Ostriches and Automatic Weapons

My surreal afternoon with Charles Taylor. 

The news that former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted by a tribunal at The Hague on Thursday, April 26, on 11 counts of planning, aiding, and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone is undoubtedly a victory for international law and hopefully some solace for his victims in two long-suffering African countries. But I also find myself thinking back to an afternoon 10 years ago, a memory featuring a crumbling mansion, a lawn filled with ostriches, and some of the most anxious men I've ever encountered.

In July 2002, I was working for the International Crisis Group (ICG), researching the ongoing conflict in Liberia. A colleague and I were aware we had been under close scrutiny from Taylor's government as we conducted our research over the course of two weeks in the country; there was little that went on in the capital, Monrovia, without Taylor's knowledge. Tensions were high as a rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), was gaining steam in the countryside and pushing toward the capital. Staying in the only lodging that served expats throughout the war, the Mamba Point Hotel, we were frankly relieved that our research was nearly completed, and we were ready to depart for neighboring Sierra Leone.

It was then that we got word that we were to be granted our request to have an audience with Taylor, one of the most feared leaders in Africa -- a man rumored to have threatened to burn down his high school after losing a student council election and whose brutality had only grown as he made a bloody climb to the presidency. Taylor ran his army as a virtual cult of personality and had directed the killings of too many people to count.

Our meeting was to take place at the executive mansion, a gloomy concrete monstrosity built in the 1960s. It had not aged well. A broad reflecting pool and fountain in front of the building were stagnant with moss and weeds. Mildew stained the exterior walls. I assumed the meeting would be little more than a courtesy call.

After a cursory security check, an aide escorted us out to the back lawn of the mansion. Walking down the broad concrete steps that looked out to the Atlantic, I tried to act nonchalant, but given my surroundings, it was a struggle. Muscular young men in T-shirts toting automatic weapons patrolled the grounds. A workman lazily pushed a lawn mower in the far corner of the yard. Several ostriches, remarkably large birds when viewed up close, grazed on the patchy grass between the bodyguards.

We were escorted to a large gazebo where Taylor was holding court. The president had assembled much of his senior cabinet for the meeting, including his national security advisor, foreign minister, and chief of staff. Several local reporters clicked photos of us being greeted by the president, to use later as propaganda. Taylor quickly dismissed them with a wave of his hand.

Taylor was dressed in a cream-colored sports jacket. His gold watch and ring were conspicuously large. He yelled at an assistant, who in turn yelled at the worker in the yard, and the lawn-mowing ceased.

As we sat down, Taylor admonished us to take out our notebooks "so you do not make any mistakes about what I say." He began with a long, scolding lecture about the ICG's reports on Liberia, which had been uniformly critical of his ruinous leadership. His assembled ministers provided periodic punctuation by nodding their agreement or solemnly intoning, "Yes, Mr. President."

Taylor seized on the issue of the war-crimes tribunal that had recently been set up to prosecute atrocities conducted during the 1991-2002 war in Sierra Leone. Taylor had directly supported the militia faction that had committed the worst abuses in the neighboring country, while profiting wildly from an illegal diamond trade that flourished in the midst of the war. There were growing calls for Taylor to be indicted by the tribunal, and his vehemence convinced me he was deeply nervous about it -- justifiably so, as it turned out.

Taylor also went on at great length about the LURD rebels. With the 9/11 attacks still a fresh memory, he mimicked the language of U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, calling the rebels "terrorists" and "Islamic fundamentalists," though there were no grounds for such charges. Indeed, only a portion of the group's followers were Muslim, and they had no links to any international terrorist group. Turning history on its head, Taylor claimed that the notorious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone -- the militia group he had directly supported -- was some kind of Islamic conspiracy. Taylor denied that his government supported the RUF, even though it was a poorly kept secret that it did. The RUF had become notorious for hacking arms off opponents, real and imagined, and even small children.

