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Monrovians divided on benefits of hosting UN development panel

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 28 Jan 2013 11:51 GMT
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By Kate Thomas

Around the Liberian capital Monrovia, shiny aluminium panels are springing up, fencing in patches of disused land and dilapidated buildings.

They're part of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s plan to 'beautify Monrovia' – a plan that's also seen market traders removed from the streets during daylight hours.

Popular opinion on the initiative seems divided. Some Liberians are proud of the government-backed plan, hoping it will remove eyesores and turn Monrovia into a more aesthetically pleasing capital.

Others are cynical, especially in the run-up to the next round of talks of a United Nations-appointed high-level panel on development, to be held in Monrovia this week.

The panel, co-chaired by Johnson-Sirleaf, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Indonesia's President Yudhoyono, is tasked with generating new global recommendations for the Millennium Development Goals beyond 2015 – or, as Johnson-Sirleaf puts it in her welcome statement to the panel, producing "a reasoned, practical development agenda that can successfully eliminate the myriad dimensions of poverty."

The development framework includes educational, healthcare, employment and infrastructure goals.

Ahead of the panel, Liberia is keen to showcase its achievements: a new electronic billboard was fastened to Monrovia's Ministry of Finance last week to inform passers-by about Liberia's progress in training health practitioners and road construction.

But with the city's main artery, Tubman Boulevard, and the highway to the international airport due to close for three days during the meeting, some Liberians say the gathering will inconvenience those it is designed to help.

"When the road is closed, many people will be late for their jobs," said Dixon, a motorbike taxi driver. "Their bossmen will be angry with them. Some people will not be able to reach their jobs at all, and many children will not be able to reach their schools," he said.

Monrovia's main JFK hospital will remain open during the event, but access from the centre of town will be re-routed around the back roads, where traffic is likely to be concentrated.

"I think it's great that Monrovia is hosting such an important meeting," said Belinda Jalloh, who sells lappa cloths – the wrap-around fabric Liberian women traditionally wear - in the city's Rally Town market.

"But Monrovia does not have enough roads so that everyone can get on with their business at the same time. I, for one, will not be coming to work on those days. And if I get sick, it will be harder to reach the hospital," she said.

Others say the long-term gains will be worth the short-term pain.

An editorial published last week in the Heritage national newspaper spoke of "excitement about this conference being held on Liberian soil ... because it provides us an opportunity to expose the beauty of our country to the world."

"This conference will significantly connect our country to the outside world as a nation emerging from the gutters of calamites to the buoyancy of new hopes, genuine peace and tranquility," it added.

Joe Boima, an ex-combatant who fought with convicted former President Charles Taylor's forces during Liberia's civil war, thinks so too.

"I think the president's work is making Monrovia look nice. It can get too dirty here," he said. "We have to try."

But halfway along Tubman Boulevard in the city's Sinkor district, Omaru Sallie, who shines shoes for a living, disagrees. The house he was sheltering in was torn down as part of the 'beautify Monrovia' plan.

"You can say now Monrovia will be more beautiful for the world to see," he said. "But for me, my life is not more beautiful now. My life is harder."

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