Monday, 28 May 2012

The Pope's Butler Gets Arrested

What was in these sensitive documents and how did the butler get a hold of them? Wouldn't the butler be in charge of serving tea and ironing the pope's hat?

“Well, whatever one thinks of the Roman Church, it is a worthy and powerful foe. I could accept that sort of conversion with grace. But I shall be very disappointed indeed if we lose him to the Presbyterians.”

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I can't stop laughing at the recent international headlines concerning the arrest of the Pope's butler who was apparently charged with leaking sensitive documents. 

Here's a random list of the headlines from various sites:

Pope's Butler Charged in 'Vatileaks' Scandal  at Aljzeera
Did the pope's butler, Paolo Gabriele, really do it? at the Daily Beast
Vatican in Chaos after Pope's Butler Arrested for Leaks at Huffingtonpost

I did not even know the Pope had a butler or that his personal assistant was referred to as a butler. I thought butlers were an English countryside aristocratic novelty. 

OK, so now we know the Pope has a butler. What was in these sensitive documents and how did the butler get a hold of them? Wouldn't the butler be in charge of serving tea and ironing the pope's hat? How would he get a hold of tell-tale memos on corruption and cronyism, as claimed the press? 

The Vatican or the Holy See is a state of its own ruled by a fellow called the Pope. So, whenever he goes abroad,  the man with the funny hat has all the powers and privileges as head of a state. He drives around in a funny car called the Pope Mobile.

But, that's not all. The Vatican is the administrative seat of one of the most powerful religious institutions in the world: the Catholic Church. Even the word powerful is not powerful enough to really describe what the Catholic Church was and still is. 

It is infamous in history for equalling the power of kings during Europe's Dark Ages; it has waged wars to free the Holy Land; it has burned witches; it has held deadly inquisitions; it has house imprisoned pretty decent scientists; new worlds have been pillaged and conquered in its name; its priests have molested little innocent children; and it has inspired some awesome cathedrals and paintings. 

It has been a formidable institution throughout the ages. It has amassed great wealth and power. It is wrapped in mystery and holds on to centuries-old traditions and rituals. They elect new popes by blowing smoke out of chimneys.

And, guess who was about to spill all its dark secrets? Not Dan Brown but the Butler! So close! Now, he's rotting away in a heavily-guarded room in some tower in the Vatican. 

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Great Trial and the Great Verdict

A Review of Local Paper Headlines Regarding Charles Taylor's Trial in The Hague 

Here are a few local paper headlines declaring and predicting the outcome of the Great Trial around the time of the verdict of Charles Taylor's trial in The Hague:

Bong Wants 'Not Guilty' Verdict for Taylor
Daily Observer: Wednesday 25 April 2012

According to this paper, various persons interviewed for a poll, are suspicious of the outcome of the trial and believe not enough evidence was presented against Charles Taylor. The paper goes on to say "From the opinion poll conducted by this paper, it can be said that Taylor's popularity among locals of Bong continues to swell, despite his being tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity."

Liberian Nostalgia for War Criminal Charles Taylor discusses something similar. It talks about "dictatorship nostalgia." Some people still remember Taylor as a charismatic and kind leader. 

The Analyst's headline (Wednesday, 25 April) was "No Cause for Alarm - Gov't says of verdict in Taylor's trial:" 

The government advised the public to trust the International Court's verdict and that justice would be done. It was important for the government to placate an 'divided' population which still contains Taylor's supporters. The paper states: "Others, mainly his supporters, have however been arguing that not only is Taylor innocent of all charges levied against him, but that the indictment violated his right to immunity as a then sitting president, that it has subordinated Liberian sovereignty to that of Sierra Leone, and that the trial was politically motivated."  Further, there are those who question the selectivity of international justice:

"They wondered why, if the international community was serious about punishing those who bore the greatest responsibilities for war crime and crime against humanity, former warlords - Alhaji Kromah, Roosevelt Johnson (deceased), George Boley, Sekou Konneh, and Thomas Yaya Nimely - were allowed to roam Liberia freely." 

The article goes on to say that explanations that Taylor was only being tried for his role in "empowering Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to destroy Sierra Leone and decimate its population has done very little to change the minds of Taylor's supporters about justice and jurisdiction." 

Amidst this confusion, especially indignation that the international community has only "given a passive nod" to Liberia's TRC Report, the government has tried to placate the population and called on them to "remain calm, peaceful, and pray for the nation and peace." 

The New Democrat's headline "Impunity Slammed US, Britain Warn Off Long Arm of International Justice" on 30 April talks about international support for the outcome of this trial and hails the historic moment:

Washington and London are reported to be supporting the verdict as a warning to other warlords and dictators. 

