Monday, February 25, 2008


NAIOP Community Service?

Trevor Marks called me yesterday afternoon and reminded me that he was going to attend the Rex Awards, and I was being recognized for a Community Service Award. I felt a bit awkward since I am not in Toronto; Makeni in Sierra Leone is not exactly near Toronto and nor is there any similarity apart from an Atlantic Coastline. I feel a bit guilty since I am having such an enjoyable adventure; yes the pay is lousy but the payoff here is that I can contribute to meaningful advances, learn a great deal and broaden my horizons. Community Service sounds like self sacrifice and I feel a little guilty since, rather the opposite of sacrifice, I have indulged in rewarding experience and adventure. I also feel more than a little guilty because I haven’t been keeping up the blog. I’ll try and make amends. In any case it is a nice boost to know that people are thinking of me in such a far away place on a cold dark wintry night in Toronto.

I have been here since November on a return VSO placement and there have been some encouraging successes but also some disappointments. I have been able to further my revenue mobilization work very successfully in Makeni as well as move other diverse projects along such as helping to start a food processing plant, helping out at an association for polio victims, a library program and other interesting ventures. It is not difficult to get involved here. I was expecting to come to an agreement with the World Bank to extend the work I started in Makeni through to other urban centres. It seems that agreement only now seems to be firming up. Here you learn to accept the frustration that time goes very slowly; and sometimes backwards. So over the next two weeks I’ll be travelling around to Bo and Kenema so that I can train the administrations to set up the same program of property taxation as Makeni.

Some have asked me how my expertise fits into a poor county’s need for relief. In a poor country such as Sierra Leone (GDP $300 per person versus $32,000 for Canada) there is the usual need for health care, education and help with agricultural production. There are legions of people working through NGOs that compete to provide these services but I am horrified that health care is still poor beyond description, education is dreadful, expensive, and mainly for boys of more wealthy families. Agriculture is small scale and worked on a subsistence basis only. Overall, not a good picture but there has been some improvement. My work is with a nascent local government where I help to organize and mobilize the revenues. The need to provide basic services such as waste management, roads, cleaning, fire service, police etc. is critical to the stability of communities and potential investment. In working toward the millennium development goal of reducing poverty The World Bank have been promoting decentralized government and the raising of own source revenues. I also see this poverty reduction happening in a practical sense, certainly in Makeni where there is lately a greater confidence and some risk taking by local builders and businesses in the erection of new buildings including a new hotel and even a new bank. In Canada and other western countries we tend to take government for granted but in “developing countries” good governance seems to be a key need to encourage important confidence and development. My initial work creating a system and training the administration in Makeni has been rewarding, even more so that the central government and World Bank have taken note, boosting my confidence by the offer of funding (at last) to go to other urban centres.

There is a large amount of food produced here in Makeni but limited variety. I seem to be happy with a steady diet of cassava root and leaves, plantains as well as various gourds, lots of fruit, and rice all cooked in palm oil. Lack of refrigeration and food processing means that much of the local crops are spoiled on the way to market. There are nonetheless a surprisingly large number of undernourished kids. I have been learning a lot about food processing and have gotten involved with a small start up operation doing the business end and coming up with ideas of organisation. The Binkolo Growth Centre (see my previous blog article) will process palm and cassava products. A bunch of Canadian donors have pooled together and we have now bought a much needed truck. An idea that I am following up is the conversion of palm and a new crop jatropha kernels into diesel fuel. With gas at $7 per gallon this makes a lot of sense, and for me it is all fun and stimulating.

The local library has been the source of much fun and diversion while I deal with other frustrations. I have organized a Saturday morning kids session doing painting, games, and telling stories. Other VSO volunteers and some NGO people are able to help out and I hope that it becomes a permanent fixture. Reading is not part of the local culture and so an encouragement, especially for children is needed. It is really rewarding to see the kids have so much fun in a new way.

There are still quite a lot of polio victims in Makeni since the “free” vaccinations are not universally applied nor available. This is particularly sad since there is much funding for other health interest groups such as HIV/AIDS and Malaria. I have become involved with an association helping to organize some funding, equipment and some employment (at last) with the Makeni Government.

There is lots more but I’ll finish this here as I hear the Imam call for evening prayers and I am reminded that I have to cook dinner for some friends. I wish all at NAIOP a successful evening. Thanks a lot for the Community Service recognition although as I have said, on a personal level I am enjoying the challenges and the satisfaction beats the reality of having to work at Altus for a while.

If anyone has questions or comments I love to get e-mails at

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