As I stood in front of our new office in Congo Town this week, just steps away from the sprawling Chinese Embassy complex, I was taken back to my introduction to Liberia in 2005. CI had already been in the country for three years, seeing our partners through the end of war, a transitional government and the election of the first female African Head of State.
At that time, the only way to get to Monrovia was with the UN peacekeeping mission or on one of the Nigerian carriers, all of which overbook and work on a first-come, first-serve basis. After two days of trying to catch a flight from Cote d’Ivoire, where I had been meeting with partners, my new friends and I realized we were not going to get a flight in time. So we loaded up a truck and started on a 21 hour journey from Abidjan to Monrovia.
Two images are etched in my memory from that trip. The first was just 20 minutes after we drove across the log bridge and border posts crossing into Liberia. We drove by a UN personnel carrier stopped in the middle of the road. There was a bullet hole through the windshield right about where the driver’s eye level would have been. Welcome to Liberia!
The other image was when we got to Monrovia. Just about every building we passed was completely burned out, a dark shell of concrete. And there were kids, so many kids filling these buildings and streets with nowhere and no one to go to. I had worked in Africa for a decade, but this was the first time I really had a hard time finding the positive in a situation. No one should have to suffer through this.
Then I began to get to know our Liberian partners and staff, and learn about what they were doing. Forests had helped finance the conflict, but these people were engaged in a revolutionary plan to help Liberia gain greater control of those forests and use them for human well being. When we had crossed the border and my passport was stamped, the border guard scolded me. “What Liberia needs is for people to quit coming and taking all of our resources, leaving nothing here!” I learned how CI country director Alex Peal and his team were working closely with local leaders to help them develop their own organizations, providing them with the funding they needed to improve their communities. I saw women putting new coats of mud over the bullet holes on walls, painting welcome greetings for new shops and restaurants. Liberia was moving forward, and its people wanted partners to assist.
|“I can smile, having seen how far Liberia has already come. It is easy for me to be optimistic about the future.”|
Four years and five trips later, Liberia and CI are still moving forward. There are no longer UN checkpoints every 10 minutes or so; security is increasingly handled locally; programs for education, business development and women’s empowerment are moving forward. The president is convincing investors to join in on Liberia’s development.
Sanctions on timber were lifted, thanks to the adoption of the regulations and plans that CI helped author. Partners we used to fund are getting the grants that we used to apply for. The burned-out buildings have mostly been renovated and now house new businesses. The streets are no longer filled with orphaned kids, but busy people working to earn a livelihood.
The entire development community here is turning over. Now government partners of Liberia are developing programs focused on five to ten years as opposed to three to five.
Many of the new faces coming in express their reservations about how far Liberia has to go. Yet I can smile, having seen how far Liberia has already come. It is easy for me to be optimistic about the future. Certainly serious challenges remain, but Liberia has already moved further than I would have thought possible four years ago. I feel lucky to be opening a new office and revising the next steps on a path defined years ago – to conserve Liberia’s natural heritage as a fundamental principle of development. It is indeed an exciting time to be in Liberia.
Eric Coppenger is the Director of Resource Strategy in the Africa and Madagascar Field Division of Conservation International.