Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Lack of a New Administrative Complex is Highly Disappointing

From the beginning of the month, a time for New Year's reflection, came this gem, by Mr. Philip N. Wesseh, published in The Inquirer on 2 January, which caught my eye. I reprint at length from “My Two Disappointment [sic] from 2013.” This is a particularly helpful text to repost here, as it nicely summarizes the ELWA—Defense Ministry—New Capital saga that has flared up since 2011, and which I've covered from time-to-time on this blog, although there have been so many twists, turns, backtracks, and sub-sagas, that it's difficult to keep up with. The below includes some interesting rumors and references which I hadn't even heard before (bolding mine): 
During the course of the passing year-2013- it was my wish that one of the major projects earmarked by this government, along with its Chinese counterparts, the Administrative Complex, that is intended to host many government offices, would have started and be finished on time.
As for the Administrative Complex, my desire to see this become a reality is drawn against the background of what I saw the Chinese did in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with the new African Union Headquarters, when I accompanied President Sirleaf few years ago to the dedicatory ceremony in that country. Also, I had the opportunity recently to see the newly constructed Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Ghana, which was built by the Chinese.
According to information, the Administrative Complex if completed in Liberia would be the second largest of such structure, as the one of the Ethiopian capital. Regrettably, to get this project started in Liberia has been faced with unnecessary bottlenecks, principally, on the spot on which the complex should be constructed.
It is an open secret that initially, when the project was announced, it was said that it would be built around the ELWA compound, since the area was not being used. This sparked off controversy, as there was opposition from church leaders for such a construction to use part of the area for the construction. During that time, some politicians became "bishops," thus joining the fray opposing the construction on the site. Unsurprisingly, because of the mixed reactions and "noise" over the use of the ELWA land for the project, the government abandoned its plan to use the spot for the Administrative Complex. Again, it was reported that the government might use the Buzzi Quarters, which is not too far from the Executive Mansion for this project. Like in the case of the ELWA land, controversy emerged over that decision.As uncertainty grew in the public as to the next course of action by the government in locating a new uncontroversial spot for this project, it was reported that the government has now resolved to use its own facility, the "new Defense Ministry" in Congo Town for the project. Again, it met up with resistance over this by some residents, in the proximity of the building who feared that this might affect, as there might be extension which would definitely affect their structures. Besides the residents, others joined in the argument that this would be a waste of resources to demolish such structure to replace it with the Administrative Building after millions of dollars had been spent during the late Samuel K. Doe's regime, to reach the building thus far.In all fairness, I take interest in this project, not because I have seen what the Chinese have done in Ethiopia and Ghana relative to similar infrastructures, but because of its enormous benefits to this country. In the first place, it would help alleviate some of the financial burdens of government in paying rent for the use of rented buildings; the second is that during the construction of this building, it would provide job opportunities, whether on a casual or permanent basis to many Liberians, and that considering the dependency ratio, this would trickle down to many others. Thirdly, it would also be a boost to local businesses.
I consider the delay in the beginning of this project that the Chinese are "ready' to begin, as a complete disappointment last year because it is about three years since this idea was conceived. What is more nauseating is that someone (the Chinese government) is in readiness to help us, and we are yet to fulfill outside of the bargaining. The situation can be likened to a scenario in which someone is willing to help you build a gigantic house and only ask you to only provide a land to undertake the project, and you egregiously failed to do so. In the case of this government that has the power to invoke, "eminent domain," which is rarely known as 'compulsory purchase, is a doctrine in law, according to the Black's Law Dictionary that defines it as, "the inherent power of a governmental entry to take privately-owned property, especially land, and convert it to public use, subject to reasonable compensation for the taking." Let us assume that there is no vacant land available, something I know is not possible, this government can exercise this right and fulfill the two major conditions which are "public use," in the interest of the general public and "reasonable compensation" which requires payment to the legitimate owners of the land that would be taken away. And so, I see no reason for delay in this project because of controversy over land. For me, this should be the simplest matter in this whole project.
Let me say that I am not in the mind of the Chinese government or know the present thinking of the Chinese over this delay; I am afraid that the more the delay, the likelihood that we might miss this great opportunity. Therefore, it behooves this government, which has made some strives, to act immediately for this project that would be of enormous benefit to the country and its people.

The man has a point: will there be any result to this years of talk about a new government complex, in Monrovia or elsewhere? How are the Chinese involved? Is building a shiny new citadel of ministries the best use of scarce resources?

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Pessimist's Response to Bill Gates

I am not a scholar nor an expert on aid, and actually find that debate tired and dull. Despite living and working in Liberia, I have not paid much attention to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Health, women's issues, diseases, and the other topics foremost in the Gates Foundation's efforts are probably the furthest outside of my orbit of familiarity and knowledge. My impression is that this type of work is both effective, and has seen enormous and commendable results in eradicating global epidemics and improving conditions for the world's poorest.

