Former President, Republic of Liberia (2006–2018)
President, American University; Former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (2014–2017); Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf discusses the importance of women's involvement in development and democracy in Africa.
BURWELL: Good morning, and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Darryl G. Behrman Lecture on Africa Policy with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. My name is Sylvia Burwell, and I’m the president of American University and a member of the board of the Council, and I will be presiding over today’s conversation.
Today we’ll spend a little time having a conversation and back and forth, in terms of I’ll do a little bit of Q&A and then at about 9:00 we will open it up for a broader conversation with the rest of the room.
Our guest today needs no introduction, and I will be brief. I think everyone knows that she is a Nobel laureate, know that she is a winner of the Mo Ibrahim Prize, know that she is the first woman to be elected president of a country on the continent of Africa, and we could go on. But I just want to say a bit in my introduction about my personal engagement and time with the president, and that was when I was the secretary of health and human services and we were facing the Ebola crisis. And during that time, the president’s incredible leadership at a time of real crisis around the world was something that I was fortunate to have the time and experience what all of these awards tell you, and that was an incredible steady hand, an ability to get things done in every, very complex situations. Also during that time, as we were moving through and doing so many things, one felt her compassion not only for those that were suffering and were—had Ebola, but also for those who were serving, and treating the patients, and being a part of all the different pieces of what it took to fight that. And so she was an incredible leader in her country, but having experienced it from a world vision in working with the WHO and everything, she was inspirational to the rest of the world.
So thank you for that. And I think it is just one of many examples of her leadership.
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Thank you, Sylvia.
BURWELL: So, welcome.
We’re going to begin today sort of at a larger level on the continent of Africa, and wanted to start with your thoughts, Madam President, about what are the most important challenges and opportunities today on the continent of Africa.
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I would say the changes that are happening in the promotion of democracy. It’s an uncertain world. We all thought we had found our way toward full democracy, full participation, full inclusion, and now forces are fighting back. And I can’t say that we’re getting any help from where the standards started.
And so, at the same time, we have to recognize that Africa has come a long way in comparison now with others. So, as we push toward democratization, and we face the changing times, it’s beginning to strengthen some of the old forces.
Of course, our challenges still remain: the promotion of women, women in leadership throughout the continent. And while there have been remarkable successes in places like increases in the parliament, places like Rwanda that has established a level worldwide, still we’re not there yet. And how do we explain that 12 years of one woman leadership in the continent and we’re back to zero, searching for where the next breakthrough will come?
Other challenges of development you all know about, you know. The challenges of growth, infrastructure, all of those things are not the mean ones. The mean ones are, you know, how do we get to the place where there is full gender equality?
BURWELL: As we think about challenges, when you served there were many things: the transition that you led your country through, these issues of making progress on gender issues, as well as democracy. If you reflect back on your time as president, what would you consider the biggest challenge that you faced during that time?
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Getting the mindset right, even though I have to put everything in a context, as more of Africa, more of Liberia. And the challenge of getting the kind of strong commitment, the urgency of getting things done, the commitment that comes from that, those are the areas where we have to work harder. And while we did a lot around what we call the hard things, but the soft things of the promotion of education, promotion of health, getting participation at that level, the ownership for the future, those were—those were the things that you just don’t fix in a day-to-day routine. And those are the things that you just can’t dictate in a development agenda.
BURWELL: And they are more cultural things, and how people feel and do. And what are the tools you used to try and move people along? Certainly, there is your own personal leadership, which showed that energy, which showed that urgency, which showed that sense of commitment. What were some of the other things you did to create that culture that you’re talking about, a sense of urgency against those core issues?
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Identify a group of young people that have the drive, the dynamism, you know, the push. Put them in charge. Get them to work. Identify where the areas are going to try to set those goals and accomplish those goals. And let them lead. And I think we were fairly successful with quite a group, you know, the young turks as we call them, who really took the burden and took everything onto themselves and really drove it. And I think that’s worked in many countries, not only my own. So—and the young people are, in fact, taking charge. They’re demanding of their role, they’re demanding their leadership, and they’re pushing for all the areas where they’re not waiting anymore to be given; they’re taking. How do we respond to that to ensure that, while they take, that they’re moving along the path toward the achievement of set goals?