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague "said Taylor's conviction on charges of arming Sierra Leonean rebels in a brutal civil war was proof that national leaders could not hide behind immunity." 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also gave a statement: " the historic moment in the development of international justice meant tyrannical rulers could no longer retire on blood money." 

The US State Department also has similar comments and so did the EU foreign policy chief as well as the French Foreign Minister. 

The international community is proud of having taken to task its first head of state for war crimes, for having taken a swing against impunity, war crimes, and dictatorships. 

The same paper has a striking set of photographs of Charles Taylor entitled "Prisoner, President, Prisoner Charles Taylor & The Tragic End of A Violent, Colourful Ambition." 

The New Democrat's 27 April paper is also full of articles about the outcome of the trial. One headline reads "Life in Jail? Taylor found guilty of rape, murder, torture, looting...." and "Why will Charles Taylor be jailed in Britain?" It discusses how the UK agreed to host Taylor as a prisoner as the Dutch authorities refused to put him in their jail in case he was found guilty. Sierra Leoneans are asking why Taylor will serve a sentence in the UK instead of going to a real jail like the notorious Pademba Road jail in Sierra Leone. 

Another headline reads "Amputees' Nervous Moment." Thousands of innocent people had their limbs hacked off and apparently justice has been served to them but under the picture reads a question "Sierra Leone's amputees - what next after justice?" 

Still another article reads "Naomi's Evidence Was Critical." Undoubtedly, other critical pieces of evidence must have been presented in this trial, but it is rather outlandish to think that a supermodel's flimsy testimony was critical in such a supposedly historic trial but it clearly was:

The last article I want to make mention of is "Justice for S/Leone, Not Liberia" in the Daily Observer on 27 April. 

While Western powers are hailing the victory against Africa's Big Man Impunity, other human rights organisations are reminding everyone that crimes committed in Liberia have still not been punished. 

Global Witness warned that both Liberia and Sierra Leone need to make sure their natural resources are not misappropriated again: "The Taylor verdict comes as both West African countries struggle to restructure their natural resource industries. Sierra Leone is again exporting diamonds and has recently found oil off of its coast. Liberia - which emerged from conflict in 2003 - has adopted new forestry laws and is starting to establish its own oil sector. But reforms in both countries have met considerable difficulties." Furthermore: "In Liberia, massive new logging and plantation concessions have been awarded, several in violation of the country's laws, which risk mass displacement of local people. Sierra Leone has also attracted big investments in plantations, as well as mining. These could help the country escape its dependence on foreign aid, but may also entrench corruption and cause environmental damage." 

Tail End: Trials attract a lot of controversy and there are many many facets and angles to any case. Charles Taylor's trial for crimes against humanity is unique and represents the international community's experimentation with criminal justice for crimes against humanity. Even seen in its best light and steering away from conspiracy theories, this trial is a messy job. It is a crude analysis of a complex civil war, of intra and inter state politics, and justice. It is difficult to conclude that justice has indeed been served, even for Sierra Leoneans. It is difficult to stay away from allegations of selective justice: the head of state of one country has been singled out as a master strategist for civil war in another country while he has not, by the same token, been held accountable for crimes against his own people. The same audience which is repulsed and yet morbidly obsessed with the ugliness of a civil war - blood diamonds, child soldiers, warlords, cannibalism and so on - fails to decry the strange logic of this criminal trial which has failed to connect all the dots in the regional civil war. Why and how is the world celebrating this verdict without asking itself who bought the diamonds? Who bought Liberia's timber? Who all benefitted from this war? Further still, did not thousands of persons take part in this civil war? Can we lay blame on a single person? 

And lastly, it is difficult to swallow powerful countries' i.e. US and Britain satisfaction - nay, smugness - at the outcome for this trial. A poor country's ex-head of state being taken to task - especially when he alone was not responsible for the mayhem and was able to sell the resources he expertly plundered in his country in Western markets - is hardly a score against crimes against humanity. Richer and militarily more powerful countries like the US and Britain have caused way more mayhem in recent memory but unfortunately, architects of those misadventures will unlikely ever have to account or even apologise for them. 

Monday, 7 May 2012

I'm b-o-r-e-d

I'm bored. 

I'm bored of Facebook. I'm bored of PF Consultants. I'm bored of Settlers of Catan. I'm bored of one-day weekends. I'm bored (so over) of international development. I'm bored of Randall Street. I'm bored of stupid idiots applying to work at NATC and then back stabbing us. I'm bored of freeloaders. I'm bored of my own rants. 

