by Virginia Sowers, ChildFund Community Manager
As the first woman head of state of an African nation, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 72, is ever mindful of the obligations that accompany leadership – not just as president of Liberia but also as a role model in the world.
“I am aware of the tremendous responsibility,” she told a sold-out crowd at the Richmond Forum this past weekend in Richmond, Va. “I welcome the challenge with humility.”
Democratically elected in 2005, the Harvard-educated Sirleaf pledged national renewal after a long period of civil conflict and corrupt governance in her homeland. During the 14 years of turmoil, young children were recruited by the warring factions. ChildFund began work in Liberia in 2003 to help these children, families and communities reconnect and resume their daily lives.
Despite the country’s ongoing challenges to rebuild its infrastructure and economy, Sirleaf said she is “bullish” about Liberia’s future as well as that of the African continent as a whole.
“Africa is taking hold of its own destiny,” said Sirleaf, citing country-led poverty reduction programs as one of the centerpiece efforts. “Our civil society organizations are vigorous.”
As president, Sirleaf said her biggest accomplishment has been gaining international forgiveness for Liberia’s crippling national debt, thus freeing up still-scarce resources for education and innovation. “All of our little children are back in school,” she said.
Africa is a continent of young people and growing younger, Sirleaf noted. By 2050, the African youth population is projected to be 1.9 billion strong. On the positive side of that statistic, Africa is home to the world’s “fastest-growing labor force,” she said. But without investment in the critical basics of education, health, shelter, clean water and skills training for these young people, the risk remains high that they will be unemployed and apt to engage in violence. “The civil war, from which Liberia had recently emerged when my administration took over in 2006, was mainly fought by young men for whom the economy held no promise,” Sirleaf said.
Yet, Sirleaf is encouraged by the progress in her own country, including the rekindling of industry and commerce, and noted the harmonizing of economic policies across the continent. “The majority of African countries have created the environment for security and stability,” she said. “The majority are meeting the challenges of human security, jobs, education, health, sanitation clean water, all of those poverty-reducing measures that reduce conflict and instability.”