Second of two parts. The first was published on May 9.
In April 2012, as my plane began its approach to the Abidjan airport, in the former capital of Cote d’Ivoire or the Ivory Coast and the country’s largest city – the official capital is Yamoussoukro – I wondered what I would find.
The airport had suffered during civil conflicts. Would the scars still be there? Would there be any hassles with immigration and customs?
As I entered the airport, it just sparkled and was significantly upgraded compared to what it had been during my earlier trips. The entry processing was smooth and professional, as it was when I was leaving. As I was picked up by a friend, it was obvious that the parking lot was in excellent shape. The airport area is being developed for business and will soon have a new five-star hotel. The airport road was in good shape.
Instead of going to a standard hotel, I went to a small, new Ivorian-owned bed-and-breakfast.
It had the unique name “Ecologie,” signifying the owners’ efforts to be “green.” The price was modest, the people great and the accommodations attractive and large. The Internet connection and the air-conditioning worked.
The location was in a newer section next to the original “African area” established under colonization when the downtown area was for Europeans. United Nations peacekeepers were everywhere and their vehicle depot was nearby. The area was safe and friendly, with shops, restaurants and clubs and mixed income residences.
In my travels around the city, I could see the recovery was going full bore with construction, particularly roads and a new bridge. Unlike some areas, the workers were Ivorian.
The police had new uniforms and carried assault rifles but at least in the public areas they were polite and professional and not as authoritarian as in some areas.
On a Sunday, we traveled east of the city and the beaches were full of people. Active campaigning for local elections was everywhere. (The elections came off successfully but the 30 percent turnout was called disappointing, although it beat many elections in Miami-Dade County.)
There was no question that the economy was rebounding. However, from my position with the Center for Research in Oceanography, some of the gaps became clear. The government has reopened the universities but laboratories looted during armed conflicts were still empty.
Science education suffers from too much book learning and not enough hands-on efforts and in Cote d’Ivoire this situation is now worse. The government labs also lack needed resources. While people are obviously glad to have paychecks, lack of ability to do real science is devastating.
The youth population has suffered from schooling disruptions. The U.N. secretary general has appointed Dou Dou Diene, distinguished jurist and U.N. veteran (and a friend) as his special envoy to the country to assist in reconciliation efforts.
The move for reconciliation has some way to go. Violence continues to disrupt the western parts of the country and merging the army with the militias who rebelled so security can be assured is a momentous task.
Without adequate development of a technically competent workforce, development will overly depend on outside expertise. Countries like the U.S. which applauded the coming of the newly elected government should support the education, science and security needs. While USAID is involved, if we really had a constituency for Africa, there would be a movement and real change.
*Brad Brown, a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist, is a consultant on African coastal and marine projects and scientific capacity development. He is also first vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org