I would like to ban Facebook for a while

I'm bored of Facebook because after loving it, I realise it's just a back-slapping, praise-yourself, and self-indulgent forum. You put up random pictures of your boring life and then, people hit 'Like' and say corny things about your weight fluctuations. You whine, moan, pontificate and exclam-ate and secretly hope 'friends' will post comments. You think you are different from all the rest and only post very insightful pearls of wisdom or hilariously witty observations.  In fact, you constantly try to come up with witty things to say and post them as your Facebook status. You scour Facebook every morning instead of scouring the news. People do not e-mail you but 'Inbox' you. Certain pictures and videos go viral and, suddenly everyone is 'Liking' and 'Sharing' them.  No matter how much of an individualist you want to be, you are part of the stupid Facebook herd of cows.  Facebook definitely takes over one's life. Certain key events and happenings are only advertised on Facebook. People form their little snobby clubs on Facebook. Humph!

I was initially quite addicted to Facebook because it was such a fun way to connect with friends, share photographs, share great articles (and start anti-Western, anti-imperial, anti-American hate fests), and find old friends and teachers. Facebook keeps up with birthdays so one could wish one's friends on time. I would eagerly see what friends are up to and, post comments. But, it feels so dumb now. I feel Facebook is for unimaginative, un-bold, and conformist cave men and women. The last thing I want to do now is to see an amateur photograph or read a dumb status like 'Thanks to everyone who made my birthday such a special day. Muuuuaaaah.' 

The hyper active do-gooders of this world

I'm so bored of meeting the young, naive and really annoying aid worker. I discard everyone into the same old 'aid worker' category: the UN, the big fat international NGOs, the really cheap and insignificant international NGOs, the World Bank, the JICA's, the SIDA's, all of them. These young kids are the hyper active do-gooders of this world, who have come to Africa, to save it from poverty, civil strife and disease. They think they are anti-capitalist radicals but all they really do all day is to compare cultures and quickly become cynical about what they are doing and are really in it for money or for adventure. And, they go around saying really cringing-ly embarrassing things like 'I'm roughing it in Africa.' They are an really annoying lot, whom you can find in their throngs at Saaj Restaurant on a Friday night pretending to learn Salsa, at Mamba Point hotel furiously typing away at their laptops, or walking down Randall Street in flip flops and other beach gear. 

I guess I find young people in their 20s really annoying because I clearly remember how annoying I was although I should give them chance. After all, my older and wiser friends indulged me and let me get away with saying a lot of dumb things.

I find it bewildering that 20-somethings are getting jobs with international development organisations in poor countries. I speak from experience: no matter how brilliant you are, by virtue of your youth and lack of experience, you are not trained to live and work in poverty-stricken countries, forget about having any real credentials. You have no idea how to criss cross cultures and be sensitive and respectful. You probably do not even have the faintest historical idea of the post-conflict or poverty-stricken society you are about to go live and work in. And, most likely neither does your organisation give you any orientation. The UN definitely does not. 

It seems like the aid industry is just that - an industry. Everyone is on short-term contracts and are just looking for the next gig. There's very little passion in it. This would be OK if it were any other industry but we are talking about very serious political issues which require more than just job seekers moving from one country to another every two or three years, basically just working for their organisations rather than any country and really only answerable to their organisations who are in turn accountable only to donors. 

As far as real experience is concerned, getting a degree in international development or international politics does not give you the credentials to rock up in 'Africa' and, get to embed yourself in the host Government or write policy or analysis. It's almost insulting! 

I would imagine international development would at least have the courtesy to keep their organisations stocked with experienced, grey-haired, and really-experienced experts. Why do they need to fill up country offices with PF consultants to write reports, conduct monitoring trips and write minutes of meetings? In short, how does international development justify its bloated organisations? Why has it become so bureaucratic and techno-cratic?

The philosophical debates and questions about international development could go on endlessly. 

The main point here is that it's really annoying to try to socialise with the UN/NGO crowd. They live in their own worlds and pepper their conversations with being bored of boring meetings, not making enough DSA, and generally being quite oblivious to anything outside of their big compounds, weekend pool parties, and R&R breaks every two months. 

Settlers of Catan 

I'm really bored of not having won a single game in a year! Haresh and I are kicking ourselves for having created Catan monsters out of his cousins who we taught the game. We go there every week to play and get our asses kicked every single time. 

Haresh taught his first cousin to play and the fellow taught his wife, his staff and now they are all better than us! Week after week, Haresh and I suffer humiliating losses yet, we go back to their house to try to regain our honour but no way

So, yes, I'm bored of losing. 

