Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, born 29 October 1938, is the 24th and current President of Liberia. She served as Minister of Finance under President William Tolbert from 1979 until the 1980 coup d'état, after which she left Liberia and held senior positions at various financial institutions. She placed a distant second in the 1997 presidential election. Later, she was elected President in the 2005 presidential election and took office on 16 January 2006. Sirleaf is the first modern, and currently the only elected, female head of state in Africa.

You have occupied high-level positions, mostly in the financial area both in Liberia and abroad, and also at the United Nations. When you returned to Liberia from exile you were asked to take over the leadership of the Unity Party and won the elections in 2005. In your opinion, how did your previous political experience contribute to you securing the presidency of your country? What have been your main challenges since taking the reins of your country?

I don’t think there is any doubt that my many years of political activism has contributed to my own appreciation for the complexities of our country’s political, economic and social system. My work outside the country with international institutions in both the private and public sector obviously gave me a chance to interact with other world leaders on matters related to development, thereby broadening my own perspective as to how to approach the responses to the country’s development agenda. Being able to appreciate the experiences of others, the best practices and the lessons that could be learned and that could be incorporated into our own economic agenda, has helped me to be very clear in my focus as to what measures need to be taken to reconstruct our country and to revive the economy.

The major challenge we have faced and continue to face is the one that was the subject of the conference here in Oslo, and that has to do with youth unemployment. This is because we have thousands and thousands of young people, many of whom were child soldiers who didn’t have the opportunity of an education or skill training and find themselves today on the streets, just one step above survival. Even though we are opening the economy, we have to make sure that they have the means to be able to be absorbed by the private sector and that means giving them some skills. This is then a challenge we are trying to address and we are glad that today the IMF and the ILO talked about job-creating growth because this is the way you promote growth and at the same time provide jobs opportunities.

The country has been relatively stable since 2005. Liberia had an average annual growth rate of 7% over the last 4 years and may achieve 6% growth this year despite the global crisis. As the former Minister of Finance Antoinette M. Sayeh stated, “Liberia is now at a pivotal moment moving to a new path of growth and development.” What are in your opinion the main priorities in promoting economic development?  

We need to stay on course with the development of our private sector, and we see diversity in our private sector activity as a key to all of this. We are an agrarian nation and must promote agriculture with food security through production and put the activity of small farmers at the core, but we also are a major agriculture export country, rubber being our main product, and we have been trying to reactivate other activities in the agriculture sector such as palm oil, coffee or cocoa. 

We also have iron reserves, diamond reserves, and a big forestry diversity that represents today about 43% of the biodiversity in the West African sub-region. Perhaps  the sanctions that were imposed on us during the many years of conflicts enabled us to preserve our forests. Today we can start forest operations with a certain amount of policy conservation to make sure that we contribute to the conservation of the planet by preventing greenhouse gases.

We are also beginning to explore oil, which opens up another area for diversity. We are confident that if we manage to diversify the economy and we use the benefits of growth, we will be able to address the social needs of the country and we will achieve our targets and put the country on a path of sustainable growth and development where peace and prosperity can go hand in hand.     

The Government of Liberia is committed to a long-term growth and development strategy named “Liberia Rising 2030,” which is to replace the present “Lift Liberia” theme associated with the Poverty Reduction Strategy that has driven the efforts of the Government, scheduled to end in June 2011. “Liberia Rising 2030” will focus on making Liberia a middle-income country by the year 2030. This is a very ambitious vision. How confident are you when it comes to the accomplishment of this goal?

We are very confident and optimistic that we can achieve this goal. The architect of that particular agenda is our Minister of Planning & Economic Affairs, the Hon. Amara M. Konneh. We believe that with the vast natural resources that our country has and the relatively small population of around 3.5 million, if we allocate our resources efficiently, it is possible to achieve that. We will of course be subjected to externalities, regional dynamics, etc. but we are confident that the whole West African region is moving in the same direction. In Liberia we are going to do all we can to make sure that this target is achieved.

