Friday 19 October 2012

Liberia: warlords or peacemakers?

Watch this video to get a sense of where a country feted by the UN and others as being the future of African post conflict statehood is at. And prepare to be shocked. You're about to hear directly from women forced into prostitution and of  children forced to fight in a civil war that was so apocolyptic it is known as world war three by Liberians themselves.

I visited Liberia at the end of 2008 and travelled around the rural areas that seemed yet to feel any sense of progress after the war had finished. While negotiating various unofficial roadblocks it appeared the UN force in the country simply hunkered down behind their sandbags and counted the days till they could leave. I remember the bizarre sight of a Bangladeshi military camp right in the middle of one of the poorest countries in West Africa, who had erected a massive billboard proclaiming that Bangladesh was ripe for inward investment.

Banga County, Liberia
Not sure how many of the subsistence farmers went for that one.

I also, on the other hand, remember interviewing a pastor in Nimba County who was the chair of a local radio station dedicated to broadcasting news to the local population both in Liberia and in the refugee camps over the border in Guinea. He told me that large numbers of his swelling congregation were newly returned refugees and that they had come back because of what he had been able to tell them over the radio, about their rights in the post-war Liberia, and how land disputes, between them and the people who had moved on to their land after they'd fled, would be settled. He had genuine hope for the future and was one of the many inspiring people who quietly do transformative work without asking for any kind of recognition.

So what's the point of this post? Two reasons.

First off it's a timely reminder to all of us currently engaged in detailed policy debates that can often seem very abstract and impenetrable to anyone that doesn't speak our brand of development or peacebuilding jargon, to remember it's ultimately all about people.

Kids in Nimba County, Liberia
Take the young woman forced in to prostitution interviewed on the video, clearly under the influence of heroin to numb the pain of what she is having to do to earn money, who says she wants to open her beautician business. She has her certificate of education and doesn't understand why she's still in the brothel.

Is her voice heard in all of our complex policy papers, and position statements? If we can't answer that question straight away, then we have a problem. I'm not sure everything I write gives her a voice, and I bet I'm not the only one.

Which brings me to the second point. It's too easy to be taken in by alluring statistics and narratives about just how much progress Liberia and countries like it has made. One of the most depressing scenes on this video is the sight of the beach in West Point Monrovia, which doubles as as a mass latrine.

While I was in New York last month I met a number of Liberian civil society colleagues who told me what they thought of what their President, lauded around the world as the only democratically elected female leader in Africa, had done. And it wasn't quite as complimentary. 

Fishtown, SE Liberia: Beautiful, but shortly after this shot I sought refuge in a UN camp!
The UN Mission in Liberia, UNMIL, is set to withdraw soon. You have to hope that the former warlords interviewed in this remarkable film do not return to their previous occupations. What will play a large part in ensuring they don't is the building up of alternative voices for peace, outside the ranks of the Government and among people like that pastor, working with newly returned refugees to nudge people away from confrontation with each other.

That's what builds resilience - the ability to manage internal conflict and external shocks without the use of violence. So quite important, then, that we start to agree among ourselves what this resilience thing is actually all about.

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