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An Interview with Shefa Siegel on Liberia, Ebola, and the Cult of Bankable Projects

May 12, 2015

A nurse at an Ebola treatment unit in Liberia. CREDIT: UNMEER (CC)

ZACH DORFMAN: Hello and welcome to another episode in our special Ethics & International Affairs interview series, sponsored by Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. I am Zach Dorfman, senior editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Council's quarterly journal.

With me today is Shefa Siegel, whose essay "Ebola, Liberia and the Cult of Bankable Projects" appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Ethics & International Affairs. Welcome, Shefa, good to have you with us.

SHEFA SIEGEL: Thanks, Zach.

ZACH DORFMAN: Shefa Siegal writes about resource governance and ethics, and has advised international organizations and development projects for over a decade, including the Earth Institute, United Nations, World Bank, and Natural Resources Canada. He has also contributed articles on resources, as well as religion and music, to Haaretz, Sojourners, Yale Environment 360, and Americas Quarterly, and he holds a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia. His previous essay for Ethics & International Affairs was "The Missing Ethics of Mining." [Editor's note: Check out Siegel's EIA interview about this article as well.] So let's begin.

Shefa, in "Ebola, Liberia and the Cult of Bankable Projects," you look at issues of state failure and how development aid continues to push narrowly focused agendas that you say have little meaning in states where institutions and infrastructure are broken, and you speak to these issues from your personal on-the-ground experience. What first took you to Liberia, and what did you witness there that helped lead to or strengthen your conclusion about the folly of current development practices?

SHEFA SIEGEL: Almost a year ago today, I was asked by the German Development Agency, GIZ, to come to Liberia to consult with them on a resource governance project that they run in West Africa. I was invited to advise them on my area of specialization, which is smallholder mining, particularly gold mining that occurs all over the developing world, about which I wrote some in the last article we did together, "The Missing Ethics of Mining."

I arrived in Liberia at the end of June last year, just as Doctors Without Borders had declared Ebola out of control in the country. This was a surprise to me. I had no previous experience with Ebola and, to be honest, I didn't even know that it was taking place at that time. I'd heard about it happening in Guinea, I wasn't fully aware that it even hit Liberia.

ZACH DORFMAN: Can you tell us a little about your first impressions upon landing in Liberia, then, considering it sounds like you had very little or even no exposure, or even an expectation, to enter a zone where an epidemic was breaking out?

SHEFA SIEGEL: The first thing that I experienced was being in the car with my driver, who was working for the agency. He picked me up at the airport, and the first thing I heard him say was that it was a scam. That was very confusing to me, because at the time, not being a public health expert in any way, not having any prior experience with any diseases of this sort, I wasn't sure what to think of it except to say that there's a lot of mistrust in these kinds of places. The assumption that he was making and that was very common at the time was that Ebola was not real, and that it was something that had been concocted by the national government as a new way of extracting resources from international development agencies of the very kind that I work for.

ZACH DORFMAN: Why do you think there is that kind of lack of social trust? Assuming that this is a widespread view, which I think you argue in your piece it is in Liberia. Why do you think it's so pervasive in countries like Liberia?

SHEFA SIEGEL: I think in places where there has been deep trauma—Liberia is coming out of an almost 15-year civil war. It's now 10 years past that, but I think places that are badly traumatized in that way, there is a real problem with establishing and reestablishing the sense of authority that we take for granted in our national and state and municipal governments. There just isn't the same degree of trust, or there isn't an expectation that public officials are working in your best interest.

It has also been the case in different countries that governments and different factions and militias do extort money from international aid and development agencies, so it was not such a crazy idea to think that that might be happening this time around as well.

ZACH DORFMAN: Let's talk a little bit about the broader socioeconomic conditions in Liberia. In 2013, Liberia ranked 175th out of 187 participants on the UN's Human Development Index, and 95 percent of Liberians live on less than $2 a day. The country, as you mentioned previously, still hasn't recovered from this 15-year civil war that began in 1989. What do you think has been Liberia's biggest struggle in terms of development, just broadly speaking?

