By Elaine Kellman
In this latest Impact Story profile in ASAP’s Impact: Global Poverty project, Elaine Kellman speaks with Robtel Neajai Pailey, a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, who is battling corruption in Liberia.
While still a doctoral student, Robtel Neajai Pailey has emerged as a globally influential voice on poverty, corruption and related issues. In a career that already spans work as a practitioner, journalist, government staff member and academic, she has published articles or comment pieces in The New York Times, Africa Today, The Guardian and many other outlets. She has also covered news out of Africa as an assistant editor of the Washington Informer Newspaper, worked in capacity building for the Foundation for International Dignity (a refugee rights organisation), taught and developed curriculum at the Robben Island Museum in Cape Town, South Africa and the Buduburam Refugee Camp School in Ghana, and has collaborated with or consulted for a range of NGOs and philanthropic agencies.
It was while working as a government aide in Liberia that Pailey became aware of allegations that Liberia’s government-administered scholarships were being sold to the highest bidder and / or given to relatives of government officials. Outraged, she formulated a transparent system of awarding scholarships to the best applicants, which has now been fully implemented by the Liberian government.
In addition, Pailey has devised and written a children’s book, Gbagba which was published by onemoorebook.com in 2013. Exploring issues of integrity, accountability and corruption, Gbagba (loosely translated in the Bassa language as ‘trickery’) follows a few days in the life of Liberian twins, Sundaymah and Sundaygar, who leave their hometown of Buchanan to visit their aunt in Monrovia, facing tough decisions and challenges along the way.
Last year, Pailey’s research on Liberia and her work to tackle corruption was formally recognised, as she was selected as one of the most influential foreign policy leaders under the age of 33 by global affairs magazine Diplomatic Courier and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Pailey was recognized in this list as a “shaper”: that is, someone who changes the public discourse on an aspect of foreign policy or raises awareness of a critical issue.
Here, Pailey discusses with ASAP the challenges and rewards of her impact work in Liberia, as well as her future plans, and offers advice to others who may be seeking to make an impact through their research.
ASAP: What made you decide to write a book like Gbagba, addressing corruption and aimed at children?
RNP: I got really frustrated with all the rhetoric about fighting corruption in Liberia, and wanted to start a national conversation with children. After teaching in two of Liberia’s universities and working in policy spaces in national government, I realised that integrity must be strengthened at the earliest stages in a child’s life in order to mitigate the practice of corruption in the next generation. So, I wrote Gbagba, creating a narrative that Liberian kids could see themselves reflected in, thereby increasing their love of reading. It’s virtually impossible to expect that an 18-year-old approaching adulthood is all of a sudden going to develop scruples, especially when his/her society does not value honesty. Eight to 10-year-old children are the perfect targets because it is at this stage that they begin to form an ethical core. In writing Gbagba, I imagined myself a proverbial anti-corruption pied piper, without the instrument of doom.
ASAP: What were the major challenges in getting Gbagba published?
RNP: I was very fortunate in that I didn’t have hurdles publishing Gbagba. My publisher, Wayetu Moore, of One Moore Book (OMB), approached me in early 2012 about a Liberia Signature Series that she was publishing in 2013 featuring Liberian veteran writers Stephanie Horton and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. Wayetu asked if I could be the third Signature Series author, and I jumped at the opportunity because I had already conjured up Gbagba in my head. Wayetu, a young Liberian social entrepreneur and writer based in New York, was enthusiastic about the concept of the book from the very beginning. She founded OMB in 2011 with her four siblings because they wanted to revolutionise the children’s book industry by producing stories for children from underrepresented cultures. Wayetu was the perfect ally in giving life to Gbagba. So, too, was Chase Walker, my illustrator, who had been drawing subversive cartoons for months in Frontpage Africa Newspaper, a local daily in Liberia. A self-taught graphic designer and artist, Chase provided such depth to my twin protagonists, Sundaymah and Sundaygar, that their personalities jumped off each page of the book!
ASAP: What has the response to Gbagba been like in Liberia?
RNP: Gbagba has received nothing but goodwill in Liberia. I’ve done readings of Gbagba followed by discussions with children in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, and was struck by how astute they are. They understand issues of integrity better than we adults do, and are able to articulate themselves with such bright-eyed innocence. Before conducting a workshop and preview reading of Gbagba at a local elementary school in Monrovia, one girl told me, “Corruption is breaking the Ten Commandments and hurting people.” This young child understood so fundamentally the intrinsic value of accountability. This is why I wrote Gbagba, to give young children the verbal tools to question the confusing ethical codes of the adults around them. Beyond the children of Liberia, adults have also responded in kind. Most parents I come across want copies of the book in their homes, and teachers want to use it in their classrooms. In 2013, the Liberian Ministry of Education placed Gbagba on its list of supplemental texts for 3rd to 5th graders, although I am aiming to get the book in the formal curriculum for these grades. The UNESCO office in Liberia also devised a values education curriculum proposing Gbagba as a core text, and this proposal is under consideration. And most recently, the Open Society Initiative of West Africa (OSIWA) approved a grant to donate 1,500 copies of Gbagba to schools across the country. With this grant, we’ll be commissioning Luckay Buckay, one of Liberia’s premier Hip-co artists, to write and produce a Gbagba song that will be released sometime this year.
ASAP: What might you say to others who may want to pursue broadly similar projects in countries like Liberia?