One-Day Weekends

I'm bored of only having Sunday off. Most businesses and offices in Monrovia are open Monday through Saturday's and, so do we. 

I want to go back to two-day weekends. At least for a little while. 

Randall Street Blues

It's ugly, it's got no lilac trees, no larks and it literally stinks. 

Back Stabbers

We are back to where we started which means, I only have about 1.5 technicians in the company who are there to handle 10 clients. It's a frustrating position to be in. After advertising and re-advertising job vacancies, spreading the word by mouth, we are really facing a difficult time in terms of hiring, retaining and nurturing good staff. 

I've had people resign without even a day's notice.

I get staff who say they are going back to school but really, they are going to another job. 

I've had e-mail resignations. 

I get jokesters who only know how to work iTunes and think they know IT. 

The UN and NGO sector is really distorting the job market. They pay above-the-market salaries and churn out so-called IT staff who are using receiving fat commissions from local vendors for IT supplies. These guys are used to spending money rather than making money. They're used to receiving DSA's whenever they go out of town. And, I'm afraid this sector doesn't encourage ingenuity or innovation so I am never too impressed with the former UN/NGO-er applicants. Moreover, the few odd ones don't want to start out at a probatory salary either even though they don't have jobs because their contract expired! 


These are some of the lowest forms around. I cannot even begin to describe my loathing of this species.  I am shocked that people think they can just free load on your generosity, your couch, your terrace, your electricity, your everything. I am befuddled that one invites people to dinner parties and drinks over and over again and no one reciprocates! I am disgusted that most of the tenants in our building do not really care about keeping their environs clean and neat and don't offer to jump in now that I am trying to give a more pleasant look to the building. 

I can't stand cheapsters. I can't stand free loaders. 

I'm so bored with literally everyone I meet in Liberia. The conservative Indians go around saying 'kaala kaala.' The young Lebanese guys are partying with the PF Consultants and hoping to score some chicks. The UN crowd is so living in its own world of gated compounds, big white land cruisers and vacations every two months. The NGO kids are saving the world. The average Liberian is making ends meet. The polite society of Liberia is really reserved although they are the best bet. 

All in all, I am bored. I wish I had my best girlfriends close to me so I could enjoy some good conversations, sturdy debates, some good gossips, long walks and movie night marathons. 

I really want to meet and interact with some interesting people. 


I'm bored of ranting about everything and nothing ever changes. 

Actually, I'm not bored of ranting. It's the only thing that releases that pent up hot air and makes me laugh. 

Tail end: I'm feeling so bored and over everything these days. So now that I've counted down the top things which bore me to death, I should say that I am enjoying blogging, gardening and walking these days. I hope to also solve some of NATC's staffing problems and devote some time to that. I hope to get back to my abandoned, tattered, and barely alive still-pending masters requirements so I can close that chapter. I guess there's a lot to keep me busy and inspired for some time. Let's hope I feel less bored. 

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Basic Facts About the Pimple Faced Consultant

See below some basic facts about the pimple-faced consultant (PF Consultant):

1) Has been planted by donors in government ministries as a hapless spy as part of aid conditionality to meet objectives of Orwellian-Speak International Development projects such as Good Governance and Capacity Building.

2) Recently graduated from a Western university with a degree like International Development, Development Economics, or Health and Policy.

3) Limited actual experience in assisting poor countries lift themselves out of poverty.

4) Limited actual experience in anything.

5) Bushy-tailed, wide-eyed and really naive. Throws around phrases and words excitedly such as "Morocco is insanely developed."

6) Thinks he or she is going to save the world.

7) Thinks he or she is too cool  for living and working in Africa.

8) Is allowed to penetrate the Government and contribute to the erosion of the sovereignty of a state, even if it is poor.

9) Has no clue about how he or she fits into the agenda behind International Development which is to pave way for capitalism.

10) Thinks development is an adventure, just like they show it in Hollywood movies.

I seem to be running into the pimple-faced consultant now and then. In fact, it seems every second expatriate I meet is embedded within the Government. This is the typical introduction:

"Hello, how are you and what is it that you are doing in Liberia?" (Me)

"I work at the Ministry of Finance." (PF Consultant)

"Whaaat? This kid who looks like he/she is definitely not Liberian works in the Liberia state apparatus? What the heck? This is incredible. This is part of the capitalist neo-liberal conspiracy to erode the sovereignty of poor, aid-dependent countries. I am so indignant. This is ex-ac-ed-ly what I am angry about. This is ex-ac-ed-ly what SOAS was talking about. Wow! I just had an incredible insight." (Me - thinking!)