The IMF and the World Bank decided on June 29th to support the final stage of debt relief for Liberia that in total amounts to $4.6 billion in nominal terms. The decision was reached after Liberia had met the requirements for achieving the final step and had demonstrated the political will to promote accountability, transparency, rule of law, and institutional development, amongst others. This opens up new opportunities to rebuild the country. How is this debt relief going to benefit the country and more importantly Liberians? 

Let me first say that it took a lot of effort on the part of the team since we started in 2007, we had tremendous support from the IMF, the World Bank, the African Development bank as by our bilateral partners led by the United States. We were able in two years to carry a rigorous program of economic and fiscal reform and to put in place the measures for financial self-management. As a result, I think we were able to reach the completion point in record time and on September 17th we will be in Paris for the final date of debt relief. That relief also included the settlement of our commercial debt (US$ 1.5 billion) that we were able to buy back thanks to the support of the World Bank at 3 cents on a dollar. That in itself was a major achievement. 

We are going to open up the fiscal space and we will have the possibility to access the concessionary lending that exists in many emerging markets as well as in the international financial institutions such as the World bank, and with that we will be able to put many more resources into our development efforts. We think then that we can move ahead and channel resources into infrastructure because this has been one of the missing pieces to attract FDI to Liberia.

You met the president of the United States of America Mr. Barack Obama at the White House last May 27th. During the meeting, Mr. Obama stated that you are an inspiration to Africa, that he is an admirer of your work and that “the United States and Liberia are close friends, long-standing partners”. How do you perceive relations between Liberia and the USA? 

Our relations are excellent at all levels. We continue to get support from President Obama as we did from President Bush before him. The level of support for us has been tremendous, they have been the leader in our debt relief program and so we are pleased, but beyond the administration we have excellent relations with the Congress and the institutions that support us. There is almost a cultural affinity between Liberians and Americans because of our long standing relationship, indeed many Liberians get training in the United States and we have more than 200,000 of our people working in the US. We are very pleased with that relationship and confident that as long as we stay on course that relationship will continue to be very strong.

Liberia's strategy to attract large-scale foreign investment in mining, agriculture and forestry will help rebuild infrastructure and boost employment and tax receipts. What do you think about the importance of foreign direct investment for the development of the Liberian economy? How do you intend to make the country more attractive to American investors? What are the most interesting sectors to invest in?

Foreign Direct Investment is extremely important as far as we are concerned because we feel that the major propeller for our growth will be the private sector, and that government intervention should be limited to the areas that cannot be managed by the private sector, but we also realize that we must have regulation of the private sector to ensure that the benefits of the activities fall back onto people and that they can enjoy these benefits.

Adding value to our natural resources is really the next step and we would like to attract US investments in our manufacturing sector, as we don’t want Liberia to continue to be an exporter of primary commodities. We also want to attract US investments in housing development and entertainment, and in this respect we are glad that Mr. Robert Johnson has started by building a hotel. Following his example, we hope that other Americans will invest in our country. We also see potential for added value in the forestry sector where instead of exporting wood we can produce furniture for instance. The same happens with one of our main commodities, rubber. Indeed, we are exporting semi-processed rubber but I would like to see that in a final product such as condoms, gloves, tires, and etcetera.

Those are the sectors we are promoting very aggressively now that we have resolved some of our problems and that we are working on our infrastructure.

You were the first elected female President in Africa. Do you think that young women in Africa believe they can achieve the same?

I have no doubt about it, and I think that we serve as a role model for them, as an inspiration. Today, many young women around the continent and I hope the world sees that they can reach that potential, they can aspire to high political positions, and as long as they are prepared to work for it, to be competitive, to have the qualifications and the commitment to do it, they can do it. 

If you look at Africa today, the number of women who are occupying leadership positions has increased so much and we believe that we have made a contribution to that. I continue to represent the aspirations and the expectations of women in Africa and beyond, and in that respect I have succeeded on their behalf.   

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