I visited Guinea Bissau, a very poor West African country as part of an IMF staff visit that assessed the country’s progress and mapped out future development goals. Despite long-lasting instability, harsh colonial legacy and proximity to Ebola-stricken countries, Guinea Bissau enjoys relative stability after the democratic elections in 2014 and is making progress in infrastructure and exports. The capital Bissau welcomed with old colonial chart, small-town feel and some of the most welcoming people I have met. Everywhere, from the minister’s offices to the passersby I experienced a genuine joy from interacting with the locals despite my limited Portuguese skills. As the economist tasked with monitoring trade and the country’s only export, cashew, I was pleasantly surprised by the authorities’ efforts to crack down illegal exports and improve production.
Apart from my official duties, I made an effort to contribute in my own way to development in this remarkable country. Along with state meetings, one of the highlights of my trip was a visit to an orphanage where a woman along with several staff members took care of 35 children in a dilapidated building. Despite the acute scarcity, everyone was very welcoming (after the young children overcame their surprise at seeing white people). Despite the limited resources, the children enjoyed teaching on site and a new playground donated by the Australian embassy. Still, their sleeping quarters were crammed, clothing was in short supply and cooking facilities were almost nonexistent. The staff cooked over an open fire and had no refrigerator to store food. I distributed school supplies but immediately felt that my contribution was very modest. I wanted to organize an outreach to help with the purchase of a refrigerator but with the cash-only economy of Guinea Bissau, the first trial amount of 100 euros was not guaranteed delivery after changing many hands (miraculously, it did reach the orphanage).
I would like to visit again but since my work has reoriented, that seems unlikely to happen in the near future. Still, I cherish my memories of a place faced with many difficulties and yet filled with much hope.