Relief-worker Powers recalls trying to do good on the international aid front in Liberia.
In 1999, the Catholic Relief Services sent the author to Liberia to direct their multimillion-dollar portfolio of agricultural, health, and food distribution programs. Charles Taylor had been in power for two years, and the country had made no gains: it was impoverished, politically corrupt, wildly violent, and environmentally racked. Powers had hoped to use sustainable development to confront the links between poverty and the destruction of the environment, but every way he turned, his ideals got the cold shoulder, whether from smug, elitist expatriates; incompetent, sometimes conniving aid agencies; or parasitic government officials. Painting with a fine brush, the author shows Liberia going sub–Third World: no electricity, no piped water, no mail or telephone. The country was living on its own waste while a few top government officials got rich by selling off the great trees of the rainforest, and any number of militias financed their murderous activities by trafficking in diamonds. While Powers ably points out all the obvious bad guys, he also draws a bead on the lack of horizontal relationships between aid givers and recipients. Taking a dead-end, patron-client approach, aid projects are driven simply by the need to spend funds and meet quotas without any sense of long-term economic and social development, he argues. As a local environmentalist noted, “It’s the current manifestation of the colonial impulse to control and dominate.” Powers gives the story a human dimension, demonstrating how some small-scale projects do work by building an infrastructure from the ground up, and he has his own human-scale story, too, twined through the mayhem of everyday relief efforts. But his love story founders as open rebellion takes the country to its knees—again.
A hard-bitten, unclouded, and intense portrait of a desperate place, demanding as it unfolds that readers accept some of Liberia’s pain as their own.