Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Liberia: Former soldiers lay down their arms and pick up makeup brushes

Tony Clarke has trained to be a cosmetologist under the UN's post-conflict rehabilitation programme

Tony Clarke traded two grenades for a set of combs, makeup brushes, nail varnish and a short course in cosmetology.

“They help me beautify myself,” said the 32-year-old who sports a carefully trimmed goatee and wears a flashy knock-off designer watch. “As a cosmetologist, you have to groom yourself before you can groom anyone else.”

Clarke, who fought in the country’s civil war, is set to graduate from his training in March. But given skyrocketing unemployment and poorly developed private industry in Liberia, he might end up like many other trained ex-combatants – unable to find a job.

Clarke was one of hundreds of thousands of Liberians, many of them children at the time, who fought in the war, which left over 330,000 displaced, tens of thousands of injured and an unknown number dead.

He is also one of 101,000 former fighters to take part in a UN-led disarmament, demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration (DDRR) process following the end of the war six years ago.

Through the DDRR scheme – funded by the governments of Norway, the US and the UK among others, and executed by the UN and NGOs – ex-combatants hand in their weapons in exchange for cash and in some cases vocational training in mechanics, carpentry, agriculture, cosmetology or other trade.

Clarke and his friends prefer to be called beneficiaries rather than ex-combatants according to Kpangbala Sengbe, a programme manager for the government-run National Commission for DDRR, who says the shift in terminology represents a positive attitude change.

No jobs

But for now it is not clear how far the benefits will go, as many trainees who participated in the programme still have no jobs. Liberia’s unemployment rate stands at 70 percent, according to Ministry of Labour statistics.

“The private sector was not developed so the people [who did vocational training] were not employed,” said an official from the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) who preferred not to be named. “People need money yesterday.”

Clarke is looking forward to setting up his own beauty salon, but to afford to do so and support his family he would have to leave the capital Monrovia for somewhere where the cost of living is lower. In April – when the DDRR programme is set to shut down – he will lose the US$30 monthly allowance the UN paid him to help him cover transport and supply costs.

Agriculture overlooked

More jobs would have been created had training schemes emphasised agriculture, the national DDRR commission’s Sengbe said.

Just four percent of Liberia’s lowlands are currently irrigated, according to the Agriculture Minister Chris Toe, leaving the country highly dependent on imported food to get by. Liberians import 90 percent of their rice from Asia and the United States, making the country vulnerable to price fluctuations.

UNMIL offered agricultural training but – despite the fact that two-thirds of Liberians live rurally – only four percent of trainees chose to focus on agriculture, according to UNMIL.

Though a return to the land brings job opportunities, many ex-combatants are not interested.

Matthew Karr, 31, comes from Nimba County where his mother cultivates rice, but he does not plan to return. “I came here [to the capital] to hustle on my own. If I had a choice, I’d become an accountant.”

DDRR to finish

Despite the DDRR scheme’s flaws, many are worried about the consequences when it shuts down. Even with few jobs going, the UN’s US$30 monthly training allowance helps people get by, according to Clarke.

An UNMIL official who preferred not to be named said other kinds of employment schemes such as the UN-funded and Liberian government-run emergency employment programme – which started in 2006 – have been more effective than UNMIL’s training.

This programme used labour-intensive methods to repair roads, dig ditches, and build up infrastructure destroyed by the war, employing 60,000 people for six weeks, and paying them with a combination of food and money.

Donors should look to these work-creation projects in the future, to try to stimulate the economy, build up infrastructure and give people jobs, Sengbe said.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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