The Head of the President’s Delivery Unit turned to me and said, “I spent six hours yesterday walking around the airport, looking at the tarmac,"
He showed me a picture of a pothole on his phone. “Air France say that if we don’t get this fixed they’ll stop flying here.”
It was Monday morning. Early on Sunday, an Air France flight from Paris to Monrovia had burst a tire on touching down on Monrovia’s bumpy runway. Within an hour of the accident the President had been informed and was on the way to the airport to inspect the damage. She found an Airbus A330 parked in the hot sun, waiting for a new tire to arrive from Paris so it could resume its journey. None of the three agencies responsible for managing the airport could agree on the cause, but the Air France pilot and manager insisted that they had hit a pothole and demanded immediate action.
As an advisor in the President’s office, I knew that fixing the airport was a top priority. Roberts International Airport used to be a regional hub, but after years of civil war and little investment the small terminal was cramped and the runway bumpy and uneven. Earlier that year, I had seen a presentation by airport consultants that estimated the cost of renovating the airport at $200-300 million, with $60 million for the most urgent safety improvements, like repaving the runway. $60 million may not sound like much, but it’s a tenth of Liberia’s annual budget. But we knew that if we didn’t find the money within the year, the airport might be forced to close – cutting a country of 4 million people off from the world.
Until then, the head of the President’s Delivery Unit, Gyude Moore, had been handling the airport renovation. But he had many other priorities, and didn’t have any engineers or financial experts on his team who he could have delegated it to. So I agreed with him and the President that AGI would put together a small team to help out.
We already had three people working on infrastructure: one at the Ministry of Finance, one at the President’s Delivery Unit and one at Public Works, which manages Liberia’s roads. None of us were engineers, but as former civil servants and consultants, we knew about project management and what questions to ask the contractors. We decided to proceed on two fronts: setting up a steering committee to handle the contracting, and raising the money from donors.
Getting the right people onto the steering committee required every ounce of political skills my colleagues had from their time in Liberia as well as previous jobs in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and the UK. We had a mandate from the President, but that didn’t clinch the agreement of the agency heads: we needed to identify the interests and obstacles of each one. One of our team was working on a reform of the National Oil Company at the same time and had lots of advice to offer on how to turn public disagreement into private acquiescence.
Raising the money required dealing with a very different organisation: the European Investment Bank. Liberia’s President had met the EIB President in Brussels and obtained his support, but converting a verbal agreement between leaders into a loan agreement took over a year of detailed proposal development and negotiation. We were helped by another team member, who had worked in an investment bank, and a well-timed letter from Tony Blair endorsing the project didn’t go amiss.
I left Liberia at the end of 2013 to start a new project in Ethiopia. My successor as country head kept the airport work going, with one full-time advisor. She had a knack for bringing out the best in her colleagues, both in the government and others. This came in spite of her ability to spot weak points, for instance, a plan by engineering consultants would have made the runway too weak for wide-body jets to land in Monrovia. By mid-2014 the project plan and funding package for the runway were nearly complete.
Then, Ebola struck. As the panic grew, the contractors and funders left Liberia, and several airlines pulled out as well. But AGI didn’t leave. We reduced our team size, but kept going with a mandate to help turn the tide of Ebola, and prepare the recovery plan. The U.S. air force did some emergency repairs, and the donors kept their promises. On 2 June 2015, less than a month after Liberia was declared Ebola free, procurement of contractors is back on and the preferred bidder has been identified to rebuild the airport runway. Air travellers will soon face a less bumpy ride.
I have since left AGI to lead Publish What You Fund, the global campaign for aid transparency. I have the privilege of working on a critical, systemic issue. But I doubt I will ever get as close to the country-level action as I was during my time at AGI. I’m proud of the work that we did in Liberia, and the work that AGI colleagues are doing everywhere.