BURWELL: So deep investment in youth.
Recently—this gets to this urgency—recently, you described your next work as the closing chapter of restlessness. That restlessness, I think, is something that has been with you forever, from youth till now. You have that—continue to have that restlessness. And can you tell us a little bit about that work, that work that you’re focused on right now as you think about your piece and your contributions and your restlessness for continued change?
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Yeah. You know, it would be well—as I’m just a few months away from 80 years old, it would be well to—(applause)—to rest. (Laughs.) But we can’t stop. There’s always another bridge to cross, another road to walk if we’re going to provide the inspiration and the motivation that the young girls need and the young women need.
So what am I going to do? I’m going to—going to do a foundation. Everybody does a foundation when you leave office. (Laughter.) But I hope it’s going to be a foundation that’s very focused, that’s very specific in what it wants to achieve. And one of those things are the things perhaps that are a little bit different, because I want to promote women in business. I want to identify those successful women across the continent, that’s been really successful, but they’re few and far between. You can pinpoint them and they shine. But as you go down, you’re missing a mass movement. You’re missing all the women who are—they’re struggling, whether they’re in the informal sector trying to get their goods to market or whether they’re the large numbers of women that are now in agribusiness, involved in food processing, and those things that can never get to scale because they don’t have enough access to the technology that’s necessary. They don’t have access to the capital. And so how can we work with them?
And there’s a linkage between that, their promotion and the promotion of women in leadership, which is another area of focus. How do we get enough women? It’s not enough to say 30 percent of women should be participating in politics as a U.N. resolution. But in active politics, how do we do it? And even in business.
I yesterday were at—were at the conference, the emerging markets private capital conference, where it was pointed out even in your society 14 percent of the CEOs are women—14 percent in a place where, you know, women are well-educated, well-talented, moving up the ladder. But they just don’t get to the top.
In our—in our case, how do we get them to the place where they are vibrant in the society, they’re strong businesspeople, they can go to scale, they can—they can work, and they can provide the kind of example, the kind of support for other women to be able to benefit? So that’s going to be, you know, another area of focus.
And in the case of the business sector, we want to—wanted to do an accelerator to identify 10 women, mostly in Liberia and neighboring countries, and put them through a program of learning how to access capital, learning how to do a business, how to prepare your business to be able to access. So we are hoping that that will inspire. We’re talking to a few of the—of the equity institution representatives to see if we’re going to launch this with a meeting that brings them together with some of the key women around the African continent who have excelled and talk about their own experiences or the obstacles they faced. How did they overcome those obstacles to become the leaders in the business that they are?
And so is that restless enough? (Laughter.)
BURWELL: I think so. I think so.
On one of these, the piece of the leadership and the barriers to women in leadership, that’s a place where certainly you have lots of experience and have proven successful and achieved and overcome those barriers. When you think about those barriers to women in leadership roles on the continent of Africa, what are the critical barriers that we need to make sure we’re overcoming? And do you think they’re the same barriers that we face around that 14 percent that you just mentioned here in the U.S.? Do you think the barriers—what are the barriers for African women getting into those leadership roles? And do you think those are the same barriers here in the U.S.?
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Who are the decision-makers? You know, why so many of the women here in the business sector get to a certain level, but wants to get to that top? That’s where the barrier is. Who sits in the boardrooms? You know, who are the shareholders? And until you get enough women at the decision-making, you know.
Our problem, perhaps, are even a little bit different. Our has to do with the basic things, like education, training. I mean, you don’t—you don’t face—you don’t face that problem. But the same barriers of being able to break through in a manner where your achievement, your progress are recognized because the decision is made somewhere else.
BURWELL: And do you think it is about those decision-makers not recognizing that achievement in terms of women, as they’re coming up in that level, they get to a certain level?
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Well, I think most of the decision-making are the men who sit together and talk. I mean, those are the ones that move forward.
Let me use your example. (Laughter.) How many—how many women deans you have?
BURWELL: So right now at American we have—(laughter)—nine deans, and six of our deans are women.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Wow! (Applause.)
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Would it have happened without you?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes.
