President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's Speech at Georgetown University
Our people, in a free and fair election, gave my government the greatest opportunity that can come to any leader: the chance to rebuild a nation on the ruins of war. We are moving resolutely forward toward the achievement of this goal. At the same time, we are grateful for the inspiration of our history.
Because our two nations have shared a common past – and because this is Georgetown, a renowned institution of learning in your nation’s capital, this is an appropriate place and time to remember that past. It is also a time to think about new ways to build together for the future – not only to rebuild Liberia, but also to work, in partnership, for a global community that enjoys all the blessings we seek for ourselves.
Our founding fathers of Liberia – like yours in this country – were guided by dreams of a nation that would ensure liberty and justice for all. Our Declaration of Independence says that every person has a right to institute a government of their own choosing – one that protects rights, life, liberty and property of all.
Our Constitution of 1847 enshrines the rights to religious
freedom, to freedom of speech and to freedom of the
press. And it commits the government to establish justice,
to insure domestic peace, and to promote the general
welfare of the people.
Our two nations were born in a quest for human freedom that prompted difficult and dangerous voyages – in different directions across the same ocean. Your settlers fled religious persecution in Europe. Ours left behind slavery in America.
Like your own founding principles, ours were flawed. Your founders – and ours - were men of their time, representing an elite class. They did not extend the liberties they sought for themselves to indigenous people, to all ethnicities and to women. And yet we, as you do, honor their courage and their resolve and their accomplishments. We seek to preserve the best of their legacies, while extending and enlarging their vision to meet the challenges of our times.
One of those challenges is the continuing tragedy of war. Our own recent past makes us acutely aware of the suffering of civilian populations – still an acute agony for Africa. In eastern Congo, where four million people have died in the past decade, the largest contingent of United Nations peacekeepers in the world is working to curb the violence. They deserve our attention and our support.
And it is past time – as I said to the UN General Assembly last month – to stop the killing in Darfur. There is no excuse to delay action because of a debate over whether the instrument should be an African Union or UN force. The continued stalemate exposes weaknesses in international cooperation and collaboration and demonstrates a lack of international will to address the suffering.
Civilized nations must not be indifferent to any conflict – internal or external – regardless of the factors that fuel it. We must properly equip and fund the current African Union mission now, while we move urgently to mount an effective United Nations intervention. Our government has called upon the General Assembly and the Security Council to exercise its authority, under Chapter Seven, to restore peace, security and stability to Darfur.
As an international community, we must also work harder to curb the tools of war. Liberia is still under economic sanctions, because our diamonds were used to fund conflict. We need those sanctions lifted, but we have also understood our responsibility to police diamond exports. At the same time, diamond importing countries must better ensure that they are not customers for conflict diamonds.
Similarly, we must work together more effectively to limit the trafficking of weapons to illicit users. Manufacturers, exporters and purchasers of small arms must join forces against those who kill and maim and rape, who create the instability that is hospitable ground for terrorism.
And ladies and gentlemen, friends, if we truly seek a peaceful and just world, we must systemically enhance women’s access to – and participation in – decision-making processes. We’re proud to say we have made a beginning in Liberia, with women leading key ministries and agencies, including our national police, the ministry of justice, the ministry of finance, the ministry of commerce, the ministry of youth and sports. But while women assume their rightful positions of leadership, both domestically and internationally, we must not forget that the poorest and least educated people everywhere are women and children. I have long supported the establishment of a new, independent United Nations fund or program for the empowerment of women and for gender equality. Again, as I stated at the United Nations General Assembly last month, the United Nations must demonstrate its commitment to the world’s women by establishing such an institution with adequate funding and a mandate to carry out this responsibility.
For all of us, these are times of great risk, as well as great potential. Today, I want to talk to you about what we have managed to do in Liberia in nine months – and about the tasks that lie ahead. Liberia is a small country – 3.2 million people in an area scarcely larger than the state of Maine. But – small as we are – I believe that we can demonstrate successful models for international coalitions to achieve development, as well as national and regional stability.