So, I was only half-aware that the couple issued a widely-distrubuted annual letter, so this year was the first time I read it.

What I read surprised me, and predominantly not for very positive reasons. The letter sets out to debunk several “Myths” about aid and development work that Bill and Melinda frequently encounter, which they find variously frustrating, baffling, and/or false.  As the letter begins, “By almost any measure, the world better than it has ever been,” and they feel anyone who thinks otherwise is misinformed and pessimistic.

I think I might be one of the people Gates is talking about, although I would qualify the label Those Who Think The World Is Getting Worse, more eagerly accepting an invitation into the club of Those That Are Worried That The World Might Run Out of Time Before Solving Civilization-Threatening Problems.

So, although I am no Chris Blattman, much less a Bill Easterly, I am writing this brief response to Mr. Gates Annual letter, not only as someone who may be a bit pessimistic about the world, but also as a reader surprised by the way the letter's arguments were framed, or more precisely, how the “myths” it calls out were characterized, and what evidence was used to refute them.

I don’t actually believe any of the myths that the letter seeks to debunk, but I do think the way the letter’s arguments are framed suggests a false choice between Believing the World Is Getting Worse and Supporting the Eradication of Extreme Poverty and Disease. It’s actually possible to both worry that many of the world’s problems may prove insurmountable, and being in favor of eradicating extreme poverty and disease as quickly as possible. In fact, it’s logical that one of the problem’s that pessimists are impatient about it’s the progress in alleviating extreme poverty.

According to the World Bank’s statistics from 2011, and excluding mainland China, the world’s poverty rate has only decrease by 10% from 1981 to 2005, with well more than a billion people in the world living on less than $1.25 per day, and the absolute number of people in abject poverty holding stubbornly steady for decades, as the world’s population has burgeoned. This is not just a problem in the least-developed world, by the way the total population of poor people in our own United States is at an all-time high. So there’s not very much to feel overly proud about.

Not too far into the letter, I was floored by the incorporation of juxtaposed pictures of Mexico City, Shanghai and Nairobi as proof of humanity’s progress. “These photos illustrate a powerful story: The global picture of poverty has been completely redrawn in my lifetime,” the letter states.

This statement may be true, but not in the way Gates intends it, I think: the concentration of wealth into a constellation of cosmopolitan enclaves does demonstrate a radical change in the picture of global poverty, but I doubt it reflects the high summit of human achievement. A panoramic view of Nairobi, Mexico City or Shanghai in 2014 would surely encompass more poor people between the picture plane and the vanishing point of the photo than an identical aerial shot from 1980. Also, a lot of those high-rises in Nairobi were built twenty- or thirty years ago. In short, I am baffled that this before-and-after stuff made the final edits of this letter.
Also included here is a little anecdote of Bill and Melinda’s visit to Mexico City in 1987 versus more recently, and how much nicer it was and how “everyone was middle class.” This is Tom Friedman column territory. 

The next section of the letter breezes through some statistics about income per person in some of the world's poor countries and how these have skyrocketed. I am astonished both that Gates puts forth per capita GDP as a stand-alone measure of progress and that the letter so casually equates per capita GDP to per person income, much less ignores the major contemporary issue of inequality. I say, tell that to the people of Gabon.

Oh wait, Gates actually uses Gabon as a supporting example for his case. Next to Equatorial Guinea, there is hardly a worse case of a nation that is wealthy per capita but scandalously under-developed in terms of human progress. Also, Gabon also only has 1.4 million people, or roughly the population of Hawaii.

Gates also repeatedly sites Botswana, which has about 2 million people, Mauritius, a small island with less than 1.3 million, and Singapore with its 5.4 million, and Costa Rica, with about 4.5 million. It might seem impressive to alphabetically list aid-free countries, but not so much when the population of half the list adds up to metro Los Angeles. Those ruled by hereditary kleptocrats are also not impressive when trying to convince us that we are living in an era of humanity’s unquestionable zenith.

Gates does mention corruption, but again conflates terminology in a way that is unhelpful. I know there are technical definitions of official corruption that basically mean, graft, but in the global corruption debate, the world also encompasses a wide range of theft and tax evasion. This is what pessimists are concerned about: the vast shadow world of hidden billions illicitly flowing out of every countries into elite centers and offshore havens. The example Gates provides, of a bureaucrat's phony expense report, falsely narrows people’s impatience with the fight against global corruption with henny-penny knitpicking over rounding errors on a spreadsheet of a single implementation project. I’ll skip the corruption tirade for now, and also spare conjecturing on reasons why Gates might avoid talking more broadly about corruption, but I wholly do not agree with Chris Blattman and others that those illicit acts that are associated with the term corruption have only minor and discrete effects on the development of mankind.

