James is …
A recent graduate of Colorado College. I graduated with a degree in Political science, magna cum laude. After graduation, I returned to my home country of Liberia to work in public health and help in the rebuilding and strengthening of Liberia’s public health systems after the Ebola outbreak. James loves Paul Simon (a mutual interest that has kept him close to his best friend at ALA, Nina Papachristou) and Manchester United, one of the key features of his conversation with Mr. Eugene Adogla, his ALA football coach, mentor and friend.
What are you currently busy with?
I am currently working for Last Mile Health (LMH) in Monrovia, Liberia. Last Mile Health is a public health NGO that recruits, trains, manages, supervises and incentivizes community health workers to serve as extension of the public health system. We work in the last mile – meaning with people who live more than 5 kilometers from the nearest traditional medical facility. These community health workers deliver quality healthcare to the doorsteps of the most vulnerable and hard to reach people. I work as the partnership’s officer, mostly at the county level, to fill information gaps for our operations and implementation teams. A portion of LMH’s model is being adopted by the Government of Liberia in the design of a national community health workers policy. We serve as one of the technical advisers and the main implementing partner. On this front, I liaise a lot with the county health teams to form relationships that would enable Last Mile Health to scale up this national program.
What were your motivations for doing what you’re doing now?
I majored in Political Science because of my passion and interest for public policy and how those policies affect economic development. Public health combines both of those interests. I became interested in public health because of the Ebola crisis in West Africa. I was in Sierra Leone and Liberia last year doing research on football academies when the outbreak started to gain momentum. I went back to school and took a class on global public health. This class focused heavily on the intersection of public health and public policy, so it was one of the driving forces in steering me towards this work. But more generally, reading about the horrors of the crisis in the newspaper and talking to my family was the most crucial factor in my decision to return home and help with general health systems strengthening.
Is your work with what you expected it to be? In what ways ‘yes’ and in what ways ‘no’?
I have been there for about a month now. Yes, it is fulfilling and there are lots of learning opportunities. I really connected with the vision about two weeks into work when I joined one of the field teams to observe how recruitment was done. I wrote up a journal entry/email to my friend to explain the journey:
“It was a six hour drive from Monrovia. The first three hours were on normal roads… after that, perhaps the bumpiest road I have ridden on. We drove out for about ten minutes once we reached our office in Rivercess, a county in Liberia. Then we rode in a canoe for ten minutes. I was so scared. No life jackets and my swimming is not very good (read as nonexistent). Everyone was so calm, so it gave me relief. Then we got on a motorbike for a little more than an hour. The road was about a foot wide and so difficult to navigate. Then we walked 12 miles! Yes, 12. Half of those were on the beach, so very beautiful, except when we had to cross the lagoons. The water was violent and many times I feared we were going to lose someone. In one of the crossings, the water climbed above my waist. About a quarter of the way was through forests and swamps. Farewell to my shoes. On our return trip, I felt like we were on an episode of a Survivor-type reality TV show. Despite the physical demands and the extreme difficulties of the trip, it gave me a real understanding of the work we do. Without our organization (and the donors who help fund us), people in these places will not have access to health care. Imagine if a doctor has to go through all those hurdles to see a patient. The place we went to was so remote that there was no cell phone signal, no clean water, no roads, and no nearby schools. I was amazed at how far away people live from the nearest health facilities and how people’s lives hung by the thread. In the event of a medical emergency, you were basically consigned to die.”
Do you feel that what you’re currently busy with is connected to ALA’s vision? How so?
I think football is my first and truest calling, if I can put it that way. At ALA, I was involved with a community service project called the African Football Academy that provided after school and academic help for young boys. My goal has always been to open this on a continent wide level, like the football version of ALA! My research was focusing on the link between community development and football. We compared academies in Sierra Leone and Ghana, to investigate their model of teaching football and the social impact they generated through their academic programs, community service and other initiatives. For me, this was also an opportunity to learn about best practices for opening a football school – a dream I developed at ALA. In addition to Last Mile Health, I am working with SMART Liberia, an NGO I co-founded with Marvin Tarawally (ALA ‘11) and Ahmed Konneh (ALU Inaugural class) to improve education in Liberia by empowering high school students to be change makers. I’m utilizing my ALA network.
What has been your most impactful lesson learnt from this past year?
From my work with Last Mile, I’ve learnt that economic development as a broadly defined field needs a major paradigm shift to focus on the most hard to reach places. The interventions needed are easy and those places, because of the small geographic area, are good grounds for experimenting with new ideas. More generally, in life, I have learned to live modestly and do the most good. This last lesson came from a recent team bonding exercise with SMART Liberia. We read some of Peter Singer’s work on “effective altruism” and I was inspired to apply some of those principles to my life. I hope years from now I will still conduct aspects of my life based on Singer’s ideas.
What are your plans for the upcoming year?
I will continue working with Last Mile Health as we help the ministry of health to scale up the community health worker model at the national level. I will also be busy with helping SMART Liberia scale our reach to schools outside Monrovia and expand our activities to include advocacy for educational reforms in Liberia and become a major actor in Liberia’s educational sector. Currently, we are working on establishing a TED-style program that focuses exclusively on stories about education. I recently started a blog on football with my college roommate of 4 years. I am hoping to get more writers (ideally ALA folks!), improve the quality of the blog’s content and make the blog a major stop for most football fans. See the blog here: tacticsanticsandsemantics.wordpress.com.
What is the ideal place you see yourself in the next five years?
In five years, I hope to complete a Master’s degree at a renowned public policy school, with extensive focus on public health and international development and work for the African Development Bank or the government of Liberia. I also hope to get a football coaching certificate and start to work with teams in Liberia to improve my understanding of the game and get experience that will help me one day manage a team.
How are you working towards that, in either a broad or a specific sense?
I guess I would say my job with Last Mile Health and my work with SMART Liberia are the ways in which I am working towards my first goal. Working in public health and working closely with government officials is helping me understand public policy and creating a network I can tap into in the future. In my spare time, I read a lot about the debates in international development, follow expert opinions and government reports, all with the intention to understand more about development and policy. Right now, I am reading “The Idealist” by Nina Munk, a profile of Jeffrey Sachs and his Millennium Village Projects. Despite all the criticisms about him, I am a huge fan of Sachs. I first encountered Sachs at ALA because one of Kimmie Weeks, one of the experts-in-residence assigned it as preliminary readings. I hope to develop a more nuanced view of Sachs’ ideas reading Munk’s work.
With football, my blog is the first step to reaching my aspiration of working in football. Writing, reading and debating about tactics will help me refine my own coaching philosophies, learn tons of stats, meet football writers, learn new coaching methods and generally know a lot more about the game I love.
Any advice for alums looking to follow a path similar to yours?
Use your ALA network; it’s the most important asset we have. My work with Last Mile Health is because of an ALA connection. Most of the jobs I applied to happened because of my ALA connection. Collaborate with other ALA students in terms of ideas sharing on projects and ideas work hard, read a lot, and be willing to be flexible. Although we all have our ideal job or career, it is important to be willing to adjust your plans to fit the most pressing need. I never imagined I would be working in public health, but when the Ebola crisis hit, I knew this was a chance to help my country.