"And what is it that you do at the Ministry of Finance?" (Me)

"I assist the Minister in achieving more transparency and building capacity." (PF Consulant)

"Oh God. God help Liberia." (Me - thinking!)

"And how do you build capacity?" (Me)

"I conduct trainings." (PF Consulant)

"Have you ever conducted trainings or have received trainings in conducting training for Government Ministries?" (Me)

"No." (PF Consultant)

"OK." (Me)

"God!" (Me - thinking!)

Friday, 4 May 2012

Aid and Trade: Two Sides of the Same Coin: Doing Business in and with Liberia

One of my friends from the Lebanese community recently told me that when I first met him, I started ranting about how the Lebanese business community in Liberia is sucking Liberia's blood; that the Lebanese are exploiting the locals; they use corrupt business practices; and are minting millions! I laughed hard when I heard that and asked him what he thought about me. He said he thought I was one of those typical aid-crowd expatriates who had no clue about anything at all but definitely was full of herself. He said he let it go because we had only just met but if I had continued with the same tirade again, he would have taken me to task. 

This was most likely way back in 2004 or 2005 at a birthday party of a mutual friend, and now it has been almost ten years since I have been living and working in Liberia. I came to Liberia with the aid wave in October 2003, hardly a couple months after the Accra Peace Agreement was signed in August 2003. Six years later, I joined the trade wave, I switched allegiances, I gave up the pretentious, dysfunctional and extremely profitable world of "saving the world," and became a capitalist. 

It has been 2 years since I became a hard-hearted capitalist and I am not yet making even a third of my salary at the UNDP. I guess I am not sucking enough Liberian blood. 

When I think about how childish and knee-jerk-y my initial reactions to the business community were, I cringe when I think about how disrespectful and offensive I must have been to a lot of business folks or for that matter, a lot of persons way more experienced and worldly than I was at that pimple-faced-hardly-in-my-20s point of my life. In fact, I even remember insulting my landlord on the phone one day after having suffered through a day without electricity. He quietly told me to look for another apartment. Thankfully, I apologised to him a couple of years later for having ignored my childish tantrums. 

I have a bit of self-righteous snobbiness to my personality and I always feel like blurting opinions out without really thinking too much about them. And lastly, I come from a bratty background, having enjoyed all the perks and privileges of having grown up in the capitals of the world, thanks to my father's diplomatic career; this life somehow led me to believe I knew everything. 

So, after all this time, have I managed to get a clearer and less offensive idea of how the various business communities operate in Liberia? Or why does the young, bushy-tailed aid crowd have such snobby and distorted views of the local business communities for I keep hearing these opinions whenever I do end up crossing paths with these young, do-gooder's? What is the truth?

I guess the average expatriate who arrives in Liberia to save it from itself is confronted by a very skewed view of Liberia. Out of their international workplace full of people all over the world and local staff, they only interact with 'foreigners' who are either their local supermarket owners, their landlords, their favourite restaurant owners and so on. Somehow, the aid worker believes that the local economy is being controlled by 'foreigners' - the Indian and Lebanese communities who are laughing all the way to the bank. They will see Liberians working for Indians and Lebanese, often in unskilled, subordinate positions. They might even have seen a Lebanese or Indian man or woman screaming their heads off at a Liberian. They will notice that goods and services are quite expensive and they are getting ripped off! Needless to say, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that the 'foreign business communities' are blood-sucking leeches who should be ashamed of themselves. 

In my own slow learning process, I certainly came to appreciate what a business owner goes through. In fact, I came to romanticise the entrepreneurial spirit because my boyfriend had started a business from scratch in Liberia. I knew what he went through to set up a company, hire local people, having had to create and train a team of technicians, fight for contracts and struggle against a local culture of corruption. Wesley's passion for IT, for working for oneself, for feeling responsible for his staff and for creating something wonderful was quite contagious and, I started to appreciate a bit more what a 'businessman' is. After all, I grew up in a bureaucratic background with my father having served his government faithfully for almost 40 years, and having had very little 'real' interaction with business owners, I could never understand or appreciate it. 

Because Wesley was my boyfriend and I really respected the hard work he put in and how much he believed in helping people realise their full potential, I came to see his style of business as superior to what I saw otherwise. But then again, his line of work was specialised, service-oriented and quite unique in those early years of post-conflict Liberia. I got a very small glimpse of the business community through Wesley and clearly, it was not the full picture. 

The real mental leap that needs to be made here is to ask oneself why the local economy is controlled by so-called foreigners? And why are these people even considered foreigners by Liberians?