SHEFA SIEGEL: I think, again, when we talk about this I want to be clear that I come into these situations as a low-level consultant, not somebody who is asked to advise on the macroeconomic or political issues. I'm working in a very specialized area and trying to piece together what the bigger picture is.

You can see right away when you enter the country that something is wrong, because there are no lights anywhere. When you enter at night, which is commonly how you land, you see right away that there is no infrastructure in the place. Initially, you can mistake that for some kind of pristine darkness, almost some kind of environmental, ecological fantasy experience. "Isn't this fantastic that this place is not yet lit up and so we can experience the darkness as it was meant to be?" That's not what's going on.

There was infrastructure prior to the war. All of that infrastructure was destroyed, so Liberia went from being a place that generated 400 MW of electricity prior to the war—it now survives on around 25 MW of electricity. To put that into some kind of context, it's less than is used in an American football stadium in the course of one sports season in the United States.

ZACH DORFMAN: One stadium?

SHEFA SIEGEL: Right.

ZACH DORFMAN: One American football stadium uses more electricity than the entire country of Liberia for the entire year.

SHEFA SIEGEL: Exactly. Another example is an industrial-scale mine will use typically about 25 MW of electricity in order to run its mining operations. There again, one mining operation.

Liberia is not a highly populated country, it's 4 million people thereabouts, about 1 million people we think living in and around Monrovia, nevertheless, 25 MW of electricity, all diesel-powered generators. In other words, there is no grid, there is no infrastructure that is distributing electricity throughout the country. Of course, you can't run a country with 25 MW of electricity. That's the first thing you notice with the naked eye as soon as you arrive.

The second thing is that it's very hard to move around, especially during the rainy season. It was in the middle of rainy season that I arrived. Once rainy season kicks in—and I want it to be clear that it's not rain like you would ordinarily experience. It's rain so hard that if you're sitting under a metal roof with somebody, you have to scream to be heard by the person next to you. Once you're in the middle of the rainy season like that, many parts of the country are completely cut off from the capital. You're much more likely to have better access between, say, Côte d'Ivoire in one region of the country than Monrovia in that part of the country.

ZACH DORFMAN: Right, we're talking about a state where if the infrastructure ever existed—and I don't believe in many places it ever did—it was destroyed over the course of this 15-year civil war.

Just to pivot there, I would like to talk a little bit about that civil war and about the most infamous warlord, Charles Taylor. In your essay, you write about Charles Taylor's shadow state in Liberia, and the high profits he reaped from Liberia's natural resources. You also write that when the members of the international community stepped in and tried to regulate conflict diamonds, for example, that regulation did not have the desired effect. What happened? How did the good intentions of the international community in circumstances like these become subverted?

SHEFA SIEGEL: Let's talk first about what it means to discuss conflict diamonds, where that term comes from. Again, prior to the war, Liberia had a functioning mining economy. It had trade in timber, in rubber, in gold, and iron ore was 25 percent of the GDP at the time. Taylor consolidated all of that wealth, in addition to his cannabis cartel that he ran. He became exceedingly rich from this, and there were many companies all over the world, countries that were perfectly willing to do business with him. They could access all these bureaucracy-free deals by negotiating directly with him.

The other thing that happened during that time was that all the state infrastructure was destroyed during the war. It was only after the destruction of the infrastructure—meaning especially the ports that allowed for the export of the raw minerals and resources. What happened was the labor force and the militias moved deeper into the remote parts of the jungle, and this is West Africa's largest remaining intact tropical rainforest. That's when we got this huge clandestine economy of diamond and gold mining. It's often called "artisanal mining," which I think is a lousy term for this because it makes it sound like something boutique.

ZACH DORFMAN: Right. In the wealthy world, there's a positive connotation for the word "artisanal." When you started mentioning that—I think you also used the term in "The Missing Ethics of Mining"—my immediate reaction was that it was somehow more positive than large-scale mining operations by multinational giants, for instance. That's not the case at all, it seems.

