950s. He then moved into the shipping business and got involved in diplomacy (I don’t know the exact order) and worked until he became a millionaire and “oldest living diplomat to Liberia,” a station which means he has known all the presidents- Tubman, Doe, Taylor and now Sirleaf.

At first, I felt really uncomfortable sharing a table with this man- because I felt out-classed, and I thought I shared nothing in common. What could I say about Liberian politics, shipping, or being a millionaire that would be interesting conversation? But, wow, how amazing would it be to get to pick this guy’s brain? Soon we were joined by a French friend of his.

What I gained from our conversation was an appreciation for their high-level point of view as contrasted from my on the ground view. We started our conversation in a similar way that all of us who travel frequently start- we talk about international routes, airlines and accommodations.  These two guys complained that there were no direct flights to Liberia and that instead they were continuations of legs of flights that originally ended in Conakry, Accra or Abidjan. I think at a higher level, they didn’t know that this was due to Liberia’s poor infrastructure in what it takes to prepare a 747 for international travel- ability to refuel, clean, replace food items, and run a security check. All of these things are done on stops before reaching Monrovia.

Onto the next topic- a five star hotel. These guys thought it would be necessary for a chain like Marriott or Raddison to open a five star hotel.  I got nothing. For the last week I had bathed out of a bucket, used electricity for 4 hours a day, eaten king rats, and not seen myself in a mirror (thank god).  With dirt under my nails, a wicked tan, and backpackers luggage, WTF do I know about 5 star hotels? So to me, such a luxury was an un-needed waste of money. But to these guys it was the ability to host business and government people, which bring important investment to a country.

We then started a topic- USA bashing, a topic that has always humbled me from my very first travels some 15 years ago! Doe, an uneducated rebel nothing started Liberia’s protracted civil war posited my rich Greek dining companion. How could a no-name do that with no backing? Following Doe, Charles Taylor was in a Boston prison before he began his hostile takeover of Liberia. How could he escape an American prison? Kissinger, on his visit to Liberia stayed only 2 hours at the airport. With powerful American diplomats who have no idea who or what they are backing, it was no wonder American foreign policy has left so many places with despot leaders. The guy followed with rich details of these leaders wearing 20K watches in front of starving citizens. According to him, Liberia in the 1980s was a “paradise.”

Now this is where we differed. I reminded him that Liberia is a nation of 16 tribal groups that is and was governed by an elite class of re-settled slaves who had come from the US.  Could it be that these elite fattened themselves to such a shameful extent that their paisanos felt unjustly removed from the wealth gained on their backs? Though never elected, Doe was among those poor. To this day Liberia continues to be a country of such dis-unity, which, according to the President, is one of the main hindrances to Liberia’s prosperity.  At the end of the day, both of us were right. Liberia’s long civil war was likely a result of unequal discontent between the poor and small elite as well as mis-fire from the cavalier “don’t-know, don’t care” attitude of diplomats like Kissinger.

We then had an interesting discussion about the Chinese versus the American (which let me also say is the European) style of foreign aid. If Americans want to build a bridge they spend millions of dollars flying people around on expensive flights, staying in hotels and performing studies. At the end of the day it takes longer to build the bridge and Americans have benefitted greatly. The Chinese, on the other hand, bring in people and just build. In less than 1/3 the time, the bridge is built. Why do Americans ride around in fancy cars and waste time? I didn’t totally disagree. I think the aid system is filled with mismanagement and waste. However, since the Chinese have not been in the business of aid for over 60 years as have the Americans, we can’t really say the price of that aid.  Americans, at first demanded, that countries not be communist. Now Americans want to see capitalism, democracies and the up-holding of civil rights. Who knows what the Chinese will demand in return? Will they demand the leasing of resource-rich land, which they mine with their own workers thereby taking minerals and leaving a huge gap in local human capacity? While Americans use many locally procured things, the Chinese bring their own. How does this affect the economy? Are the Chinese willing to update and maintain the infrastructure they build once the resources of a country are depleted? Are the Chinese mining in environmentally conscious ways or will they leave the land barren? (Although look at Chevron / Texaco in Ecuador).  I didn’t talk about this, since I largely agreed with his point that American foreign aid needs to be more efficient.

Though I did point out that the UN (not the military)- World Food Program, Development Program etc had private jets, cars etc. In fact, the UN gives their employees far better benefits, travel accommodations, and salary than American NGOs or their private sector counterparts. The European Commission is the same and in fact the bureaucracies of these 2 enormous organizations means that delivering aid takes even longer. So in effect, the European governments are as guilty of the Americans for a cumbersome, and sometimes misguided aid system.

Our final topic, was the age-old topic of trickle down. I agreed with my counterparts that private sector engagement to hire people was much needed. However, I re-joined, who are they going to hire? I gave them a reality check about what it means (bribing) to graduate from one of the two universities here in Liberia. I explained the concept of “poaching” which means that a company is not invested in training people knowing that there is such a dearth for skilled labor that another company will just hire that person. As a result, people are trained to do a simple task without ever taking on greater responsibilities because a driver who might be able to manage other drivers would be quickly absorbed. Is it any wonder the Lebanese companies who control much on the commerce in Liberia never have Liberian managers? I’ve never seen a Liberian manage money at a Lebanese controlled business like a grocery store, restaurant or hotel. So to me, the private sector is somewhat stuck until people are educated and not as social scientists (as they are now) but as engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and managers.

After an exciting breakfast, I’m off to the field- feeling nervous about the success of my work there.

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