RNP: Do your research. Countries like Liberia are not tabulae rasa; they are incredibly complex with often competing realities. Understanding the local context is absolutely crucial in making positive inroads. Speak to a diverse range of stakeholders. Ask what the needs are, and try to figure out if your potential intervention is required or even desired. Too often, we conjure up grand plans that sound fantastic, but have no relevance for the contexts in which we want to work. It’s better to join forces with already existing local initiatives than to reinvent the wheel for personal aggrandizement.
ASAP: How did you become involved in Liberia’s International Scholarships Scheme?
RNP: My involvement was based on a conversation that I initiated with Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in 2009. At the time, I worked as a mid-level aide in her office. I had been collecting news clippings from a recurring exposé in one of Liberia’s local dailies, In Profile Daily, alleging that Liberia’s bilateral, international scholarships were being sold to the highest bidder as well as given to the relatives of government officials. I approached the President concerned about the implications of this exposé, given that Liberia had major gaps in capacity in crucial areas that international scholarships could help fill, such as engineering, agriculture, and medicine. President Sirleaf noted my concern and asked me to do a formal investigation and come up with a list of recommendations, which I did. After discovering that the allegations in the exposé were true, I recommended that the government of Liberia appoint an ad-hoc scholarships committee to overhaul and reform the entire bilateral scholarships scheme, making it merit-based, transparent, and gender-balanced. The President appointed me chair of the committee, and within months we devised a bilateral scholarships policy and began vetting scholarships in a transparent manner. The first batch of scholarships under our supervision was awarded to some of the brightest young people I’ve ever met in Liberia.
ASAP: What made you decide to try to reform it?
RNP: I’ve been on merit-based academic scholarships in the US and UK since I was 15. My working class parents always stressed the value of hard work and scholastic achievement. They gifted me with an insatiable love of knowledge and ambition to succeed. If not for the scholarships I received from high school through my current Ph.D., I would not be where I am today. I thought it was incredibly important for the best and brightest in Liberia to have the same opportunities I had, so that they could meaningfully contribute to the country’s post-war reconstruction process upon completion of their studies.
ASAP: What were the major challenges you faced in your reform effort and how did you address those?
RNP: The first major challenge was gaining public confidence in the new scheme. The scholarships process had been hijacked by those with money and power for so long that the average Liberian had lost faith in it, thinking it was a foregone conclusion that you could pay your way through the system or use your political affiliations to secure awards. To address these negative public perceptions, I conducted a series of radio interviews with scholarships recipients who had gone through our new and improved system, to give people first-hand accounts of the many reforms we had made. The second major challenge was maintaining our high standards and ensuring the process was merit-based despite attempted interference from private citizens and government officials. To address this, my committee and I made it clear to anyone trying to intrude that our final decisions were final, and that only those who had passed our very rigid guidelines would be invited for interviews and written exams.
ASAP: Your reforms have now been adopted by the Liberian government. What are the biggest implementation challenges that you can see remaining?
RNP: The major challenges are maintaining the selection criteria and standards we set, and ensuring that those who return from studies are placed in government agencies where they can meaningfully contribute to Liberia’s development.
ASAP: Based on what you have learned in your research for the book and related work, what do you think are the key challenges facing Liberia, now and in the future?
RNP: Liberia’s historical and contemporary challenges are two-fold. First, we lack systems of true merit, where people are promoted or appointed (whether in school settings or in job settings) based on what they know not who they know. This leads to disincentives for personal achievement and low levels of productivity. It also fuels patronage and corruption. Our second major challenge is reconciling what I call an ‘external agenda for Liberia’—based on the whims of donors, multi-national corporations, and the UN—with a clearly defined ‘internal agenda for Liberia’—based on the aspirations of Liberians themselves. Too often, the external agenda supersedes the internal agenda, thereby fomenting domestic angst.
ASAP: You have been named one of the most influential foreign policy leaders under the age of 33. What do you think that kind of visibility might be for your impact work?
RNP: The award has definitely provided me with increased visibility and legitimacy to fulfill my life’s work, transforming Liberia for the better.
ASAP: How do you balance your impact and commentator work with your doctoral studies?
RNP: My doctoral thesis addresses the ways in which citizenship in Liberia has been reconfigured across time and space, and what implications this has for post-conflict reconstruction. My impact and commentator work are extensions of my doctoral studies and vice versa, so I don’t consider them mutually exclusive.
ASAP: How has your work outside academia figured in your research?
RNP: I was born in Liberia, but grew up in the U.S. because of the 14-year conflict in my country. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always had a metaphysical connection to Liberia, and have been obsessed with trying to figure out what it means to be Liberian across varying landscapes. Most of my life’s work inside and outside academia has focused on creating pockets of transformation for those who may not be able to speak truth to power, particularly in Liberia.
ASAP: What are your own aims and ambitions for the future, both in your research work and your impact work?
RNP: I plan to delve into a full-time writing and teaching career after completing my Ph.D., with a series of Gbagba books serving as my first major foray into book publishing. In addition to children’s books, I intend to write academic articles and books, beginning with the publication of a book version of my Ph.D. thesis. I also plan to freelance for magazines and newspapers on a range of contemporary development issues facing sub-Saharan Africa. And finally, I intend to teach qualitative research methodologies as well as English composition and literature in Liberia.
ASAP: What advice would you give to a university looking to encourage academics to make an impact at an early stage of their careers?
RNP: Universities should adopt SOAS’ ethos of encouraging academics to be fully engaged with the world around them, rather than just pontificating about it in the ivory tower. This can be done by placing an emphasis on evidence-based research that has policy relevance and ultimately affects practice.
If you would like to nominate an impact-oriented academic for an Impact Stories profile, please contact Luis Cabrera at firstname.lastname@example.org