SHEFA SIEGEL: There can be high degrees of environmental destruction and social exclusion that comes from what we call artisanal mining, too. I prefer to use the term smallholder mining, just to set it up against smallholder farming so that it's clear that we have different parts of these sectors.

What happened was that once the destruction of the infrastructure was complete during the war in Liberia, then this smallholder mining run by different militias throughout the country took over as the dominant economic force in Liberia. At that point, the international community started looking for ways to manage and monitor what we now call conflict diamonds.

I would say that this is a misunderstanding of the way the political economy of Liberia unfolded because, rather than focusing on the rebuilding of the infrastructure—meaning the ports, and the roads, and the electricity, and the medical system—huge energy has been put into trying to make this conflict diamond system, which actually also excludes gold, into the most transparent system possible in the world. That presents its own kind of problems because you can have a fully transparent system that still doesn't make the country enough money to reconstruct its broken infrastructure. You can also have a transparent system that doesn't work for miners themselves.

For, instance, it's not easy to get your gold or your diamonds from the mine in the bush to the capital without being killed. Those are known trade routes, and it's not safe to go from place to place. The assumption that you can take this clandestine system and turn it into something transparent without also building up proper infrastructure and security, I think, is misguided.

ZACH DORFMAN: I believe you also mentioned in your piece that the Liberian government makes almost no money whatsoever.

SHEFA SIEGEL: Liberia loses money on the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. It pays more to participate in the international system—I hesitate to call it a regulatory system—but in the international monitoring system, to ensure the transparency of that. It pays more into that than it gains in tax revenue.

ZACH DORFMAN: Let's pull back from Liberia for a second and talk about post-conflict zones more generally, and the relationship to resource profiteering. Something that you bring up in the pieces is that in post-conflict countries like Liberia, but also in Afghanistan, in Angola, and in Colombia, among other places, these countries are specifically targeted by profiteers, especially in terms of mining resources. Why do you think this is the case? And why do you think this process seems to recur and there isn't a better sense of why these people are allowed to come in and take advantage of these post-conflict zones?

SHEFA SIEGEL: Because there is a correspondence right now between how remote and underdeveloped a country is and how rich it is in resources; because we're at a stage of historical development where finite resources are becoming increasingly scarce by the year and by the decade. Those areas we're still most likely to find rich resource deposits are places that have poor infrastructure, either because it was never developed or because it was destroyed during a war. Precisely because that infrastructure is deficient, those resource deposits are likely—though not always—to be richer, because they've been under-accessed in the past.

ZACH DORFMAN: It sounds that also in the case of Liberia, and I suppose in other places as well, but just from reading your essay, that this process has been occurring for quite some time. There is a famous Firestone plant that was harvesting rubber, right? It was a rubber plant in the hinterlands of Liberia, correct? This plant dates back to the 1920s, I believe.

SHEFA SIEGEL: Late 1920s, it was started. It's not that far from the capital of Monrovia. Liberia has been, since it was developed, in part, over the last century, used as a rubber plantation for U.S interests because leading up to the Second World War and during the Second World War, the United States had relied almost exclusively on British rubber production. The Firestone plantation in Liberia was created, in part, to offset that dependency on the British.

ZACH DORFMAN: It sounds like the Liberian government, as you mentioned, loses money off of the Kimberley Process. Does it make any money off of other kinds of resources that it exports, or is Liberia a net loser, in a sense? Are there resource concessions to foreign multinationals, and then you have these smallholder mining operations that go through other countries?

SHEFA SIEGEL: Yes. Part of what we've seen in the crisis of Ebola is that, at the same time, the expectation that mining would lift Liberia and other countries in the region, other countries like it, out of poverty is itself a flawed proposition. At the same time that Ebola was raging through the country, the bottom dropped out of the commodity prices. At the time when I was there, it was just about a year ago, there were for example iron ore mines—I'm thinking of one in particular—that were expected to go online any day at that time. Those mines are now on hold because the bottom dropped out of the iron ore price.

