Akiva Fishman’s summer in Liberia. Part 1.

When we think summer, many of us settle for a brief getaway – to the beach perhaps, or the mountains, or perhaps some pleasant foreign spot.  We think of R&R. Some, however, especially the younger folks, challenge themselves. They seek out, or create, an opportunity for significant personal and professional growth.

It’s a privilege to know such people! You probably know your share.

And speaking of sharing, I heard from one such young man just today – Akiva Fishman. We met quite by chance during the 2010 AMS Summer Policy Colloquium. Our group went over en masse that week to catch a panel discussion on the environment and national security being put on by the Woodrow Wilson Center. That Center of course had attracted its own audience, and we co-mingled with them. I found myself sitting next to Akiva, who was working at a non-profit here in DC.

You could tell he was interesting from the very first. We struck up a brief conversation before and after the event. A few weeks later, Paul Higgins and I invited him out to lunch. At that time, he was contemplating graduate studies, simultaneously pursuing environmental work at Yale and a law degree at NYU…a program he’s working through still.

!!! Told you! He’s interesting.

Anyway, (fast forward), this morning, Akiva blasted out an e-mail on his summer in Liberia. Utterly fascinating. Upon request, he has generously allowed me to share it as a guest post.

[I hunger for these! Where are the rest of you? Please let me know if you have an inclination.]

Here’s the guest post. In Akiva’s own words. Unedited.

 The last time I sent an email like this was after I spent last summer in the Middle East studying water management (the recipient list should be pretty similar, but if you never got last year’s email and are interested, I’m happy to send it along). I know I will be sharing my thoughts about my summer with many of you, but there are so many things to share that I want to put some of them down in writing, at least as a starting place for further conversation. Please know that I’m fully aware of the absurd length of this email and that I have no expectations about anyone reading all or even most of it J.

I spent this summer in Liberia working at the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency. Workwise, things started off a bit slowly because the person who was supposed to be my supervisor moved to the Ministry of Justice a few weeks before I arrived (of course I didn’t even learn this from her but from a friend who works with her). I didn’t yet know the phrase, but a local might have reacted in my place by shrugging and saying “this, too, is Liberia”. On day one I was assigned to the environmental impact assessment division, given a mess of laws and guidelines to read, and asked to think of ways to be useful.

I didn’t know much about environmental impact assessments, but I quickly learned. EIA is a mechanism by which the government can block projects that are too environmentally damaging and minimize the effects of those projects that are permitted to proceed. This is incredibly important in a country like Liberia because it’s a powerful way (at least when properly used) to promote sustainable development and incorporate public participation in decision-making. Liberian law clearly mandates EIAs but the system, as I learned, is severely broken. Part of the problem is that Liberia suffers from certain challenges that are unrelated to EIAs in particular, such as an undereducated public that has difficulty advocating on its own behalf. What good is guaranteeing a generic right to consultation when communities do not have the knowledge to negotiate effectively? And then part of the problem is more internal to the EPA and implementation of EIA legislation. Just to give a few examples of some of the challenges: (1) There isn’t enough money for inspectors to verify baseline data submitted to them or even to confirm the locations of some projects (!), much less to monitor operations to ensure compliance with environmental permit conditions. In fact there is so little money that during 6 of my 9 weeks there was no internet at the office so I spent a good amount of my time working at the next-door hotel. Oh and the power goes out for days at a time and the carpet that was flooded the day before I arrived was never replaced and stank of mildew for all 2 months I was there; (2) The fees that are collected when project proponents submit EIAs are both inconsistent and unrelated to the cost to EPA of processing permit applications and monitoring operations, prompting justified complaints of arbitrariness; (3) There is no mandatory process by which documents are reviewed to determine whether a permit should be granted; in fact, these documents are not read by almost anyone involved in permitting. (I was told by several colleagues that there is not much of a reading culture in Liberia. There were innumerable times during meetings when I wanted to smack someone for asking a question about an issue that was fully addressed by the document that was the subject of the meeting. Especially since the tendency is to refuse to be cut off until one’s full point is made and then rephrased even if the interjection attempting to move things along is made to indicate that the point has already been made.)

The bulk of my efforts this summer went into researching other EIA fee systems, thinking up a rational structure for Liberia, and launching a reform process at the EPA. Without going into details that I doubt would interest most people (but I am happy to share if you like), by the time I left we were replacing the one-fee-per-project scheme with multiple, targeted fees and tying the sums assessed to the EPA’s cost of reviewing, permitting, and monitoring projects. I had an advantageous position from which to work because being embedded in the agency for the summer allowed me to become a familiar and trusted face and because as a foreign white male with a legal background in a country that has come to rely on international consultants I was accorded authority beyond my credentials.

