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The Widow Mary Gargar Meets the Global Positioning System (GPS)

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Sitting on a ramshackle assortment of wooden benches under the shade of a mango tree, we listen to the story of the widow Mary Gargar. An elderly and weathered Liberian woman with a look of determination just short of defiance, Mrs. Gargar tells us of how she purchased land from a man falsely representing himself as its rightful owner. Now that the war is over, a reverend who the government confirms is the rightful owner has returned and wants to build. While she holds a deed for the land in her name, and depends on its crops for survival, he too needs the land for his livelihood. How are they to resolve the dispute and meet their competing needs?

Land disputes are a recurring theme in the developing world and are at the root of much violent conflict. For the majority of the world's poor, poverty is predominantly a rural issue. More than three quarters of those who live on just one or two dollars each day still live in the countryside. Living further from commercial centers, schools and health facilities and outside the range of many government and social services, the rural poor lack access to the inputs and infrastructure necessary for development. Residence in rural areas exacerbates poverty on nearly every level.

In Liberia, nearly 60 percent of the population is rural. Fourteen years of civil war devastated the physical infrastructure and destroyed what little access to systems and services that Liberia's rural poor once enjoyed. Slowly, however, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's government is working with partners to rebuild, increasing access to the inputs critical for development.

What role can philanthropists play in creating the conditions necessary for wide-spread economic growth in rural areas? While the challenges facing the rural poor are daunting, there are three key areas where strategic giving by private philanthropists can make a difference: agriculture, legal systems and education.

In Liberia's post-war period, agriculture has accounted for over half of GDP. To ensure that agriculture continues to grow, philanthropists must direct targeted support to rural areas. Projects that improve access to agricultural inputs, including high-yield rice and other new technologies, and those that strengthen agricultural institutions and build supply chains from rural to urban areas should be a priority. Aside from direct agricultural skills training and education, donors can design financial services targeted to small-scale farmers that will enable them to invest and plan for the future with confidence. In a place like Liberia, where the war destroyed the country's livestock population, the introduction of something as simple as donations or loans to purchase and insure livestock would have a dramatic impact on the capacity for rural development.

But to invest in and develop agriculture on a piece of land, one must first be sure that he or she is the rightful owner, as we learned with the story of Mrs. Gargar. Land and property rights are central to poverty alleviation efforts -- to stability, food security, income-generation and status within one's community. However, legal systems for registering and protecting these property rights face a number of hurdles, particularly in poor, post-conflict settings. As part of its Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), the Liberian Government commits to promoting effective land administration and management. Toward this goal, the government has established a commission and works with several key NGO partners, including the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the Carter Center. The NRC works with the government to collect deeds and land records, increase the number of trained land surveyors and put a national system in place for land registration. Through outreach, the NRC spreads information about property rights and facilitates community resolution of land disputes, such as Mrs. Gargar's. In addition, they put an essential new tool in surveyors' (and land owners') hands: global positioning systems. The process followed for making a determination includes the community and is viewed as fair--and the results are uncontested.

Complementing this work, organizations like the Carter Center support small programs in underserved rural areas to educate people about new laws and the legal means for resolving disputes. In a country where illiteracy rates are high, and access to information limited, the Carter Center sends traveling troops of local actors into the villages to perform entertaining and educational skits, followed by Q&A sessions with the villagers. On Saturday, I and 20 philanthropists, who are members of the Global Philanthropy Forum, took a UN helicopter to visit Liberia's most isolated and rural region, the South East, to participate in one of these village gatherings and the robust Q&A session that followed the play.

We also viewed the re-opening of Tubman University in Harper city, the first and only institution of higher education in the region, which had been closed down during the war. It is nearly impossible to emphasize the importance of education to lifting the rural poor from poverty. Despite the government's Free and Compulsory Primary Education Initiative, unofficial fees still prevent many children in Liberia from attending school. Over 70 percent of schools were destroyed or damaged during the war, and those that still operate do so with few supplies and poorly trained teachers with poor attendance records due to inconsistent pay. But, by efforts such as underwriting teacher salaries, providing books and supplies, funding the construction of new schools and providing the safe transportation of students to schools, philanthropists can have an enormously positive impact on rural education, and thus economic development.

On the final day of our trip, we visited a safe-house and rehabilitation center for vulnerable girls run by Touching Humanity In Need of Kindness (THINK). Many of the girls in the program were fighters during the war, or were trafficked to Monrovia under false promises of education in the capital city. Families willingly send their children to Monrovia, believing that they will receive an education and a chance for a better life. Too often, however, these children are forced into near slave-labor conditions as market sellers, house cleaners or prostitutes. The stories of these young women, although now on a positive path, represent an ugly nexus between rural and urban poverty. The rural poor are trafficked to the city because of the desperation of the urban poor. If affordable education in rural areas is provided and reliable means for families to make a living through agricultural development and property right protection are strengthened, women may be spared from making these dangerous decisions about how to educate their children.

This all sounds like a tall order, and many of these goals require the investments of governments, but each can be advanced substantially by small grants, especially to organizations like THINK, NRC and the Carter Center, each of which is having powerful impact on the lives of many who have suffered too much -- including the strong willed Mrs. Gargar.