There is this predicament in resource-rich, struggling countries where there is a need to figure out a strong revenue source, but mining, as ever, is dependent on numerous variables that are unpredictable. One form of that unpredictability is what's happening with the global commodity price. Another is what's happening with your public health system in those places. We've seen a collision of those over the last year.

The problem is that because it takes so long to get a mining operation up and running, if the bottom falls out of the commodity price while you're waiting for that to happen, and at the same time you have a crisis like Ebola, which is fundamentally a result of not having built up a proper public health system in the last 10 years since the end of the war, not having reconstructed roads, not having reconstructed infrastructure, then you get a storm when you have neither the revenue source and you have even greater devastation in the country as a result of the public health crisis.

ZACH DORFMAN: I suppose there were fairly low expectations for the domestic public health system in Liberia at the time of the onset of the crisis. I want to talk a little bit about the international public health system, and the WHO [World Health Organization] and the ways in which they either succeeded or failed in meeting the challenge of Ebola in Liberia, and, of course, also in Guinea and Sierra Leone. You argue that the Ebola intervention, at one point, could've been pretty inexpensive, at least compared to the costs that eventually were incurred. Why is that? If that was in fact the case, why didn't anybody act earlier to actually stop the outbreak from occurring?

SHEFA SIEGEL: Let me throw into that mix, first of all, that at the time of the outbreak of Ebola there were a mere 50 doctors in Liberia to serve this population of around 4 million people. You have to consider that there just was not the capacity and infrastructure in the country at the time to deal with any crisis of that sort. One question to ask is, why not? That does lead us to the question of, what's going on with responses from international aid, and humanitarian, and development, and environmental organizations? Of which there are a great many operating in Liberia and the broader region.

As I said earlier, I am not a public health expert; my specialization is smallholder mining in these places. What happens is, when I go to a place like Liberia, I tend to interact with other people like me who are relatively low-level consultants, who are doing some of the nitty-gritty work in these places.

Just around that time that I arrived, I met with a UN worker who was one of the people who was working on the early responses to Ebola, before it had become commonly understood as not just a national or a regional, but a global public health crisis. According to her, and according to reports that the UN was putting out at the time, what they were calling the funding gap—this was early July of 2014—to help prevent the spread of Ebola was around $1 million. I don't know if that's 100 percent accurate, or even 50 percent accurate. Even if what we needed was $10 million or $20 million at that time—and of course it's not just an issue of how much money was needed, there are lots of other things involved, but just talking about the money for now—

ZACH DORFMAN: Including, I believe, the fact that the last total was roughly 11,000 Ebola-related deaths.

SHEFA SIEGEL: Not in Liberia, total.

ZACH DORFMAN: Total, in all three countries.

SHEFA SIEGEL: In Liberia it was just under 5,000 deaths.

The reason I've called this article "The Cult of Bankable Projects" was because it's not for lack of money that the international organizations that are active in these regions failed to prevent the worst kind of spread of the disease; it's for lack of flexibility and an inability to develop a comprehensive picture of what's going on and what the development needs are in any given country.

There is enough money available in these places to resolve these crises, but the money is all designated for very specific projects of the sort that I work on. If I'm there to work particularly on how to help bring smallholder illegal miners into the mainstream of the economic system in order to support them; give them better access to technology, to education; and at the same time develop another revenue stream for the national economy—if a crisis of the sort that we've seen with Ebola breaks out, there is nothing that can be done to shift the budget line that brings me into the country to work on an immediate crisis that obviously puts at peril any of the work that somebody like me would be doing on those kinds of issues.

ZACH DORFMAN: Can you talk about your experience of that? You describe this in really vivid detail in your essay, your realization while on the ground there about the kind of challenges that a country like Liberia faces, and how your stated mission to help further its formal rule-following of the Kimberley Process was, again, beside the point, it seemed like, when you have a major humanitarian disaster.