Liberia, to date, has not managed to reform its outdated constitution which does not award citizenship freely. For example, even if you have been born here, even if you have spent almost all your life here, even if you have grown to love palm butter, and are for all practical purposes a Liberian, you cannot acquire citizenship unless you have African ancestry. In other words, you need to be black and/or have black biological parenthood. Therefore, even though a significant portion of the Indian and Lebanese business communities have either been born here, spent most of their lives here, live and work here, and even speak the Liberian English, they are considered 'foreigners.' They have to pay 'foreign business' taxes and permit fees even though they know the ins and outs of doing business better than anyone else. They are the real local businesses. 

Furthermore, Liberia seems to have historically had very little industry of its own; thrived on a raw-materials-export economy; and, had a very small if non-existent "Liberian" entrepreneurial class. 

It seems that Liberia and Liberians had no problem with a Lebanese businessman own and operate the biggest supermarket in Monrovia; everyone fondly remembers Abou Jaoudi as a really nice supermarket in the 1980s (it is now called Harbel Supermarket and is still quite a great place to get your weekly groceries from, it's well stocked and prices are good considering that everything has to be imported from abroad). Other friends of mine tell me that Camp Johnson Road was the Indian quarter of Monrovia with supermarkets, clothes shops and so on. Still others rave about Broad Street and all the  fabulous shops that used to be there, that one could get the latest fashions from Paris. That's small business talk. 

Then there's reminiscing for big foreign-owned extraction industry. People are proud of having grown up in or worked in entire mining towns created and operated by foreign companies. Why are they so proud that foreign companies came into Liberia, extracted all their minerals and exported it in raw form? And, Liberia hardly has any local production and the worst possible infrastructure you can speak of. 

Apparently, Liberia was so amazing and well connected to the rest of the world that one could take a swim at the beach in the morning and go ski in the Swiss alps in the afternoon. Doesn't one love hearing the old folks reminisce and get misty about the 'good old days?'

But, as I usually end up interrupting my friends over-excitedly, "good old days for who? good old days for who?" Clearly, only for a select few. 

One does not really need to read any article nor big fat academic analysis to understand Liberia. Even before I went to London to pursue a masters in Violence, Conflict and Development and ended up reading a lot about Liberia and could use fancy words to talk about Liberia and rentier states and the extraction industry, I felt frustrated with a state and society which relied on outsiders to run their economy and give them jobs (besides the government which is the first job of choice). I paid my monthly rent to a person considered an outsider by the Liberians. I bought my weekly groceries from a 'foreign-owned' supermarket owner. I dined at restaurants owned by 'foreigners.' I had a vague idea of the Firestone plantation, also foreign owned. All that I knew of Liberia was a state and society that historically was outward looking, had hardly done much to develop itself, and still had a real strange and hollow sense of pride about being the first independent republic in Africa. "Independent for who?"

Since I have joined the private sector, my ideas about doing business in general and specifically, doing business in Liberia have changed. I have inherited a passion for it from having seen and observed Wesley run a company and try to have that same sense of excitement. Wesley always told me that one needs to be an inherently positive-thinking person to be able to do business, one needs to see and realise opportunities. I also love the fact that I seem to have a natural flair for being a boss and can force myself to be optimistic. So, from Wesley, I really learned about the love of creating an organisation, heading a team of people and, getting pleasure out of providing quality service to clients. I also really like dreaming about taking over the world. 

Two years into it, I also learned about the actual mechanics of running a business from Haresh, my newest life and business partner. Fate had it, I guess, that I ended up meeting someone from the Indian business community and seeing things from another perspective. Haresh was here in the 80s and left after the start of the civil war and only returned to Liberia after almost two decades. I learned a lot from his approach to business which is nothing is impossible. He attacks the local market by slashing prices. He is open to any business idea. Haresh's friendly and easy going maneuvering of our clients and business partners is infectious. Although he generously adopted the services spirit of the company, he also helped us to expand the supply side of the business. 

All in all, I love owning and running a business in Liberia. Do I feel I am part of the leeching foreign business community of Liberia? I take great offense to anyone saying that 'foreign' businesses are exploiting Liberia. First of all, Liberia has since the 1920s outsourced its local trade to outsiders. To create critical sources of income for itself, Liberia even leased large potions of its land to companies like Firestone and even helped them to brutally recruit labour. 

This outwardly looking economic policy works in a double-handed way. So, not only does the state earn revenues in terms of concessions, royalties and taxes which are official rents but because a lot of these concessions were and are still not not socially or politically in the best interest of the majority of the population (i.e. land grabbing), unofficial rents also go into the pockets of government officials. This applies to big business. 

