Monday, February 9, 2009

President Sirleaf's Challenge: Reversing the Course of Liberian History**

On November 8, 2005, Liberian women had cause for jubilation. The presidential candidate who had just been elected to Liberia's highest political office was, for the first time in history, one of them: a woman, "Ma Ellen," Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Weary from fourteen years of civil war, women across the country had responded overwhelmingly to Sirleaf's rallying cry: "All the men have failed Liberia; let's try a woman this time!" Promising to bring a "motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency," Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won a commanding victory to beat former soccer star George Weah by a margin of nearly 20 percentage points.

President Sirleaf's watershed victory marked the first time that a woman in Africa was elected as head of state. Her win shattered a glass ceiling in a continent ruled for decades by an exclusively male roster of African leaders. Yet her victory was more than emblematic. It carried with it an unequivocal mandate to improve the lot of her country's women, the core base of her political support. Deeming women her "greatest constituency," President Sirleaf has reiterated that she has a "special, special obligation and responsibility to them." In recognition of the centrality of women in her election, President Sirleaf declared in her inaugural address:

"My administration shall thus endeavor to give Liberian women prominence in all affairs of our country.... We will also try to provide economic programs that enable Liberian women -- particuarly our market women -- to assume their proper place in our economic process."

Thus from her very first day in Liberia's highest office, President Sirleaf has declared her unambiguous commitment to strengthening the economic opportunities facing Liberian women.

Lessons from Liberia's history: Dashed hopes and missed opportunities

Yet Liberia's history serves as a cautionary reminder that ground-breaking leadership alone has not necessarily translated into economic improvements for constituencies in the past. Twice before, the identity of Liberia's political leadership had posed an unprecedented historic opportunity, not unlike the one facing Liberian women today. Yet in both instances, instead of ground-breaking leadership translating into improved welfare for the constituency that might have been represented, precisely the opposite transpired.

The first instance of missed opportunity was the very founding of the Liberian nation as it is known today. In 1817,a society of white American knows as the "American Colonization Society" purchased a stretch of land in present-day Liberia, with the intention of creating a new homeland for several thousand emancipated slaves from the United States. Renowned Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuściński captures the significance of this great historical experiment in the following passage from his masterpiece, The Shadow of the Sun:

"The fate and behavior of these settlers (they called themselves Americo-Liberians) is fascinating. Yesterday still they were black pariahs, slaves from America's southern plantations, with no legal rights... And now they, the descendents of those unfortunates, until recently slaves themselves, found themselves once again in Africa, in the land of their ancestors, among kinsmen with whom they shared common roots and skin color. At the will of liberal white Americans, they were brought here and left to themselves, to their own fate. How would they conduct themselves? What would they do?"

The answer, according to Kapuściński, is startling. "In contrast to their benefactors' expectations," he wrote, "the newcomers did not kiss the ground or throw themselves in the arms of local Africans." Instead, they declared that only this small group of Americo-Liberians -- less than one percent of the total population of their new homeland -- had the right to citizenship. Damning still, Kapuściński wrote on, "as early as the middle of the nineteenth century, long before apartheid was instituted in southern Africa by the Afrikaners, it had been invented and made flesh by rulers of Liberia -- descendents of black slaves." Ethnic homelands were established for Liberia's distinct tribal groups, who were in turn forced by coercion to live in their assigned territories. It is from these homelands that the ruling Americo-Liberians looked to capture slaves for labor on their own plantations and sell abroad.

Thus in a bitter twist, Liberia -- a country ruled by freed slaves and named for liberty -- was investigated by the League of Nations in 1929 over allegations of forced labor and conditions of slavery. The tragic irony of Liberia's failed experiment is captured by Kapuściński:

"From their experience in the American south, the Americo-Liberians knew only one type of relationship: master-slave. Their first move upon arrival in this new land, therefore, was to recreate precisely that social structure, only now they, the slaves of yesterday, are the masters, and it is the indigenous communities whom they set out to conquer and rule. Liberia is the voluntary continuation of a slave society by slaves who do not wish to abolish an unjust order, but wanted to preserve it, develop it, and exploit it for their own benefit. Clearly an enslaved mind, tainted by the experience of slavery, a mind born into slavery, fettered in infancy, cannot conceive or conjure a world in which all are free."

A second time, Liberia again became the victim of its own missed potential. Nearly 150 uninterrupted years of elite Americo-Liberian rule came to a screeching halt in 1980 when Samuel Doe, a semi-literate 29 year-old military sergeant, toppled the ruling government in a bloody coup. Doe came from Liberia's indigenous population: a population that, despite comprising 99% of the country's populace, had historically been denied political voice and economic power. Many indigeneous Liberians rejoiced over the news that a member of their own Khan clan was in charge for the first time.

Alas, any hopes of Doe's presidency delivering improved living standards to Liberia's indigenous majority were ultimately dashed. Egregious economic mismanagement, incompetence, and corruption by the Doe administration and the outbreak of civil war caused a precipitous crash of the Liberian economy. GDP fell by a shocking 90 percent between 1979 and 1996 -- a decline so great it was deemed by the World Bank "possibly the largest economic collapse of any country since World War II." Thus the same people who celebrate Doe's ascension fell deeper into poverty under his rule, and the country ultimately unfolded into a devestating fourteen-year civil war that would claim nearly 300,000 lives.

What it will take to reverse the course of Liberia's history

Liberia's sobering history serves as a guide to the pitfalls that should be avoided by President Sirleaf in her quest to improve economic conditions for women. In short, there are four critical factors necessary for success that were conspicuously absent in these previous instances of resounding failure.

First, President Sirleaf's administration must demonstrate -- and in fact has demonstrated -- a very clear political commitment to the economic plight of women. Such benevolence was visibly absent from the past discriminitary policies of the orginal settlers toward native Liberians, for instance.

Second, is the existence of democratic accountability. Whereas the Americo-Liberian rulers arrived at the whim of a white colonial society halfway around the world, and Samuel K. Doe assumed power by way of a military coup, President Sirleaf was ushered into office by the overwhelming will of her own people through democratic elections. Thus her commitment is more than benevolence: it represents a fundamental responsibility to her electorate.

Third, what is needed is sheer competence: bona fide effectiveness, prudent financial management, and the ability to translate goodwill into concrete results on the ground. Such competence was sorely lacking during Doe's embattled administration. Today, Liberia's improved governance and capacity under President Sirleaf have been recognized internationally, most notably by the recent selection of Liberia for the "threshold program" of the US's Millennium Challenge Corporation and by the IMF in its restoration of proper IMF status to Liberia in March of 2008. Perhaps most illustrative of Liberia's effectiveness is its dramatic improvement on measures of corruption. In two years, between 2005 and 2007, Liberia climbed an astonishing 72 places in country rakings of corruption -- the largest rise of any country in the world.

Despite the fortuitous existence of these three auspicious factors -- commitment, democratic mandate and capacity -- one final question remains: does President Sirleaf's administration have the right policies in place --and, importantly, the right resources (donor and others) -- to translate this goodwill into tangible economic opportunities for Liberian women in her remaining three years in office, and to ensure that the economic fruits of Liberia's post-war development benefit men and women?

This is precisely the question that my colleague and classmate, Emily Stanger, and I sought to answer in our analysis, "Fulfilling President Sirleaf's Mandate: Ensuring Women their 'Proper Place' in Liberia's Economic Development." Read on for our conclusions.

**Most of this blog post is drawn from my masters thesis, co-written with the indomitable Emily Stanger for the MPA/ID program at the Harvard Kennedy School.