Monday, November 16, 2009


Quite often in Monrovia you meet someone in his or her mid-twenties who is essentially running a local ministry. These are typically Americans or Europeans in the process of earning an advanced degree. They arrive on prestigious well-paid fellowships to enjoy unprecedented insight into and influence over what is still, in many ways, a transitional government.

Over beers and amongst their peers, I have often heard these fellows express their incredulity (sometimes boastfully) at the magnitude of the responsibilities that they are given--or the responsibilities that they take, depending on their style. They write strategic documents, advise on the formation of all sorts of national policy and even exercise authority over who is hired to senior positions in the ministries with which they work.

Of course, these are tremendous opportunities for the motivated and well-educated northerners who are already firmly within the pipeline to positions of greater and greater power. What gets me is how young Liberians are totally cut out of the equation. The minister who may benefit from the assistance and hard work of these fellows is invariably much older and quite often a presidential appointee, someone at the top of his or her career, and therefore, arguably, someone harder to influence or mentor. That makes this a dodgy exercise in capacity-building and something much more suited to knowledge-acquisition and, I would guess, subtle acts of ideological bullying.

Perhaps if these fellows were required to have young Liberian assistants for the duration of their fellowships and perhaps if they were required to provide as much mentoring and experience for these Liberians as possible, the programs would have a greater long-term impact. This would at least be training the next generation of leaders and ensuring a relatively high amount of transparency and accountability with regards to the work of these fellows. Or, perhaps those young Liberians would be totally scandalized to find inexperienced and immature young foreigners tinkering with the formation of their state.

Of course, I've found many of these fellows to be extremely capable, respectful, fair, intelligent, well-intentioned and even grateful. I don't mean to imply that that they are doing great harm or that they are the instrument of some malevolent force. I do, however, think that while they are a gift to the elder statesmen in whose wakes they follow, they may be a curse to young aspiring Liberian politicians who may be edged out of their government system by people who will only spend six months to a year in a tiny country that they rarely knew anything about before stepping off their planes at Robertsfield International Airport.

Lastly, in its historical context, the legacy left behind by young Western economists and advisers in the developing world, gives cause for deep cynicism about this model of "aid," its motives and its real impact.


  1. Well observed and aptly posted. I'm glad you point this out, and wonder what kind of traction and opinions we'll get both online and in face-to-face discussions of this issue out and about.