"The way the RUF has been cutting off people's arms," suggested Taylor, "maybe this is a sharia practice. I do not know." He insisted that his own forces had been very well behaved as they fought the LURD rebels in Liberia's countryside. "We were so careful. War is not child's play," he said. It was an unintentionally ironic statement given the number of Taylor's child soldiers we had seen manning checkpoints during the previous days.

Taylor claimed that all his actions, including smuggling in weapons from Eastern Europe to circumvent a U.N. arms embargo and cracking down on opposition groups, were in keeping with the United Nations Charter and the rights of a sovereign government. He blamed Washington and London for conspiring against him. I noticed the foreign minister craning to read my notes as I jotted all this down.

After taking us to task at length, Taylor tried a more personable approach. He insisted we should not impose our worldview on Africa, saying, "You see, my brother, political feuds border on hatred in Liberia. You cannot expect First World standards. Things are just different; everyone wants power. It is not like the politics you know."

Smiling, he continued: "I live well and have no regrets. I am a good Christian. I lived and studied in Boston. All these men sitting around you have advanced degrees, most of them from good universities in the United States. But a politician from America could not survive in Africa no more than I could survive in Alaska."

I politely interjected, "President Taylor, I am convinced that if you moved to Alaska, you would be governor within eight months." He laughed, and a number of the cabinet ministers grinned at the thought.

Looking around at that moment, I came to a powerful realization. These men, the most powerful and feared in all of Liberia, lived in constant fear. Fear of falling out of favor, fear of being betrayed, fear of being held accountable for what they had done. They were afraid of Taylor and afraid of each other. As the ostriches and armed thugs wandered across the lawn, I realized that no matter how terrifying Taylor might be, he was still just a man -- and a vulnerable one at that. The guns, smuggled diamonds, and expensive Thai mistresses were all just a house of cards, always near collapse.

Our meeting took the better part of two hours. Taylor concluded the discussion with a smile and a threat: "If your next report contains the same inaccuracies, we will think it was not done in good faith."

As we were being escorted off the lawn, I turned to the aide who was seeing us out. I had to ask. "What's the story with the ostriches?"

"The president likes animals," he replied. "There are three ostriches. There used to be four. One ostrich swallowed a cell phone, and when it rang, the bird went berserk. The bird was so badly injured that he died. The president was very upset." He told the story as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

This week, Charles Taylor was held accountable for his crimes, the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. International justice may be slow and imperfect, but somewhere out there right now is another group of warlords sitting around a table, uneasily eying each other, realizing after Thursday's ruling that their abuses may land them in The Hague next. That's a victory for justice.


Democracy Lab

Away From the Handouts

The argument for a new approach to development aid.

According to a new report from the OECD, total economic development aid to poor countries fell by 3 percent last year to $134 billion -- the first drop in regular program assistance (as opposed to debt forgiveness) since 1997. OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría acknowledged that the decline was linked to hard times, especially in Europe, where Greece, Spain and Belgium all slashed aid by double digits as part of their austerity budgets. But Gurría still managed some handwringing, arguing that "the crisis should not be used as an excuse to reduce development cooperation contributions." Should you be wringing your hands, too?

Two decades ago, only Grinches would have seen the question as even worth asking. Most people of goodwill thought that aid for everything from building public infrastructure to containing dread tropical diseases was a worthy activity. The UN's Millennium Development Goals, proclaimed with much fanfare in 2000, represent the high water mark for this sort of thinking.

Today, thanks in no small part to William Easterly, a former World Bank researcher who now teaches economics at New York University, skepticism about the efficacy of development aid is thoroughly mainstream. And the debate has taken on new urgency in light of the reality that the United States, the European Union, and Japan all face chronic structural budget deficits that will make development aid (as opposed to military and geostrategic aid) a political luxury. Indeed, it's hard to imagine the scenario in which the U.S. contribution -- some $30 billion aid in 2011 -- won't fall sharply in coming years.