BURWELL: You know—(laughter)—you know, I guess I probably—I think it’s fair to say I think there are communities of knowledge of people, and I think we find that when seeking diversity in anything that you’re doing. And people go to the communities that they know as they seek things. I think there are—I think it’s a complicated dynamic. But certainly, you know, it is—I’m in a place where, as we discussed, our undergraduate population, 67 percent of them are women. And our graduate population, 61 percent. And, you know, American University is not a—historically, nothing about it is a women’s institution.
And so there’s also reflecting what your—the market. So when you just said the question, when I was at Walmart, the reason Walmart did a $20 billion sourcing effort from women’s—from women-owned business is because your consumer, your customer who’s purchasing in a retail business, are women. That’s a part of the reason.
So I think those are some of the dynamics that promote change over time.
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: And the fact that 63 percent—63 percent of your graduates are young women tells a story of the future, you know? Looking for it, there’s going to be enough of them out there competing and exceeding.
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: And there’s going to be no way to stop it.
BURWELL: Yes. No, I think what you’re suggesting is is over time, that as more and more, it will—it will just—it will continue. Which—although it is a question about the 14 percent in terms of how we think about it.
In your acceptance of the Ibrahim Prize, you said: “Democracy must devolve from a single event into the institutionalization of a process that provides access to all of its participants.” Right now we started with that a little bit, but what does that devolution look like in Africa in terms of getting to that place where you have that broad participation in democracy? Are there countries that you think are leaders and leaders for different reasons?
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Too many of our political structure center around a personality. Now, I mean, you got a little bit of that too. (Laughter.) But those personalities drive everything. They provide the resources, the direction, the guidance, the strategies for success, and do it at a time when we’re nearing election time. And then after that it fades away until the next election time is building up.
Well, we’ve—I mean, we’re trying to move now into an institutional system where a party is the party—and I think that’s where, perhaps, you beat us in that one. Most of you don’t cross party lines. You stick with the party and support the party, I mean here. In our area, it’s so easy to cross. It’s so easy to start a new party that we have multiplicity of parties all over the place, each one looking for the opportunity for success in an election. And so we have—we have to move beyond that.
And it’s starting. I mean, if you take certain countries, they’re quite exemplary. If you look at what’s happening, you know, in Ghana and a few places, that institutional arrangement is already taking place. The message there was to get those who have not moved in that direction to start.
We’re not helped today, again, by the uncertainties of the world political system. We’re not helped by the return of the oligarchy in some of the more-developed countries. But our own processes, led by some of the good examples in our area, is going to set the example. And the driving force, again, are the young people who are demanding participation, who are demanding change. And so that evolution into institutional arrangements, going beyond this one strongman of the past or the strong personality that all the dependence of success is tied to that, that’s what—that’s what we have to move toward.
BURWELL: You touched on as part of the devolution the role, actually, of the citizen. There’s the devolution in how it moves away from this question of personality and moves throughout, but the devolution in participation. And I thought I heard a little bit of democracy isn’t a one time every four years or every voting booth kind of approach. And how do we encourage, whether it’s on the continent of Africa or in our—here in the United States, that issue of the role that individuals play in that devolution on a daily basis, not just when it comes time for a voting booth? How do you encourage that? How do you get that kind of engagement? And how do people know and understand what that engagement should look like so that they, as citizens, are part of the devolution?
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: And that’s where we have to, again, work toward getting people to participate on a continuing basis—taking positions, striving for leadership, claiming the future, claiming a role—and encourage all, women particularly, not just to wait until, you know, maybe running for a seat here and there, but to become part of the party apparatus, to claim it, to take it. Young women, encouraging them to start at all levels. It doesn’t even have to be all political. We’re talking about leadership, you know, in the society. We talk about leadership in the church, leadership in institutions, leadership in schools, encouraging them to be able to do that. That broad approach of getting participation, active participation, you know, active role-modeling and example setting to promote leadership at all level(s), to get to the place where leadership is on the basis of what you’ve been able to achieve, what you’ve done, how you drive, than from whence you came or who you are.
BURWELL: That engagement—I think that question of how to promote that engagement and create energy around it may also be related to results of that—
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Absolutely.