SHEFA SIEGEL: It's terrifying.

ZACH DORFMAN: That sense of terror comes through because you have a city that feels like on the verge of collapse. In a way, it feels like it's at the edge of the world because there are no lights at night, it's been wracked by multiple civil wars, and you have a small cadre of international development experts, such as yourself, who are sitting—I  think you mentioned this particularly vividly—in air-conditioned rooms talking about mining rules and regulations, while out on the street there are people who are dying in horrific ways.

SHEFA SIEGEL: I was asked to come in and advise the Ministry of Mines on the process of legalizing what are called informal smallholder miners, which means people who are working almost entirely manually in diamond and gold mines. They're working illegally. It's not secretively, but illegally, which means that they neither have access to technical assistance, technology and inputs of technology, and education, and at the same time they're not contributors to the revenue base of the country.

This is part of a broader effort globally to bring what has become known over the last decade or so as "conflict diamonds" and "conflict minerals" into a transparent and legal mainstream. These conflict diamonds and minerals became synonymous with the funding of warlords and militias in Liberia, across West Africa, as well as in other parts of the world. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which was sort of the umbrella for  all of these kinds of resource governance projects on which I work, is the international mechanism by which we measure how transparent countries are with the production and trade of their, primarily diamonds, but of their precious minerals.

ZACH DORFMAN: Do you consider the Kimberley Process and what you were doing in Liberia when the Ebola outbreak occurred to be part and parcel of this kind of "cult of bankable projects" that you mentioned earlier?

SHEFA SIEGEL: I do. I think that this term, "the cult of bankable projects"—it comes from this person who was the first director general of what was then called the Technical Assistance Administration for the United Nations. It was created back in 1950. That director was a Canadian bureaucrat and ambassador named Hugh Keenleyside, about whom I also wrote in "The Missing Ethics of Mining" a couple of years ago.

Keenleyside came in with quite idealistic but, I think, at the same time, relatively pragmatic ideas about how international technical assistance, which is now more commonly called international development, should operate. He was imagining that there would be a kind of comprehensive global system, well-funded. Initially it was thought that the U.S. Congress would put in the bulk of the support for that under Truman.

ZACH DORFMAN: I believe he tried and he failed, right? He failed to convince the U.S. Congress.

SHEFA SIEGEL: Correct, it was in Truman's, what they called the "Point Four Address," and then he was unable to get it passed through Congress. What evolved over the next decade was that Keenleyside remained the director of the Technical Assistance Administration for 10 years. He was the one who coined this term, the cult of bankable projects. What he was hoping was that there would be a well-funded system to which developing countries would apply for support, and that the support that they needed would fit into broad and comprehensive development schemes. You wouldn't just have international agencies, whether it's from the UN or from the World Bank, picking off certain areas, certain specializations of their own, and then delivering those to the country; but that the country would come request aid and that that would fit into a broad scheme for how the country could develop more generally.

Because there was a lack of funding throughout the 1950s, that never emerged. He also called it "reverse assistance," where instead of the money really getting from the international agencies to the countries and being used in the countries, it goes to the financing of the projects themselves, the employees who work for those projects, so that a lot of the money ends up staying in-country or in-agency rather than being distributed internationally.

The project work that I do is part of that chaotic global system. If I'm called in to advise the government on a particular issue related to the management of resources—and it's even more particular than that, it's precious minerals—you cannot make an assumption that that particular project fits into something bigger that somebody else at a higher level has worked out, because that simply doesn't exist in most cases. Projects—and that's why I come back to this term from the 1950s, the cult of bankable projects—are operating in a vacuum one from the other.

ZACH DORFMAN: Do you have any suggestions? This is obviously a huge problem, and this kind of coordination problem has bedeviled international development, it sounds like, from the very beginning. You had prescient leaders like Keenleyside, but at the same time understanding the problem of being able to affect a working solution seems fairly—there's a large gap between those two.

Do you have any suggestions on how the international donor and development communities can more efficiently distribute and oversee aid so it can actually help the people it's intended to, instead of remaining in these kinds of siloed and blinkered projects that you describe?