As for the small businesses (which is where Haresh and I and our sweet little company fall under), the official rents are work and residence permits (US $ 1,000.00 per international work permit and $ 500.00 for a new residence permit and $ 250.00 for residence permit renewals), business registration renewals ($ 900.00/year) and all kinds of other fees. I find the annual work permit fees to be an atrocious extortion! Duty imports are likewise also quite high and make the business of trying to provide critical goods to an economy which does not produce much itself riddled with high costs.

These kind of operating expenses really drive up costs. On top of it, other basic amenities such as electricity and water are expensive. Even until now, although the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) has re-started its operations, users have to still 'buy' electricity from businesses who are 'selling electricity' through generators. And guess who is doing this? A lot of Lebanese businesses! Randall Street (where I live and work) has not had running water since at least one year now. The Liberia Water and Sewer Coporation is kaput and we pay about $ 20.00 per week so we can take a shower. And again, it's a Lebanese businessman who is trucking water to homes and businesses. Come to think of it, it is astounding how much basic local trade is run by the Lebanese and Indian business communities. 

I can surely appreciate why things are so expensive here - just add up basic operating costs. Even then, one is surprised at how competitive still some prices are. For example, rates for international calls via the GSM operators are cheap! I guess instead of criticising the so-called 'foreign business communities,' resourcefulness against all the possible odds needs to be appreciated. 

A company like ours makes its bread and butter by providing on sites services which need to be rendered by technicians. Despite the appalling vacuum of good schools and universities, we somehow manage to recruit, refine and nurture a pool of young Liberian IT Technicians who themselves have somehow managed to pick up IT skills here and there or were trained from scratch in-house. We somehow manage to deliver quality service to our clients - without them letting know what pains we go through in terms of the quality of human resource  - at competitive rates.  

Liberians have a poor work ethic though of no fault of theirs. It boils down to a really poor educational system - university graduates can't spell! - and an absence of a functional formal economy for almost two decades. 

I feel that the newer lot of companies are creating a professional work force as they go along. Wesley himself trained dozens of techies who now are working in all the major banks. 

This is one of the major reasons why it hurts to pay a $ 1,000 annual work permit when I am helping to create a trained, professional team in this country. Humph!

I have noticed though that when these so-called government officials come in to check our records, they almost feel annoyed when they find that our company has been religiously filing taxes. They feel cheated out of a lucrative under-the-table deal. I sometimes feel I am getting a peak into how the Liberian state actually benefits from its dysfunctional relationship with the 'foreign business communities.' I have even noticed that these fellows huff and puff when they have to deal with our local staff as if the 'foreigners' are ignoring and disrespecting their authority. In fact, one of these guys made it clear to me. I disdainfully gave him a blank stare. 

All in all, it is definitely wrong to assume that the Lebanese and Indian business communities are blood leeches. Yes, some of them have made good fortunes in this country:

- commitment to living and working despite all odds in a real hell hole
- excellent business opportunities in a country where nearly everything has to be imported
- excellent business opportunities in a country where a local business class has never been created or nurtured (the Madingoes are traditional resourceful traders like the Lebanese and Indians but are not considered Liberian!)
- excellent business opportunities where a corrupt state is a huge buyer itself

but some businesses are just getting by. Running and operating a business has high every day expenses and every day quality of life is quite poor. I mean just look around, Liberia is not paradise.  

Of course, it is still lucrative to do business here given that this country operates on an open-door policy and is very keen to let outsiders come in and run the show for them. Liberia has a dual-currency system and one has the opportunities to make money in a hard currency (US Dollar). 

I ended up joining the private sector out of circumstance and a real hard-headed stubbornness to prove everyone wrong (they all told me to go back to the UN life). I wanted to see this through and carve out a new life. And since I have done so, I do enjoy the challenges of running a company. Liberia definitely is reviving its extraction economy and I like everyone else will benefit from it. I have no qualms about it. In fact, I feel part of another kind of international bubble that is living and working in Liberia - not the aid one but the trade one. I get to meet and interact with CEOs and officers of mining companies, agricultural multinationals and international banks. In a way, I am back in that bubble lifestyle but it is more real because I manage a local business. Or maybe I am bluffing myself. 

Having discussed all the challenges of running a business and understanding the context in which 'foreign business communities' ended up controlling the local economy, I do also have some criticisms against these communities. They are not so perfect. 

One of the most shocking things I hear amongst the Indians is how they describe Liberians. They say 'kaala.' That means black. So, they will never use names for their local staff but address them as 'I'm sending my kaala over to your office.' It really disgusts me and I often have to display my absolute irritation whenever I hear this. I do not speak Arabic so I do not know whether the Lebanese have any pet names for Liberians. 