BURWELL: —which is a part and piece as we think about Bob Putnam’s work on Bowling Alone here in our country and the idea that in the United States people are not as much in groups, which is part of where you lead. You described it in the form of the party. And so that is a challenge, I think, that everyone faces. But getting people to do that initial community engagement is, I think, a challenge for us.
I know many don’t find it exciting, but I do, having served in the executive branch two times, the question, and I see others who have—Anne (sp), who served in the executive branch as well—the issue of the civil service. I know it is not a topic that sends everybody a rousting topic of conflict and other things, but I think it’s just so fundamentally important. It’s something that has been a priority to you in terms of the underpinning of democracy. And what do you think are the keys to building and maintaining a strong civil service? Bear with my nerddom. (Laughter.)
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Bear in mind that in many of our countries, given the narrowness of the private sector, government becomes the main employer. And the size of the civil service and the wage bill that’s attached to that civil service places a big demand on government, crowding out the resources that are available, you know, for capital expenditure. And so it’s very important now.
What was required? Skills training. I mean, basic education is there, but skills training, technical skills training.
Systems that ensure accountability/transparency in the civil service. In the case of many of our countries like Liberia, a post-conflict country, where the civil service comprised people coming—you know, child soldiers without access to education, without any skills, we had to find a way to be able to provide the level of efficiency to enable it to achieve our development goals.
And so we established, and it came from—it came from someone here, the Scott Program. That got started with Betsy Williams, the young professional programs. And we created a group called the Young Professional(s) Program and provided a group of skilled young people that were infused into the different things and served—the technical ministers or directors that headed the agencies served as mentors for this group after they had put through a training session and just infused them, you know, throughout the public service entities to enable them to provide that core efficiency that was needed to achieve our goals.
But it still remains a problem unless you can train the skills, given that fact that, again, young people—you have young people that are graduating today—yes, graduating, making demands to hold levels of position in the public service, sometimes without the requisite experience. Political changes bring new people without the skillset that are required. So the thing is to promote the education, to promote skills training, to promote the kinds of value system that is required for the public service.
And I must say that, again, quite a bit of progress has been made in many of the African countries. It’s a bit more difficult in some of our countries that are struggling with the difficulties of having had so many years of conflict that have taken away from the educational system that prepares people to start. But it’s cross-sectional technical assistance coming, sharing with each other through networking, providing those that have surplus in skills, providing technical assistance in deficit areas, to make up true regional cooperation arrangements, have also helped to provide the level that’s required to run the service.
BURWELL: We’ll do one more question, then turn to the audience and the members here to ask their questions.
If you—if we all spoke to the women of Liberia, what would they say are the most important things that need to occur for development to occur on the continent, and in Liberia and more broadly? What would they say are the—if we went and spoke to—we went to a farm, we went to rural Liberia and spoke to women, what would they say are the most important things for development to occur?
SIRLEAF: Their daughters’ education. Daughters were denied education for a long time, child’s bride, you know, early pregnancy, that have reduced the level of retention. Give us an opportunity for girls to go to school, for them to become educated.
A large number of women in the agriculture sector gave them an opportunity to be able to grow, you know, by access to markets, access to capital, to land, to the factors of production that they’ve been denied for a while. So give the women an opportunity to have the same kind of opportunities that others have had. That’s what the women will tell you.
And the politics—the politics will come. Right now it’s a question of ensuring that they have the opportunities to reach their potential in the society. And so, yeah, in the end, I mean, everyone says, you know, we’ve had one woman president; why not another? Another will come. But at the base, we’ve got to provide these fundamentals that enable them to compete effectively, to enable them to take positions, leadership positions, throughout the society. That’s what they’re asking for.
BURWELL: Thank you.
I want to remind everyone, please, when the mic—the mic can come to you for a question for our members. This session is actually an on-the-record session. I think everyone knows that, but so that you will be reminded that this one is an on-the-record session.
When you’re asking your question, if you wouldn’t mind, please stand, say your name and your affiliation, and if we can work to have questions be relatively concise so that we can get as many in as possible. And I think Russell (sp) will help us.
Yes, right here. I think we have two side by side.
Q: Thank you so much. My name is Adam Taylor. I recently left the World Bank, and I’m now the executive director of a Christian peace-and-justice organization called Sojourners.
