Summer in Liberia
Drawing on her experience helping women in Ghana build small businesses in the Peace Corps six years ago, Jessica Maiorca knew she wanted to work on Labor Market issues in a developing country. The MILR student concentrating in Labor Market Policy met with ILR Labor Economics Professor Gary Fields, who recommended that she talk to Professor Tom O'Toole at CIPA about international opportunities.
For Jessica, the opportunity to use her Cornell education to make a difference was more important than a specific destination: "Tom asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I was interested in Labor Market issues in a developing country. He told me 'Someone went to Liberia last year.' I said, 'That sounds good,' and that was it." Professor O'Toole emailed the deputy minister of the Ministry of Labour, Hon. John Josiah, and the three of them worked out the arrangements for Jessica's summer experience.
Liberia is classified by the UN as a "Post-Conflict" country due to the bloody 14 year civil war, which ended in 2003. Jessica wrote, "... when Liberians recollect war stories with a tone used to describe last night's dinner, the conversation inevitably turns to present-day issues: Life is very difficult. Food is expensive. There isn't enough work. Among the few jobs available, wages are too low."
One of the major challenges the Liberians are experiencing is trying to regain lost momentum and economic stability following the conflict. As Jessica observed, "it doesn't take a development expert to determine that Liberians need jobs. But it's not that simple. Instability interrupts life. Prolonged instability interrupts generations. Many Liberians lack education and employable skills. Once-productive industries are trying to regain momentum. Government institutions are trying to set the stage."
The Liberian Ministry of Labour (MoL), which is charged with implementing national labor laws and encouraging a fair work environment for both workers and employers, is in the process of updating its national labor laws and minimum wage as well as strengthening its young National Tripartite Council (NTC).
Jessica worked mainly with the NTC to establish and move on its priorities. Composed of worker, employer and government representatives, the NTC advises the Minister (who advises Liberia's president) on issues such as international labor standards, dispute prevention and mediation, and prevention and reduction of unemployment. "We made some progress," Jessica writes. "We established a basic meeting schedule (and stuck to it) and voted on a mission statement and basic goals. We trained the NTC regional representatives as mediators in order to unclog the national labor courts. We interviewed parties in a $24 million timber concessions dispute."
There were many parts of the experience that Jessica had not expected when she set out: "Often the work involved logistical problem-solving. The NTC Secretariat didn't have a computer. 100+ bags of rice appeared in the training room on the eve of a program. Printers simultaneously ran out of toner. An NTC member was suspended. Internet stopped working when it rained. The funders couldn't deliver on time. So we found a computer, begged Maintenance to move the rice, yelled at Procurement, replaced the NTC member, waited until the next day to move funds around. Really, we just moved on."
Jessica is optimistic about the future of Liberia and the work she did. She says, "Sustainable change takes tenuous steps forward, revision, and patience. Working with the MoL reminded me to listen more, think innovatively and be willing to fail. If given the chance, I would return this moment."