I won’t go into detail on the other projects I worked on, which included helping draft the national oil spill contingency plan, commenting on various project proposals and draft regulations, and trying to strengthen the environmental permit regime. But I do want to mention what was probably the most enjoyable bit of work I did (it still makes me smile to think about). Chevron’s permit to engage in exploratory offshore drilling for oil came up for renewal this summer. The EPA sent a letter requesting documents and a renewal fee but Chevron unexpectedly (it seems no other company has done this) responded by demanding justification for having to pay. It cited various provisions of Liberian law to prove that the EPA was not authorized to charge this fee and hinted trouble if the EPA insisted. Unfortunately for the EPA but fortunately for me, the EPA doesn’t employ many qualified lawyers so the letter was handed to me. It was pretty thrilling to fight even a miniature legal battle with Chevron’s lawyers using the laws of another country that I was learning on the fly. After a few rounds Chevron succumbed and paid even more than they had paid for their initial fee. Slam.


I lived in a part of Monrovia called Mamba Point after the mambas that used to (maybe still do?) live here. I’m not sure if she was referring to the mamba or some other snake, but the travel nurse I consulted before coming told me that there are poisonous snakes in Liberia that kill within minutes and for which the anti-venom is not available in Liberia. Regardless, I had a nice 3 mile walk to work every day past such notable landmarks as the old American Embassy (which still has manned roadblocks that do literally nothing but prevent motorcycles and cars without license plates from passing through a 200 foot stretch of road), the Presidential Mansion (which the President does not occupy because a few days before she was slated to move in, a fire – suspected arson – damaged much of the building), and the UN Mission in Liberia headquarters (fronted by barricades that take up the full sidewalk and force pedestrians like me to walk in the busiest street in the country, which is ironic given UNMIL’s mandate to make Liberia more secure). The walk is typically uneventful except that you have to be very careful crossing streets because there’s only one working traffic light in the city (I think) and it’s not on my route. Also, even though I became a fixture at 8:30am, no one seemed to get tired of staring. And when Liberians stare, not only do they not look away when you meet their gaze but they do a full neck turn as you walk by. Oh, also you have to look out for occasional flowing streams of sewage water and constant holes in the sidewalk where manhole covers presumably used to be.

Mamba Point and Sinkor – the neighborhood where the EPA is located – include a thorough mix of gated and barbed wired compounds where expats and the wealthier Liberians live and work and corrugated tin-roofed shacks that typical Liberians use both for shops and homes. A chunk of the expat population walks to work, mingles in the local markets, and is generally visible in the streets. But too many, unfortunately, drive from guarded home to guarded office in SUVs and jeeps without interacting with Liberians other than their drivers and officemates. Evening activities for many expats revolve around a group of about twenty bars and restaurants that are too expensive for most Liberians (including one of my lunch spots – an Indian restaurant that also serves Lebanese and Italian food where my vegetable fried rice comes with a bottle of ketchup while Scooby Doo is playing on TV). Granted, the cheapest eateries, where one can get rice and meat or fish soup for a dollar or less are not advisable for non-locals whose stomachs are not accustomed to the contaminated tap water. But there are plenty of slightly more expensive Liberian restaurants where the food is perfectly good to eat. And it doesn’t matter where one goes to get a Club beer – the local Liberian brand – they are always served with a tissue for wiping down the lip to remove the rust left by the cap.

The best thing about the house I lived in is its balcony, which looks out onto the ocean from a height. I spent most weekend mornings out there catching up on my pleasure reading that law school has not permitted. The view is especially great because it is at the exact corner of Monrovia, on one side of which is the bulk of the expat residences, government buildings, and headquarters of international organizations, and on the other side of which is the slum peninsula called Westpoint, the massive outdoor Duwala market, and Monrovia’s port. This makes for a lot of tiny fishing boat traffic (trying to catch what is left over from what the foreign industrial fishing boats illegally harvest), which is nicely contrasted by the big cargo-carrying vessels farther out.

My appreciation of the balcony diminished somewhat after the attempted burglary on our house. It wasn’t the first ever attempt, but it was the first since I moved in and the first since the addition of height and extra barbed wire to the perimeter wall in response to the previous (successful) episode. Around 5am someone climbed over the outside wall using heavy clothing to shield himself from the barbed wire and pulled himself to the balcony, which is easily reachable from the top of the wall. He first tried to force the window, but my host had cleverly wedged wooden rods so as to bar the windows from being slid open. The would-be-burglar then went to work on the balcony door. He was able to remove one of the two padlocks holding shut the external iron gate and had wedged a pair of scissors between the panes of the glass sliding doors by the time our third roommate heard a noise from downstairs and came up to investigate. He yelled for the security guards but saw the guy jump back over the outside wall with a screwdriver between his teeth ahead the swing of the guard’s machete, which missed our friend but injured the guard on the barbed wire. Thankfully everyone was OK and nothing was take; the only lasting effect of all this was that the guards started making rounds every five minutes around the perimeter wall, scraping their machetes against the concrete to warn off intruders. I pointed out that besides waking us up in the middle of the night with the uniquely grating sound of steel on concrete this tactic just announced the gaps when the guards were not making rounds, but the scraping continued. I’m no guard, but neither really are our guards – the one I talk with most runs a crafts shop in his day job. Most infuriatingly about the whole ordeal, the guards reported that as they built the wall still higher the next day they could see the guy they thought had made the attempt grinning at them from the next property over, which is a semi-demolished building that is currently being used by criminals to get high at night. When I asked why we can’t just send the police in there the guards smiled and confirmed what I expected to hear, which is that the police would just put a bunch of them in a car, drive them some distance away, and take a bribe before they ever got to the jailhouse. These are the same police officers who, it has been reported to me from several friends, stop the nicer looking cars on the road for questionable traffic violations and get in the car until paid off to leave. I’m sure I would be less sympathetic if it happened to me, but it’s hard for me to wag a fully extended finger at officers who choose to scam expats because they aren’t being paid a living wage. It does make me cringe a bit though when I pass billboards that show a picture of a handshake and read “The Police are your friend.”