I wanted to ask a question. You mentioned some of the challenges in addressing and making progress on some of the soft development issues—health, education, et cetera. And I’m particularly concerned that investments in those areas are still woefully low in many African countries. Certainly there’s some exceptions to that.
The World Bank in October is going to come out with a human capital index that’s going to evaluate not just the size of investments in education and health care, but also the quality of those investments. And so I’m wondering what you think it will take to get greater leadership and greater investment from African countries in those areas, and what kind of outside pressure and support is most needed? Thanks.
SIRLEAF: Well, I think the Bank has started in the right direction of being able to give support, you know, in those areas through the Bank programs. True that we’ve set targets in Africa. You know, we’re going to put 30 percent of our budget in education, a certain percentage in different areas, in health areas. We—some countries have been able to achieve that. Many have not.
In cases where economies are having difficulties because of global conditions, it’s difficult for them to then meet those targets. So it’s a question of growing the economy much faster so that the resources are there for that, yes. In some cases it takes a greater commitment on the part of some. The efficiency in the allocation of resources for many countries is woefully inadequate. But I think the constant pressure through regional meetings, through engagement in partnership with the institutions, whether it’s the World Bank or the African Development Bank, as sometimes I say, make it a condition of your lending. But we don’t like conditionalities. You know that. (Laughter.)
But the fact that in your own country programming of resources, I think if you set the tone and if it means whereby, you know, we’re going to put in our lending program for this year so much into education and health, but it’s got to be—it’s got to be supplemented, you know, by your own domestic resources through your budgetary processing, I think, is the kind of pressure that—you know, that makes it change.
And some countries have done it. I mean, Rwanda is a clear example of being able to do it right, you know, by all accounts, by any way. And someone’s going to say, well, democracy, what did I tell you? Democracy has got to be defined by the local conditions and the local something.
So we—so I think it’s going to take a while to get there, given all the needs. And every time there’s a—you know, you face an externality over which you have no control, then all the processes and the commitments fall through and you have to scramble again to see how you can catch up.
It’s a constant process of readjusting and trying to make scarce resources, address all the competing and expanding needs for a growing population of young people, school leavers that can’t find jobs. You know, what are you going to do to train them, to get them prepared, to give them the means of security in their own future? It’s a constant battle.
BURWELL: I think we have another question right beside, and then we’ll go to the back.
Q: Elizabeth Cafferty, U.N. Women. Thank you so much for those really inspiring remarks. And you obviously touched on areas which are priorities for U.N. Women.
And my question is what strategies did you either actively employ or, sort of looking back now, you can see that you employed to help overcome the structural barriers, the attitudinal barriers, to rise to a leadership position?
SIRLEAF: Just be bold enough to try everything, to get out there, take a position; you know, to stand out. I mean, you stand out; you run the risk of being a target. But that’s the only way to do it. But I faced the same obstacles that others face. But, you know, being able to be persistent, headed to all your goals, and knowing that there are going to be failures, knowing that those obstacles are going to be there. But you’ve got to keep plodding through them. And if you fall, get up again and keep moving toward the goal.
And it’s not just I who have achieved that. You’ve got lots of women all over Africa that are—you know, that have gone past the barriers that existed. And some of their barriers are perhaps more difficult, more formidable, than the ones I faced. And they’ve been able to—you know, to proceed.
So I think it’s that strong spirit of determination, that restless spirit of I want to get there. I want to achieve that. I’m going to do it, despite what comes. So—
BURWELL: I think in the back. Yeah. Thank you.
Q: Thank you. Good morning. My name is Esther Brimmer, CEO of NAFSA, the Association of International Educators. It was, of course, certainly inspiring to see two decision-makers, two female decision-makers, discussing these issues at the Council on Foreign Relations.
I’d like to ask particularly about the role of education. Of course, primary and secondary education is important, but I’d like to ask about tertiary education, the role of universities. As we look at fostering leadership, particularly leadership for women on the continent, what role particularly should universities play, particularly cooperation among universities? How should universities help foster leadership? Thank you.
SIRLEAF: I think our universities can do more to open up, to do some research on different areas in a society, recognizing the conditions there and addressing those; leave the academic thing, the practical ones that deal with the values in society and how they can bring people together from the society to be part of that dialogue so that they share some of their experiences.