The last part of the letter is perhaps it’s most harmful and poorly reasoned.  I certainly hope that there aren’t armies of skeptics rooting for millions of the world’s poor to die to stave off overpopulation. But even if there are, it is hardly fair to lump people worried about overpopulation into the same grouping, or to dismiss them as “Malthusian.”

In the 21st century, it is simply irresponsible not to contemplate the absolute limit to the number of humans that this planet’s life-sustaining systems can support. While Malthus and his disciples may have gotten the number or timing wrong in the past, that doesn’t mean the general concept should be abandoned—or that we are already past the point of too many humans consuming too much of the planet’s finite resources.

Chief among the fears of the world getting worse are the questions of climate change, habitat loss, and overexploitation of the world’s natural provisions. People like me are worried about the plastic in the oceans, the loss of forests and glaciers.  Gates simply breezes through any concerns of this variety: he sees a future simply made of happier, more prosperous people, without addressing our century’s great conundrum: that only current model that we have to pull people out of poverty results in more pressure on the Earth’s natural habitats and systems.  That is an important and necessary concern.

People like me worry about humanity’s negative impact, and how we as a civilization evolve our economic and social systems past perpetuating destruction. Labelling people like me as a group who might prefer babies to starve to death is not just unhelpful but irresponsible. While I applaud the work of the Gates Foundation, and I am glad for their strong advocacy, this letter ignored more issues than it addressed, and invented more myths than it disproved.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Street Photo: The Blood of Jesus

Randall Street, October 2013. Not sure what liquid is in all those various thermoses, but it's a little off-putting that the little wheelbarrow cart has been bequeathed the name, The Blood of Jesus. Something unintended and unappetizing in that appellation. Presumably the vendor is just being an inventive mobile Hatai entrepreneur. I stuck around for a few minutes but couldn't find the owner of the repurposed wheelbarrow to find out.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Building of the Month: Renovated Labor Ministry

 I've spent some time in my photo archives, looking to see if I happened to have taken a photo of this building before, but it doesn't seem that I had. Surprising, given its prominent location at the city-side foot of Capitol Hill, at the terminus of a high-traffic intersection where U.N. Drive intersects with the “Bassa Community Short-Cut” –a steep, busy hill that connects to Jallah Town Road, which means it’s nearly impossible not to pass this building heading into central Monrovia. Secondly, it is relatively prominent in its former role as the Ministry of Labor. Yet the building is so indistinct that I never lifted my lens to capture it in five years of taking pictures of the city. It was just another peeling, chipping, multistory rectangle of hulking concrete without present purpose.

And yet suddenly, the building's notability is not only its location but its envelope. Like an increasing number of buildings in central Monrovia, the erstwhile Labor Ministry has emerged from its cracked concrete cocoon to reveal the iridescent scales of a beetle-green glass fa├žade. The effect is dramatic.

This rehab is the latest work of the CNQC Qingjian International, which is one of the massive Chinese infrastructure companies which has had a major presence in Liberia in the reconstruction period, as it has in dozens of African countries from Mali to Lesotho.

I don't have more information on the building's future use for now–for all I know at present, the Labor Ministry could be moving back there–but the choice of materials is striking both visually and in terms of what this new stylistic paradigm continues to say about Liberia.

On the one hand, the proliferation of shiny glass sheeting down the fronts of the city's buildings, a startling phenomenon that began about five years ago and had been noted on M2M before, speak to investors' confidence in the economy and security situation at street-crossings that ten years ago were war zones, with nothing but shattered windows. Secondly, however, this paradigm of throwing up expensive, flashy envelopes to cover over cheaply-constructed concrete shells to make glasshouse bubbles of class-A office space, sucking up air conditioning from diesel generators, is not exactly a contribution to a long-term future. Not that buildings are built differently elsewhere.

In the here and now, these Dubai-style glass boxes stand in stark contrast the the other 99% of the building stock. While I haven't had time to find out more about the plans for the building, I was able to shoot the picture below from Redemption Road, looking at the backside of the new block. It is a somewhat astonishing juxtaposition of the new building and its neighborhood, Buzzy Quarters–the traditionally-Lorma-dominated enclave of informal housing, wedged along a swampy creek between the mighty edifices of Capitol Hill and the vast fortification of the Barclay Training Center, which is home to the Ministry of Defense (many early soldiers were Lorma, hence the development of the community decades ago). The old Labor Ministry's new skin shimmers like a pair of polarized Oakleys, one of several new buildings rising over the cityscape, which still consists of rusty corrugated zinc roofs, just as it has for decades.

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