Read on for highlights, reflections and anecdotes from my summer internship in Monrovia with Liberia's Ministry of Finance. Comments are very enthusiastically encouraged!
Friday, June 1, 2007
Liberia: History unfolding
Liberia first captivated my attention 18 months ago, in January of 2006. Virtually unknown to me previously, the small West African nation made headlines worldwide when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as the country’s exceedingly competent president and the first ever democratically elected female head of state in Africa.
Few countries evoke as elevated a sense of optimism, of transformation, and of history unfolding before one's eyes, as Liberia today. Once ranked among sub Saharan Africa's middle income countries, Liberia was ravaged by a devastating civil war and decades of misrule and corruption. Fourteen years of conflict claimed the lives of nearly 300,000 people, displaced another 500,000, and left the country’s social fabric, infrastructure and economy in ruins. Thirty years ago Liberia boasted a per capita GDP comparable to those of Egypt, Indonesia and the Philippines and more than double that of India. Today average income in Liberia is just 30 cents a day: a shocking 30% of the extreme poverty line, and a mere 10-20% of pre-war income levels.
President's Sirleaf's election in 2006 marked the dawn of a new era of hope. Known affectionately as the “Iron Lady,” President Sirleaf is a shining star of good governance amidst a sea of corruption in the African continent. Beyond her impressive credentials -- Harvard educated and years of professional experience in the government and the private sector -- President Sirleaf earned widespread respect for her courageous opposition to the previous regimes, which even landed her in jail. Visionary, competent, incorruptible, effective and development-focused, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is one of the most remarkable leaders on the planet today, and one of my personal heroes.
To be sure, the challenges facing President Sirleaf and her government are immense: For a country of nearly 3.5 million people, there are just 43 Liberian physicians and 21 nurse midwives. Liberia is one of the only countries on the planet where today’s generation of children has less education than their parents. Schools and hospitals have been destroyed, unemployment stands at some 85%, and electricity is limited to just 10% percent of residents in the capital city, and nowhere beyond. Faced with such daunting tasks of rebuilding, President Sirleaf has set out with compassion, sound policies, and bold leadership to deliver poverty reduction and economic development to her country.
It is from the pages of Liberia's unfolding history that I seek to learn this summer, and upon which I will reflect in this blog over the coming 8 weeks. I invite you, too, to learn from Liberia's courageous experience and to share your views and reactions. (Blog comments are warmly encouraged!).
Before graduating from the MPA/ID program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in 2008, I spent a summer internship in Monrovia as a special assistnat to Liberia's Minister of Finance, Antoinette Sayeh. A big thanks to the NGK fellowship and the Women and Public Policy Program for the generous financial support and sponsorship.