I think that one or two universities here—Harvard, for example; maybe you too—that have ministerial programs where they bring ministers from African countries and they bring them together with some of their students—graduating, undergraduate students, some of their professors—and they have a discussion of, you know, how do we—what do we—how do we achieve quality education here? How do we—how do you do it? What obstacles do you face? And some of those programs, I think, have worked well.
We don’t do enough of that in our own society, bringing the kind of mix of those that are involved in executive positions, decision-making position, to actually interrelate and interact with the student population or with the university population. I think more of that can be done.
BURWELL: Right here in the front. We’ll do both of these.
Q: Rollie Flynn, Georgetown University. First, thank you so much for your contributions; actually, both of you.
Question: At what point in your life did you realize that you had the potential to go beyond what were the expectations of you? Was it as a girl? And what experiences really made you realize this, or people who had an influence on you?
SIRLEAF: When I was in jail and I was—(inaudible). When you’re in jail—(laughter)—and you get past it, you know something’s working for you; maybe even God, you know.
No, at that point, I think maybe earlier, before that, when—I faced so many points along the journey; making a speech in the early professional life, you know, challenging some of the status quo, escaping punishment. And that leads you to feel you’re big enough to do it again at a different level, and doing it again, moving from one level to the other. And each level tells you, hey, you know, there’s something bigger out there. I can keep moving on.
So I can’t tell you that there was one time in my life when I could say—except I mentioned the jail thing—but when I could say, because of this, I know I can be president. I think it’s more like a cascading effect over time of achievement and trials and obstacles and successes. And it’s a hard life too for women to get there. It’s a hard life for women. But there are many of us now that have—you know, we now know what it takes, so we can help others to do the same.
Q: Good morning. I’m James Turner with the Daniel Alexander Payne Community Development Corporation. Thank you very much for sharing your wisdom and thoughts with us.
About 15 or 20 years ago, many African countries were getting crushed by debt. And many of those debts were forgiven or refinanced or terms renegotiated. And—but now it seems like the cycle has started again. I read recently that Zambia this year is going to spend more on debt service than on education.
Is there a role for the African Union to play in trying to prevent history from repeating itself, but also to play in education and in scientific and technological development?
SIRLEAF: Well, the African Union can point out the good examples. But the problem is the African Union itself. The members of the African Union are the ones that (does ?) something. Even though that may be happening in the case of Zambia—and I know the debt is building up in some other countries—I guess the improvement has to come again in the policies for growth, for resource allocation, to ensure that in taking the debt, that the funds are used for something that will generate not only growth, but the resources that are required for payback.
And sometimes leadership in the country, anxious to do big things particularly in political times, when people take loans, and sometimes they’re not good loans, get them into trouble.
So the African Union has to continue in its own regional dialogue, through its regional commissions, through the African Development Bank and the World Bank, that works with countries through their country programs, discussing debt levels and how much can you take, given the country’s growth potential, resource.
But there’s always going to be the danger of wanting to achieve all those development goals quickly, to build those roads, to put in the power systems, to promote health and education. And there’s always somebody there willing, you know, to provide funding. Sometimes it’s not good-source funding where the payout time is sufficiently long if you get some of those commercial loans. And that’s where the real problem comes, you know. And it’s a question of trying to avoid that through good examples. Otherwise, you know—
BURWELL: On the research portion of the question, I would just add that I think there are certain functions that the AU, for example, the creation of a center for disease control for the continent, so that you have that kind of resource. You would want it regionally.
But that is something that I think the Union, working together with the U.S. government and actually the Chinese government together, the U.S. and the Chinese coming together to support the creation of that, or questions like how you create the research structure and information for regulation of certain types of agricultural products.
And so I think the question of the AU’s role, together with the regional entities in that science and research, that there are some things that rise to that level. Many, though, have to be done at the country or region level, but that there may be some cross-cutting things, like a center for disease control. And you start at that level just in terms of thinking through that.
Let’s go to the back. I think we have two folks in the back. Thank you.
Q: Thank you. Madam President, how are you?
JOHNSON SIRLEAF: Good.
Q: My name is Travis Adams (sp).