Those models are needed everywhere. Across Africa, around the world, we must show that freedom can deliver prosperity and peace.
Failure to do so will be more costly than we can contemplate. And in Liberia, that failure would be catastrophic.
If we cannot deliver on the promise of peace, we cannot claim surprise at a slide back into war. The record on this is clear. If we do not deliver tangible results in the first year, the risk of descending back into chaos is very high.
Since my inauguration in January, our people have made tremendous efforts – and achieved tremendous results – given years of dysfunctional systems and a total breakdown of our institutions.
A quarter century of misrule, and 14 years of war, drove our citizens from their homes and scattered hundreds of thousands of them across the region and the world. Rape and sexual violence were rife. Kidnapped children were drugged and forced to kill. The vast majority of our people were at least temporarily displaced. More than 250 thousand reportedly died.
Today, half of our people struggle to exist on less than 50 cents a day. Well over three-quarters live on less than a dollar a day. We have close to 80 percent unemployment in the formal sector – and a large percentage of those without jobs are young men skilled only in warfare.
Our capacity constraints are enormous, and we need to acknowledge the difficulty that poses for our recovery. Our infrastructure was almost completely destroyed. We took office in a country with no government-provided electricity, no water and only cellular telephones.
Our new cabinet ministers began work in buildings without functioning bathrooms, stripped of furniture and anything else of value. Imagine, if you can, trying to run an efficient, effective, transparent and accountable government without computers. Several of our senior officials are forced to live in hotels that have a generator and a satellite connection to the Internet, so they can access email and spreadsheets.
Over the past two decades of decay, a criminal culture took root. Our power grids were looted of everything, including hundreds of miles of cable. Our water pipes deteriorated – or were dug up or stolen. Only a quarter of our population has access to safe drinking water.
We were once very proud of our universities. Today, 30 percent of our people can read and write. Only ten percent of our communities have healthcare facilities.
During the years of turmoil and misrule, corruption became so deeply entrenched that rooting it out will take a long time. This government has pledged to attack it vigorously – and the public demands that we keep that promise – but our abilities are limited by a justice system that is in shambles. To prosecute crimes you need evidence, you need lawyers, you need court officials, you need trained judges.
We also live in a region where stability and security are very important aspects of our survival. The current peace process in our neighbor, Cote d’Ivoire, is a tenuous one. No matter what we do, our peace remains fragile, until the regional issues are addressed. Just as the fighting in Sierra Leone spilled into Liberia – intensifying and spreading our own civil conflict into full-scale war – so renewed war anywhere in the region, could again flood our country with weapons and warriors.
What has been accomplished so far, in the midst of these challenges? First of all, there has been a restoration of hope, and we’re glad about that. Our children are beginning to smile again with faith in the future. We’re glad for that.
But I’ll tell you, there’s one things that bores down on us very, very hard – that is, a sense of urgency. We’ve got to deliver fast – to be able to keep that hope alive, and to have that hope built on a solid foundation.
Let me give you a concrete example of one county in our country, Lofa County – on our northern border with Sierra Leone and Guinea. Its minerals once attracted major investors. Its fertility – which can support three rice crops a year – made it the bread basket of Liberia. Fishing – from three major rivers and cultivated ponds – supplemented both food and income. Its ethnically and religiously diverse population lived in harmony.
All that disappeared. Mining halted as faction leaders tapped gold and diamonds to fuel their conflict. Child refugees from the war in Sierra Leone, as well as our own, affected our children.
Before war ruptured the county, Lofa had 100 health facilities, including four hospitals. All were destroyed. Thanks to the assistance of non-governmental organizations, 32 small health facilities are now minimally functioning – but lack staff and drugs. The county once had 260 schools.