Just to get them out of the way while we’re on a less happy subject (and I promise news about my monkey friend afterward to change the tone!), there were a few other unpleasant experiences that help shed some light on what’s going on in Liberia. Within the first couple of days of arriving, I went to a tailor to get a suit altered. I didn’t know this at the time, but the tailor is at the very intersection where I was later warned never to have my cell phone out at night. Of course, I made a call when I walked out of the shop (after dark) and almost immediately someone ran up behind me and smacked my arm to try and knock the phone out. I held on (I don’t think the guy was used to having to jump to reach a victim’s arm) and turned to glare, but he had already run into an alley. Being new at this (fortunately I’ve actually never been mugged in New York), I put the phone back to my ear to continue the conversation and kept walking. I don’t know if it was the same guy or someone else, but twenty second later someone made a second attempt. This time the swipe at my arm connected with my face too, but again I kept the phone. Having finally learned my lesson I hung up and put the phone in my pocket. I later learned that there’s actually a network of thieves operating in the area I was walking through. Some swipe phones, cameras, and wallets, others sell them on the street during the day, and still others serve as go-betweens when victims decide they’d rather negotiate to get their property back than either let it go or try to locate it on the street the next day. I have close to zero sympathy for the guy who failed to steal my phone but succeeded in punching me in the face, but it’s worth noting that unemployment is rampant here (I’ve heard very much unconfirmed figures ranging from over 50% to 85%). 

When the subject of unemployment comes up the conversation inevitably turns to the favorite subject of frustrated expats who experience problems recruiting reliable employees. But expats are actually happily joined by locals in bashing the phenomenon of Liberian “laziness.” My own take is that while it is true that it’s common to see people lounging in groups unproductively on the street or in front of homes, I would be quick to point out a few things:

·         Loungers are almost exclusively men. Downtown, young men get together at all hours to play checkers. Often men will just sit around in front of doorways. Most striking is when you pass by one of the numerous construction sites and one or two workers will be at their jobs while the other ten or so will stand around them to watch and chat. Of course I can’t say whether women do similar lounging inside of homes away from the eyes of foreigners, but women are just as present outside as men and I’ve rarely seen one who is not carrying a baby on her back or goods on her head, or is scrubbing, sweeping, or cooking out on the street.

·         “African culture” here dictates that if you find yourself with a monetary windfall (and this is a relative concept so even just getting a salaried job counts), you are expected to share your earnings with your family. An archetypal story is that of the guy who started a business delivering fresh-cut flowers to expats twice a week for a fixed weekly payment. After a few highly lucrative months some of the expats started advising him on how to grow his business – buy a motorbike to reach a wider market, pay farmers to grow flowers to increase supply, etc. He said he couldn’t do any of these because he had no capital. When the expats asked what he had been doing with all of his profits he said that his whole extended family had moved in with him and were living off his earnings rather than working themselves. One might look at the moved-in family as lazy (and might be right), but this raises the question of what is the motivation to start a successful business if there is no prospect of pocketing more than you need to live?

·         A culture of dependence seems to have developed as a consequence of all the international development activity that has been going on here for so long. In the towns, people expect to be paid to come to trainings and workshops – even when these are held for their benefit! While we drove through Bomi County, a Liberian friend talked about how the people there are lazy and rarely farm because there are so many international projects around. Rather than the population having to farm, a few people buy food in nearby Monrovia to resell at a markup at home to the others who use money given to them by international groups to pay the higher price. A tangentially related story that I’ll drop in here is that on the same ride we got caught behind the President’s motorcade which was escorting her to her home county for the weekend. A pickup truck at the back was devoted to passing out bags of grape Capri Sun juice to clusters of cheering kids in the villages (think ice cream truck pulling up to the beach, the jingle being replaced by sirens). Culturally, it is expected that one brings gifts for the community when coming home from a trip, but when the President does it, it looks like political handouts. Whether or not this is an accurate read on what is going on it probably reinforces the tribalism/regionalism that dominates national politics.

The rest of Akiva’s story tomorrow.

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