So, what do Easterly and Co. have to say for themselves? While I can't do justice to their arguments in a few paragraphs, the attack on foreign aid comes from three directions. The first (and hardest to dispute), is that the economic return on the trillions (actually, close to $5 trillion) in official development aid delivered since independence movements swept away Europe's colonies has mostly been wasted. Indeed, the return on many aid projects may have been negative, cementing autocrats' power and feeding cultures of corruption while encouraging crony capitalists to suck the life from small entrepreneurs and would-be innovators.

Second, there seems to be a negative correlation between success in economic development and the amount of development aid received. Compare the record of China, which got relatively little aid over the decades, with that of Egypt or Zimbabwe or the kleptocracies of West Africa, which got a lot. For that matter, compare China's remarkable growth with India's, which was the darling of the aid community for decades, but merely limped along until the market reforms of the 1990s.

This critique is surely on target, but not quite as potent as it seems on its face because an awful lot of development aid really has been disguised strategic aid. The United States has effectively paid Egypt to keep the peace with Israel -- and thus arguably got its money's worth, even if most of the money went to the care and feeding of Egypt's elite. Likewise, it's next to impossible to defend the effectiveness of development aid in Iraq or Afghanistan (or for that matter, Vietnam or Nicaragua, back when they seemed to matter to Washington). But if development was a goal in these cases, it was an afterthought. And, to be fair, strategic aid did stimulate growth in some cases. Assistance to South Korea and Taiwan, which was entirely a byproduct of the Cold War, probably did generate substantial returns in terms of development.

Which brings us to the third leg of the indictment: The methods and motives of the donors. Easterly argues that development aid bounces from fad to fad and back, creating a cycle of optimism followed by disappointment -- and a return to earlier nostrums. The wheel keeps spinning in spite of failure, he concludes, because "the cartel of good intentions allows rich country politicians to feel that they are doing all in their power to help the world's poor, supports rich nations' foreign policy goals, preserves a panoply of large national and international institutions, and provides resources to poor country politicians with which to buy political support."

Easterly, and many other economists, counsel tough love and deregulation as the alternative. Their prescribed dress for success is of the one-size-fits-most variety. Stabilize prices and keep budget deficits in check. Create an institutional framework (rule of law, private property, access to capital on competitive terms) that allows markets to work efficiently. Open the economy to foreign competition. Invite foreigners to invest -- especially the ones who bring technology and management skills.

If all that seems familiar (so familiar that you skimmed the paragraph), give Easterly a good chunk of the credit for creating a new consensus about the fundamentals of development strategy. Easterly mostly has it right, but oversteps in dismissing all development aid.

I don't mean the old-fashioned version that feeds the beasts of top-down governance and crony capitalism, not to mention commercial lobbies back in the donor countries. But rather a leaner, meaner version that improves the prospects for private initiative or tackles problems that can't be solved without collective action. A few examples: roads that give farmers all-weather access to market towns, purchase guarantees for drugs targeted at AIDS and tropical diseases that are designed to stimulate R&D, technical aid and working capital to create self-sustaining crop insurance systems.

The catch is that somebody has to decide which projects to fund: If the aforementioned "cartel of good intentions" is still in charge, what's to prevent it from reverting to type? This suggests that a very important part of monitoring development aid is monitoring the characteristics of the donor bureaucracies. And here, Easterly is again out front.

Working with Claudia Williamson, a colleague at NYU, Easterly offers tangible criteria for judging aid agencies ranging from transparency to degree of specialization to the efficiency of delivery methods, and ranks them accordingly. Among national donor agencies, the UK Department for International Development stands out; the United States is far down the list. Greece brings up the rear. Among multilaterals, the Global Fund (disease-fighting) and the Nordic Development Fund (climate change) are leaders. The IMF, World Bank and a passel of UN agencies are in the adequate-to-wretched class.

There's no going back to the era in which mandarins from the donor agencies huddled with the dictator's flunkies to decide which railroad to a hopelessly inefficient factory complex in the bush would be built, and which crony capitalists get a piece of the action. But it would be a shame to dump development aid altogether, just when some agencies are getting smart about how to make it work and specialists are getting smart about making sure they do.