Today, the people of Lofa struggle to heal the wounds of war. Thousands of ex-combatants surrendered their weapons voluntarily, in expectation of training and resettlement assistance. Over a hundred thousand displaced people have returned. We must enable them to farm or put them to productive work, so that they do not return to crime and violence.
If you ask a former child soldier – and there are thousands and thousands in our country - what do you want, the answer in every single case is, “I want to go to school.” Schools need to be staffed now. These scarred children are our responsibility and our future. We must move them from victims into a state where they can grasp the future.
I am pleased that we have made some small beginnings despite the constraints. Our administration has achieved a substantial number of the goals we set for the first 150 days – in the four key areas of security, economic recovery, infrastructure and governance.
Liberia, we are proud to say, is a success story for UN peacekeeping. In addition to securing and maintaining our peace, the UN mission in Liberia is funding and executing quick-impact projects - tangible signs of progress that help keep hope alive.
We have begun renewing our security and law enforcement agencies, with recruitment and training for 2000 soldiers and 6000 police. To serve the most vulnerable among us, Women and Children Protection Units are being installed in police stations.
We have returned electricity and water to some areas of the capital city – including our major referral hospital named after John F. Kennedy – the first time this has happened in 15 years. We repaired roads and bridges before the rainy season, and we intend to continue it in an aggressive program of implementation as the dry season enables us. Tens of thousands of displaced people have been resettled with tools and seeds. Dozens of health clinics have been rehabilitated. We have begun providing services – distributing over 5000 bed nets in the areas most affected by malaria; treating 500 HIV/Aids patients; and conducting immunization campaigns in 250 facilities.
The movement toward accountable government is underway. All cabinet-level appointees are required to disclose their financial assets and take an oath of office to abide by a code of conduct. A civil-service census and a personnel audit are helping us to trim government spending.
Through a combination of efficiency and anti-corruption measures, we have increased government revenues almost 20% in just a period of 150 days. Within our next period we expect that we are going to more than increase it by 50%. We are working hard on a plan for legal and judicial reform. Our Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed to investigate and heal the wounds of war, held its first session last week.
We are now rebuilding our rubber plantations, repossessed from ex-combatants, and working to improve the conditions for the employees.
On October 4th our legislature passed a new forestry law, turning us away from an era when timber was cleared indiscriminately for private gain and to fund fighting. Timber once accounted for over half of Liberia’s export earnings. The new policy will help us to harvest this renewable resource in a sustainable manner and in a manner that insures those resources are used for the good of the community and the people of the country. As a result of that, the sanctions placed by the UN Security Council on our forestry sector have now been lifted.
Anyone who doubts that we have established a vigorously free press has only to go to the Internet and look at the chat rooms! The press and I have an open relationship. They criticize me and I criticize them. They tell me how to do my job as they see it, and I tell them to check their facts and be more professional.
These are some highlights of our initial program to entrench democracy and begin reconstruction. We have just concluded a strong-performance Staff Monitoring Program with the IMF and are formulating our interim poverty reduction strategy for the period July 2007 to June 2008, under a successor arrangement that will lead to a full-fledged poverty reduction strategy for the period up to the year 2011. This will, as much as possible, lead toward accelerating progress toward the achievement of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, although we are very realistic, in recognizing that we may be unable to achieve all of those goals by the target year of 2015 – given the long road we have to cover, for not having started early enough. We are very pleased that in this regard our bilateral and multilateral partners have applauded our first steps.
However, to the extent that criticism in our media reflects a growing impatience among Liberians – we have to be concerned. Our people voted for change, and visible change has been too little and too slow.
This is where the processes and procedures of international partnerships need improvement. Aid needs to be more streamlined – be made more effective and more responsive.
Multi-year commitments are needed, so that developing countries can plan and prioritize, just as developed countries and businesses do. In post-conflict countries, in particular, there must be a smoother, faster shift from humanitarian aid to longer-term development support.
