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Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf MC/MPA 71, the self-described “professional technocrat” who recently became the first democratically elected female leader in Africa, told a standing room only audience at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Monday night that she is committed to rebuilding Liberia’s economic, social, and political systems following more than 14 years of horrific civil war.
The war left the nation in ruins as the state collapsed and “the country descended into a humanitarian disaster.” In stepped Johnson-Sirleaf, who assumed the president’s office in January after winning a run-off election last November. She immediately embarked on a 150-day “action plan” to stabilize the government, and escape a “period of darkness and insanity.”
“We know that we must quickly consolidate the potential dividends of Liberia’s hard won peace, and arrest the economic and financial hemorrhaging,” she told the Forum audience while delivering the Albert H. Gordon Lecture on Finance and Public Policy. “We know that we must respond to the deep wounds of the Civil War and enhance national governance while quickly introducing new measures of structural reform and reconstruction.”
Her first priorities were to restore national security, rebuild government systems and end corruption, rebuild the economy, and redevelop the critical public infrastructure. “The government is committed to doing things differently, to move the country from conflict to peace and onto development,” she said.
Johnson-Sirleaf spoke of the need for “universal free primary education,” literacy training for adults, improved health care facilities, equal opportunity for all citizens, and rapid growth in the nation’s agricultural base. Liberia’s external debt is also a major problem, she remarked, and one that will have to be addressed if the nation is to move forward with international trade and investment.
“Our overall mission is to make government work again, to be able to be more responsive in delivering quality service to the Liberian people. In this regard, there is a critical need for forging and building strategic partnerships,” she stated. “We will continue to improve our capacities and mechanisms to strengthen donor support coordination, communization, and dispersement of funds.”
As for enhancing governance in Liberia, Johnson-Sirleaf sounded an optimistic tone, saying that “Africa’s problems have more to do with the quality of its leadership than the scarcity and under-capacity of its human capital…My persistence in remaining in the political arena for over 30 years is with a strong desire to serve our people who we know deserve better than that which they have received in our recent history.”
Johnson-Sirleaf concluded her speech with a call for peace and unity, saying that the age of globalization demands it.
“We are attempting to identify those systems that represent the unifying threads between all of our people and those ideas and concepts that have unified mankind throughout the ages – the variables of liberty, dignity, and enlightenment that have remained constant throughout the centuries,” she said. “We are committed as a people to build a new Liberia from the ashes of an old turbulent and tragic past to a future of hope and promise.”
Johnson-Sirleaf’s appearance at the Kennedy School was co-sponsored by the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) and the Institute of Politics (IOP).
Photos by Martha Stewart