Is Liberia a success story? A few weeks ago, I was at a party with a bunch of development and aid people, when Liberia came up in conversation. Everyone seemed to agree that President Sirleaf has taken Liberia from a war-torn nation that destabilized the region to a poster-child for post-conflict democracy.
To be sure, the prominence of Liberia’s president- her increasing respect among Western thinkers and politicians- has probably been a net good for Liberia’s recovery. Getting rid of the foreign debt acquired during the civil wars, increasing investment, and maintaining a shaky peace, all while more than 100,000 refugees enter your country from Cote D’Ivore are signs of stability and steps towards progress.
And yet, I was somewhat conflicted hearing people describe Liberia as a success. Knowing the stories of the children More than Me helps send to school, seeing where they live, and talking to their parents, it is clear that there is a long road ahead. Additionally, the continued presence of the UN Mission in Liberia, and its thousands of peace keeping troops, means that the present peace is more tenuous than organic; there is no guarantee that the country would remain stable if UNMIL exited tomorrow.
A lot of the measures of success that were mentioned in the conversation I had, debt forgiveness for example, are certainly good on paper, but seem somewhat removed from people’s daily lives.
The U.S. State Department’s 2010 Human Rights Report on Liberia highlights this disconnect between the letter of the law- of progress as reported- and the way things are for average Liberians. For example, the report states:
“While primary education is compulsory and tuition-free, many schools still charged informal fees to pay unpaid teachers and to cover operating costs that prevented many students from attending. Fees continued for secondary school, and the government was unable to provide for the needs of the majority of children. In both public and private schools, families of children were required to provide their own uniforms, books, pencils, paper, and even desks.”
Indeed, education, on paper, is supposed to be provided to all Liberian children, but for many children, notably in West Point where More than Me currently works, it is something to hope for, rather than part of their daily routine. As the above quote notes, teachers often go unpaid, which means favors are often solicited for good grades and advancement.
More than Me’s work helps fill in the gap between the large, structural changes taking place on paper and in offices in Monrovia, and people’s needs on the streets of West Point. When we talk to our scholarship recipients, not only are they overjoyed because they are actually in school, often for the first time, but it is amazing to hear how an education changes their lives right away.
The girls who receive scholarships talk about having more confidence, feeling hopeful, and being proud, and their parents echo these feelings. Education can help rebuild a nation, but this takes time. The smiles and lessons learned, the new skills acquired all change the lives of children right away, and will change their families, communities, and opportunities available in the future.
The World Bank estimates that it takes an average of 27 years to tackle corruption in developing nations; ending corruption is just one step toward permanent stability. The combined work of President Sirleaf and other leaders, as well as small, “on the ground” non-profits, will help meet the needs of people today, while providing the groundwork for a stable tomorrow.
What counts as success? Every child in school? Every person having access to running water? When all of the NGOs can pack up and declare that their work is done? In 30 years we may be able to look at Liberia and definitively say. Until then, a slow progress with instant results- the first day of class, learning how to read, the pride that comes from going to school- is a good way to move towards a better future for all Liberians. It seems too early to write Liberia off as a success (this is the fourth poorest nation by GDP we are talking about), but seeing the impact that going to school can have on the girls who get scholarships, and knowing what results this can have, there is plenty to be excited about.