Assistance should harmonize with government priorities, and it should be coordinated and avoid duplication. The help of the governments of China and the United States in rebuilding and having our University of Liberia relocated, is a commendable example of such cooperation.
Support needs to be transparent – just as recipient governments and agencies must operate transparently. Those who disburse aid assistance need to work hard as we do to be as accountable for the use of those funds, as those on the receiving end.
These are not novel ideas. They are not original in any way. Developed countries have agreed to them, in principle, last year, in what is called the Paris Declaration. These are issues that affect all poorer countries, and it is in the collective interest of the world community to address them.
The United States has been – by far – the most generous bilateral contributor to Liberia’s peace and reconstruction effort. Five months ago the U.S. Congress voted an additional 50 million dollars for urgent rebuilding projects. We are exceedingly grateful, and we look forward to seeing the money on the ground very soon.
We need more help from the international community to achieve debt relief. The major source of continuing support for our development agenda comes from multilateral institutions. Even though they have good will towards us and are helping us with grants, we need to be able to get to the place where we can access the largest sources of funding, and we will not be able to do so until we resolve the debt issue.
Here’s the size of the problem – our external debt burden is 3.7 billion dollars – more than 1,200 dollars for every man, woman and child – in a nation, you will recall, where three-fourths of the population subsists on less than a dollar a day. The external debt represents 800 percent of our annual GDP and 3000 percent of our annual export earnings.
I can tell you, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know this, that we cannot meet this financial obligation. But the bulk of this burden stemmed from borrowing by illegitimate regimes that seized power by force. The poorest people of Liberia – who today represent some of the poorest people in the world – must not pay the price for the lack of accountability in which they played no part and have no responsibility.
Fortunately, our partners recognize that we will require substantial debt reduction. And last week brought us one step toward alleviating this burden. The International Monetary Fund removed Liberia from its list of non-cooperating countries, based upon our record of sound fiscal management and reform. We are grateful for this vote of confidence. But we look forward to the full debt relief process, which will take place in the next two years.
We must find a way – in Liberia and in all African countries – to break the cycle of continuing crisis. Tens of thousands of Liberians, many of them highly educated and skilled, live outside our borders. We appeal to them to return home and to supplement our own capacity to rebuild. We know we cannot expect to see them return in large numbers until they see the prospect of earning their livelihoods, until we come close to meeting their opportunity cost. The termination next year of the Temporary Protected Status, which they enjoy, would put an unbearable burden on our already strained resources. In a few more years, we hope that will not be the case. We expect and we want them all to return home to participate in a growing economy. We welcome investors, and we hope to build a stable environment where they can invest, feel safe, make profits, repatriate those profits, where they can have infrastructure, they can have confidence in the government, to enable them to expand those investments and attract new potential investors.
To negotiate that path ahead, we need a bridge. A meeting of international partners, which should have taken place this week will now take place next year. We are preparing now, to ensure the success of that meeting.
As I said before, the majority of our people, our young people, our market women, who have suffered so much, and who have sacrificed so much, do not have dreams that are unrealistic. They dream for the simple things, to be able to live in peace, to be able to send their children to school, to be able to put a meal on the table at night for their families, to be able to get up in the morning and go to a job that earns for them a dignity that enables them to feel like a part of society. Our challenge is to help them achieve those simple dreams that many people in other places take for granted.
In closing, let me emphasize that while time is not on our side, the Liberian people are a resilient people. They have suffered through a lo,t but they are committed to moving ahead to a future of hope and promise.
There is a Liberian proverb that goes like this: The missing black sheep, which you did not see during daylight, you will never see at night. For us to succeed, this opportunity is now – the one opportunity Liberia has to ensure that we do get sustainable peace, to ensure that we can build from chaos and tragedy a future of promise in which all of our people share the same in opportunity, in equity and in their stake in their society.
Thank you all for being a partner in this regard.
To Submit article for publication, go to the following URL: http://www.theperspective.org/submittingarticles.html