Ambassadors Archive 2

Liberia – A Country of Firsts

By Alan Dessoff

From its flag with the familiar red-and-white stripes and blue field, but with a single star instead of 50, to the elevation of women in its society, including one who is now its president, Liberia —“land of the free”— has much in common with the United States. Founded in 1820 by freed slaves, and with its capital, Monrovia, named after U.S. President James Monroe, Liberia enjoys links with the U.S. that underscore and facilitate Nathaniel Barnes’ job as the African Republic’s Ambassador in Washington.

Barnes, who also serves as Liberia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, points to Liberia today as “the poster child on the continent” and “a country of firsts” as the first independent country in Africa and the first with a democratically elected female president.

But he acknowledges that Liberia has problems to overcome. Many are the legacy of a bloody civil war that ensued from 1989 to 1996, under the corrupt and ruthless President Charles Taylor, claiming the lives of more than 200,000 Liberians and displacing a million others into refugee camps in neighboring countries. The war left behind not only a ravaged country but also devastated the lives of many women and young girls who became the victims of rape. A documentary, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” chronicled on “Bill Moyers Journal,” airing on PBS on June 18, 2009, shed new light on the violent abuse of women in Liberia.

However, the war also brought about one of Liberia’s most acclaimed achievements, as women united and rose in defiance against their aggressor and began to take control of their lives. They conducted peaceful demonstrations and refused to have sex with their partners, tactics used successfully by women in ancient Greece.

Further, the political empowerment of women has brought them into the top levels of government, headed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In the wake of Taylor’s resignation and departure into exile in Nigeria in 2003 under intense U.S. and international pressure, Sirleaf was elected over an international soccer star in a run-off in 2005. Although there have continued to be “several ugly incidents” of violence against women, the country now has anti-rape legislation in place and a “fast legal process” to deal with offenders, Barnes says.

With “incredible support from the international community” and under President Sirleaf’s leadership, Liberia is making improvements fueled by “the permeation of hope,” Barnes says. “With the new government and the existence of peace and stability, there is incredible hope among Liberians that we will not allow this sort of self-mutilation, (the civil war), to happen again. When you get off the airplane in Monrovia and walk around, you can literally feel the vibrancy of hope,” Barnes declares.

Three years into fulfilling a six-year blueprint, the Sirleaf administration has adopted to lift the country -- “we are preparing ourselves for the future,” Barnes says. The blueprint, a poverty reduction strategy, was developed on four pillars: peace and security, governance and the rule of law, infrastructure and basic services, and economic revitalization.

With 10,000 international peace-keepers still in the country as an aftermath of the war, peace and security are largely assured, as are governance and the rule of law under a democratically elected government. According to the U.S. Department of State, Liberia’s political situation has remained stable since the 2005 elections, President Sirleaf is supported by “highly experienced and technically competent” senior officials, and “the public has more confidence in her administration than in any of its recent predecessors.”

Much of Liberia’s focus now is on the other two pillars of its strategy. In developing the blueprint in the first place—“a document unprecedented in our history,” Barnes says—the country went to its citizens in grass-roots forums in hamlets and villages as well as larger communities and asked what was important to them. The “recurring themes,” Barnes says, were a transportation network, education for their children, and good health care, and “we have made good progress in many of those areas.”

But much remains to be done. Although the government has approved legislation requiring free and compulsory education for all Liberian children—“a great law,” Barnes says—Liberia now faces the challenge of building schools and hiring and training teachers. “Because the war was so devastating, much of our infrastructure was destroyed,” he explains.

With “friends and supporters in the U.S.,” he continues, President Sirleaf established the Liberia Education Trust, a private initiative to raise money in the U.S. with specific goals: build 50 new schools, hire and train 500 teachers, and provide scholarships to 5,000 students, mostly girls. In its first three years, the Trust met those objectives, doubling the enrollment in primary and secondary schools, Barnes says. As for constructing new schools, that’s “as simple as the climate,” he says, noting that Liberia has just two seasons: rainy for six months, dry for six months. “So we have a very narrow window in which to build schools, roads, clinics, that sort of thing, but we are making great progress, primarily because we have received a lot of help from bilateral and unilateral and private partners,” he declares.,<./p>

Liberia also has made progress in health care. “We have been very effective in our vaccination campaign to just about eradicate polio,” Barnes says. But with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, “we have a serious problem with pre-natal and maternal health care,” he acknowledges, adding that malaria and various waterborne diseases also present challenges.