SHEFA SIEGEL: I think there are a number of things that can be done.

First, there was even an article in The Wall Street Journal today, that you showed me before we sat down to talk, that said that the commission that just came back with its report on what happened with all of Ebola, not just Liberia, that they are still uncertain what caused the breakdown among the international agencies that led to this incredibly long delay from the point where I was talking about. In early July I was speaking to low-level UN officials who were saying, "This is going to be a major disaster and nobody's paying attention. Only Doctors Without Borders is doing anything on the ground. Nobody else will listen to us, including the World Health Organization, including higher levels of the United Nations, including any number of international development agencies and philanthropies." [Editor's note: For more on the Ebola crisis in West Africa, check out former Doctors without Borders executive Unni Karunakara's February, 2015 Carnegie interview.]

I don't think that it's that hard to figure out why there was this long gap in response time. I think that what happened was there was plenty of money around in those places, but the money is all dedicated toward these exceedingly narrow projects with specialized interests. Because there is no general scheme into which all of these projects fit, and there's also no flexibility in these bureaucracies, which are massive now—the post-war bureaucracies that were created many decades ago and now it's very hard to operate within them to get anything done—they just couldn't adjust in time. The money was all designated for different things already, and couldn't be moved around according to the bureaucratic rules.

One thing is that, in response to your question, we need to take a hard look at how the bureaucracies work. We need not just reform inside individual agencies, we need to look very closely at which post-World War II agencies have eclipsed their purpose and are ready to be closed down—what it would mean to think about creating new agencies, which is something we don't talk about much anymore. In the post-war world we always talked about creating new institutions; now there's a great distaste for creating new organizations and institutions.

The third thing that we have to look at is, what really are the priorities of development and aid? How can it be that there is plenty of money, that there are resources, and that there are people working in Liberia and places like that, but there are no lights? The roads don't work? There are 50 doctors for 4 million people? I think that those are the major questions we need to ask ourselves.

ZACH DORFMAN: My final question is, are you then sanguine that such a solution can be worked out over time, and that countries like Liberia have the potential to have a linear economic and social improvement and development, or do you think that they're stuck in a vicious circle that you saw come to a head last June?

SHEFA SIEGEL: I think it's dire. We're seeing the breakdown of a great many things. If you can call it a community, which I don't really think you can, but as a community, the international development institutions and organizations tend not to think either culturally or historically. There is a kind of vulgar materialism that has crept into the rhetoric and the experience of working in international aid and development that doesn't put a whole lot of thought into, first of all, what came before in the places where we're doing the work. It's not just that Liberia had never developed anything and we're coming into a place like that and starting development, we're seeing a place that experienced terrible devastation and destruction, and needs to be rebuilt in many cases.

I think that there is a tendency not to think either about that kind of history, or about the way ethnicity factors into economic policy-making, into political decision-making. There is just this sense that if we put money in and we set up projects, that everything will kind of take care of itself after that. We need to have a much clearer sense of what the objectives of international aid and development are, and start making some decisions about what that really would look like if we changed the way it worked. I don't think it's just commissioning additional reports. I don't think it's just coming back and creating a new emergency function for the World Health Organization. I think this ought to serve as a call for really deep and fundamental transformations to the way international institutions are arranged and operate in the world.

ZACH DORFMAN: I'm afraid we need to stop here.

Once again, we've been speaking with Shefa Siegal, whose essay, "Ebola, Liberia and the Cult of Bankable Projects" appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Ethics & international Affairs. That essay, as well as much more, is available online at www.eiajournal.org. We also invite you to follow us on twitter at @EIAJournal.

Thank you, Shefa, for joining us. It's been a fascinating and, I think, quite sobering discussion.

SHEFA SIEGEL: Thank you.

ZACH DORFMAN: Again, this is Zach Dorfman for Carnegie Council and the Council's journal, Ethics & International Affairs. Thank you for listening.

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