Well, another week has gone by and this time a lot of it was spent outside Monrovia while my boss at AGENDA, Carolyn, her program assistant Jenneh and I went away to get some fieldwork done. The main reason for our trip was to start the bulk of the research surveys for our education sector corruption pilot study. We also went to complete the six-month follow-up for a social equity project AGENDA carried out in 2011. Over the course of the week we visited three counties: Bong, Nimba and Gran Gedeh.

Days 1 – 2. Gbarnga.

Gbarnga is the capital of Bong County, and was the heartland of Charles Taylor during the civil war. Today Gbarnga comes across as a small, peaceful town with a bustling main street, a small market, a radio station and little else. The people of Bong are moving on with their lives, but there are still many underlying signs of this history if you look closely enough – a fervent support for their current senator, Taylor’s ex-wife Jewel; the absence of billboards featuring Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; the Anti-Terrorist Unit’s notorious headquarters gradually getting swallowed up by the bush outside town (see this photo); and the sharp reactions you get if you dare mention the International Criminal Court.

We arrived in Cottington, an outskirt of Gbarnga, late on Tuesday evening after a long drive from Monrovia. The road is being rehabilitated and although the roadworks seemed to add more time, even since I last came I can see that there have been significant improvements made. The following day’s task was to conduct a follow up activity and workshop in the Gbarnga YMCA to close off the 2011 project. This project was a social equity assessment looking at the funds counties receive from mining companies in compensation for their impact, and whether/how the public participate in deciding how they are spent. We met with a cross-section of 20 stakeholders representing various civil society organisations, advocacy and special interest groups, and members of the public from the two main districts around Gbarnga. AGENDA presented the report’s findings in detail and then ran a workshop and feedback session to assess reactions to the findings, whether they were deemed accurately representative of the situation, and whether there were any further areas to be investigated. I also led a more detailed project M&E session with two of the key stakeholders for about an hour at the end.

The session went well overall, with positive reactions from all sides. The groups highlighted a theme that public understanding of their right to information has improved dramatically and that the public is starting to hold senior figures to account; but that there remains a lot of work to be done to see substantial and consistent improvements in how their development funds are allocated. They also discussed the number of “white elephant” projects created, such as provision of electricity and certain road upgrades, that appeared good but in reality have benefited only a few powerful members of the society.

Days 3 – 4. Ganta

Ganta is a major trading town and Liberia’s second largest city. It is found right on the edge of the Guinean border in Nimba County. In true African fashion the ride there was dominated by great vehicle experiences, including having to unblock a fuel line with a coathanger, very narrowly avoiding becoming decoration on the front of a 12 ton flatbed truck which came around a corner on the wrong side, and several flat tyres. We ended up crawling into Ganta at dusk, on a spare so bald you could see the wire.

We met with the researchers for the education pilot who would be going out independently to the different schools to conduct the actual interviews and collect other relevant data. Carolyn, who is the lead researcher for the project, ran a comprehensive briefing session for them on the project including a detailed discussion of how the interviews had been structured and needed to be conducted. Although I was not involved in this phase, it was interesting to observe. This is one of the critical stages for the project’s success to ensure that when the researchers leave that they know exactly what is required of them in order to gather accurate, unbiased data; that they are gathering it in a consistent way between them; and that their procedures reflect the project’s design exactly so to avoid skewing the results. AGENDA take their research very seriously, and have carefully built up their reputation for producing well-researched, accurate analyses, and Days 3-4 really drove home that fact! I realised in Ganta how fortunate I am to be working for an organisation that simply sees Liberia’s challenges as an opportunity to raise their standards, rather than an excuse to drop them.

We also had the fun of a car chase at the border when our driver pranged another car and subsequently decided to make a run for it, an encounter with a man called “Devil”, and some very dodgy goat soup.

Days 5 – 7. Zwedru

Zwedru, in contrast to Gbargna, was the home of former president Samuel K. Doe and as such has excellent roads and a couple of very large, incomplete mansions (his wife’s is pictured). Zwedru is in Gran Gedeh county, near the Ivorian border, and has a large military and UN presence due to ongoing tensions along the border. We met with the second research team and then spent some time going around Zwedru to see the location and facilities of the various high schools. Maurice, the team supervisor AGENDA has contracted to head up the research in Gran Gedeh, is a really great guy and I learnt a lot from him about some of the history specific to the region.

The trip back from Zwedru to Monrovia takes an entire day. We got up at 4am to catch a taxi, arriving back in Monrovia around 6pm that night. In classic African fashion we had another two hour delay from car problems on our way back through Ganta, which gave me a good chance to break the trip up. The rest of the trip involved a lot of arguing with the police. The police can be incredibly corrupt in Liberia, and often set up road blocks on the main road in/out of towns to collect bribes from drivers: the guys you see in this shot are making the taxi driver in the striped shirt pay 300LD (a little under US$5, and probably about 5% of his day’s take) to bring his vehicle through their checkpoint. This can be very frustrating and sad as you can imagine, particularly by the 9th or 10th roadblock.

Overall the trip was a really interesting opportunity to see some more of this beautiful country, and to get a better feel for some of the different dynamics that have shaped it. It was a great privilege to meet insightful Liberians in each of the counties who were happy to let me be inquisitive and share their experiences and understanding with me. I’ve only been back a short time but I’m already pestering Carolyn about when we’ll next go out!