I also find that the business communities here do not really have much trust in their local staff so much so that Liberians end up only filling 'store boy' positions in their shops. One will be hard-pressed to find a Liberian in a position of real skilled responsibility. I find this common to both Lebanese and Liberian businesses. Apparently, theft and back-stabbing is quite common. Fortunately for us, Haresh and I are now running a company whose basic structure was designed around trained Liberians. I would go so far to say that I can trust my staff with my life. 

Lastly, I find most of these Lebanese and Indian traders are quite outdated in the way they conduct their business. Their shops and offices could do with a bit of upgrading; after all, image is everything. They do not believe in spending anything on the way they appear to the public, keeping their places clean and tidy, upgrading their accounting systems and so on. And of course, they do not trust the locals. They speak pessimistically about Liberia as a whole and think the place will erupt into civil strife again.  And they believe corruption (giving out commissions) is the only way to go!

I suppose the business communities in Liberia will eventually be forced into modernising themselves and go with the times. The so-called new wave of anti-corruption which has become Sirleaf's main mantra is surely going to trickle down although I am appalled at the corrupt business practices that prevail in Liberia, especially in the aid industry, something which I hardly had a clue about when I was within the belly of the beast. Likewise, businesses will be forced to bring in better quality goods into Liberia and sell them cheaper. Change is inevitable and too much is at stake in Liberia.

I would venture to say that the goal of the Liberian regime was to manage the outsourcing of trade to foreign companies and foreign business communities and, if they had done it better, they might even had created a Dubai of sorts. But all is not lost. Sirleaf is intent on reviving an open-door economy but a better managed one. Hopefully, she'll do a better job of integrating the 'foreign business communities' into Liberian state and society because that is where state and society is going to really benefit from a super diverse and synergetic energy.  It is and will be a good time to be in Liberia.

Tail end: Doing business in Liberia is definitely not easy and is extremely challenging. However, it is lucrative and there are excellent business opportunities for anyone who has some good capital and good business ideas. One has the chance to be part of a fast-growing economy and to create something unique. One also has the chance to be part of the dynamic and resource business community.  I would say that one of the most significant challenges here is human resource. Now that our business is growing, we need a bigger and ever more skilled team of IT professionals. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Office Warming Pictures

We just posted some pictures of our Office Warming Pictures on our company Facebook page "Office Warming." 

Here are some of my favourite ones (what sticks out among all of these pictures is my rice neck, caused by eating a lot of rice):

One of my favourite bits of the office is a lime green wall with a cool clock. That's where we parked our drinks. 

Three well-dressed and very professional waiters provided to us by Elite Rentals who also did our decorations.  I loved how their shirts matched our logo.

Haresh drives a point home!

Our star employee and head of our technical team - over time he has proven his dedication and loyalty. Let's give a big hand to Jonathan Barwon!

Love this photo because it shows an interesting scene. Guillaume Foutry, our marketing consultant, is explaining how he managed to get such good quality printing of the brochures we handed out during the event. The lady in the centre is the CEO of Cachelle Ink, the company which photographed our event. 

Again, it's a great scene and lots of stuff going on.

A wonderful group photo of some of our staff. 

Another great group photo!

Sweet picture of a happy couple! And by coincidence, their outfits matched!

Great picture with all three subjects thinking and doing something different.

Haresh and I argue over who will do the dishes while an important guest looks on amusedly!

I tried to give a toast but mostly forgot my well-rehearsed speech about creating and building a company culture, striving against the odds, believing in a dream, believing in local talent and so on: instead I just blurted out, I love being CEO and bossing people around! 

Cecelia raises her hand because I proudly pointed her out as the only female technician on our team. 

I gave Haresh a piece of the cake! Literally. 

Not on the official album but a funny picture nonetheless. Why has Haresh made such a face, as if I shoved a cactus up his a** and I am getting some sadistic pleasure? 

The official album description on Facebook goes like this: 

New Africa Technology Company (NATC) has been expanding its activities in Liberia and has become a one-stop solution for office IT issues. To support our growth,  we have moved to a bigger,  better and more modern office. To celebrate this important milestone,  we hosted “Office Warming” drinks at our new office on Wednesday,  28 March,  2012 for our esteemed clients,  business partners and friends. Delicious samosas from Taaj Restaurant (7th, Street, Sinkor) and juicy chicken nuggets from Monroe Chicken (Randall Street) were served. Home-made freshly squeezed pineapple and ginger juice was served along with some wine and Amaraula. Stylish decorations and very professional waiters were provided by Elite Rentals. Photographs were taken by Cachelle Ink.