There are other challenges in restoring infrastructure and basic services. One is electric power, which was destroyed in the civil war but is coming back now. “Monrovia was in darkness for many years; people used private generators,” Barnes says. At the time, “one lone traffic light was functioning and children were fascinated by the changing red-yellow-green lights,” he says. Liberia is looking at hydro-electric, solar and wind power as long-term solutions, he says. The country also does not grow enough food “to feed ourselves,” Barnes says.

Economic revitalization, the fourth pillar of its strategy, also faces challenges. One of them is reducing the current 75 percent unemployment rate. Liberia, slightly larger than the state of Ohio, is “well endowed” with iron ore, gold, diamonds and minerals, and has the largest rubber plantation in the world, Barnes says, but its dense tropical rain forest—40 percent of West Africa’s rain forest—has been seriously depleted. “We need money from timber resources, and how to get that and maintain ecological responsibility is a challenge,” Barnes says. “We’re trying to find ways to use best practices to do that. People live in the forests and depend on them,” he says.

Liberia is “looking for investors from anywhere,” and “under the wonderful phenomenon of globalization, we can pick and chose who we want to do business with,” Barnes says. “Political ideology is secondary to serving Liberia’s fundamental national interests.” He points out that the Chinese government recently made a “significant investment” in Liberia, signing a $2.5 billion agreement to mine iron ore, and Liberia has another agreement with an Indian company. But the U.S. government investment so far is “not very significant” and “we want to find ways to improve American private sector investment,” Barnes asserts. “There is American interest; we just want to spur it,” he says.

He suggests that tourism is one opportunity for U.S. business interests, citing a $12 million investment by African-American businessman Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), in a new 4-star ocean villa resort that opened in Monrovia in June 2009. According to a report of the opening event by the Liberian government, Johnson, in his remarks, described a friendly business climate in Liberia and noted that it is easier doing business there than in most other countries. Barnes adds that Liberia has “wonderful beaches, great lagoons and lakes,” as well as a world-renowned culture of music and art, and an appealing cuisine, “depending on your palate.”

With “long and strong ties” between Liberia and the U.S., Liberia now enjoys “incredible support from Congress on both sides of the aisle,” Barnes says. While it seeks additional investment from the U.S., Barnes says his country recognizes that the U.S. government has “a pretty full plate to deal with,” including two wars and its own economic and health care issues.

As he pursues his principal goal in Washington—“to expand U.S. investment, particularly from the private sector”—Barnes says he also wants to improve collaboration of U.S. scientific and educational institutions with Liberian organizations “to build our research capacity; research is a springboard to development and Liberia can be an open laboratory.”

His third goal is “touching our diaspora in the U.S.,” estimated at 350,000 people. “The middle class in Liberia exists in the diaspora, mostly in the U.S.,” and it provides “significant financial contributions,” Barnes says. To engage this constituency, the Embassy has established a Diaspora Advisory Board comprised of Liberians and non-Liberians alike, including former U.S. Peace Corps volunteers who served in the country. The Board will serve as “a catalyst to leverage the diaspora,” including building a database of lawyers, teachers, doctors, engineers and other professionals and “getting them to go to Liberia,” Barnes says. He notes that there are more Liberian physicians in the U.S. than in Liberia.

Reaching this point in its post-war development has not been easy for Liberia, Barnes says, but overall, in the first three years of fulfilling its blueprint, the country has made “incredible progress” and the effort must continue. “Liberia is a wealthy country that had been poorly managed, with huge priorities but a low capacity to achieve them. Now, with our democracy and new freedom, there is enthusiasm. But we need to develop self-sufficiency and we don’t have the luxury of time,” he concludes.