And the question that I had—I was a little bit late, so I hope I’m not re-asking a question that’s already been asked—but I had the good pleasure of being in Liberia for the recent elections at the end of last year. And one of the questions I had for you is when you think about your post-presidential tenure, you know, as an elder statesman in Africa, if you could talk about maybe your vision for Liberia.
What I left there with was some of the great disappointment of people—I was in Maryland County for that time—about roads, about infrastructure, about the lack of services, about people essentially feeling separated from the government in Monrovia in terms of having their needs met. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.
SIRLEAF: Well, I don’t share your disappointment.
Q: It was not my disappointment. This is what I heard from the people. (Laughter.)
SIRLEAF: No, I think we’ve—I think, given what has been faced in the country after two decades of civil war, destruction, and death, the idea was to put the country back on the road. And I’m so glad that the Mo Ibrahim Index showed that the country had excelled in all the area indicators that is judged by that.
But clearly there’s a long way to go, whether it’s infrastructure, whether it’s education or health systems or, for that matter, governance and all. It’s a long way to go. And there’s an impatient population. It’s a young population, very impatient; want to achieve everything, and achieve it right away. And those things are not possible unless you have economic growth.
Liberia faced three shocks—the shock of Ebola that drove a GDP that was well into as high as 9 percent, and on average over the first six years 8.7 percent. That came down to zero. It was just climbing again until we got into the one year of the political turmoil that, again, stagnated everything.
So the thing to do is to now build upon what’s there, to begin to grow again, to begin to meet all the needs as resources will permit, to focus on growth. You know, there’s a movement of economic diversification, moving away from the extractive industry and those things that do not have—that do not have the right structure in the society, moving into agriculture, where more of the people are, more of the farmers are, the small farmers.
It’s that movement now that is going to provide the strength to build an economy that’s more sustainable, a growth that’s more sustainable, development that’s more broad-based. And so the foundation is in. With the right policies and good leadership, I think the potential can be achieved.
BURWELL: We had another question right there beside—in the back.
Q: My name is Esther Ewart, Voice of America. Well, he took part of the question away from me. But, Madam President, thank you.
I’m just thinking, looking backward and thinking about your presidency, do you see anything that you would have liked to do differently and probably would advise your successor, George Weah, to do so, to champion the rights of women and move the country forward? Thank you.
SIRLEAF: I toyed around in the early year of trying to appoint all women ministers to set an example. (Laughter.) But I didn’t achieve that. So I settled for putting them in all the prominent nonconventional places to send a message.
What we can continue to do now is what—I could have done more, you said. Maybe I could have fired everybody; start all over. (Laughter.) No, in retrospect, I think we could have been tougher with our judges in the court. But, you see, we got the system that we took after you, and we can’t fire judges. (Laughs.)
Our elected officials are there for long periods of time. We can’t—we can’t—we can’t move them. So I don’t know. I think we need—I think we will need a new—a different political system. I think the American system’s not working for us.
BURWELL: That is a big statement. (Laughter.)
Yes, right here.
Q: Good morning. My name is Michelle Lenihan from the Department of Defense. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
My question is about China. I’m curious how you perceive China’s influence on the continent. And then we touched on debt to a degree, but I’m also curious about your perspective or if you have any concerns about one country holding so much debt.
SIRLEAF: China is strong. China is penetrating. China is succeeding, because they do things. They see the opportunities and they go for it. Is that wrong? I mean, I like them. I mean, I like them. But I like the results they get. And we’ve learned a bit from them too. We know, you know, they bring their own unskilled people, compete with our small traders. Those are the bad things. Those are the down sides. We try to overcome them by making sure we’re stronger than they are, and we make our laborers challenge them from time to time; insist that they employ local people and use local products as much as possible.
But the private sector is where we really need the support we’re not really getting from some of our more developed, you know, more enlightened partners. The U.S., they like to give us the grants and something, but they’re not helping us with the investment that we need to create a middle class. And China isn’t doing much of that perhaps either. I mean, China like, you know, big footprints—stadiums, palaces. And, you know, we have to move away from that.
But at the same time, if we’re going to grow these economies, we’ve got to focus on entrepreneurship. We’ve got to create that business class of people that can be self-sufficient, that can have a consumption capacity to grow the economy. And that’s where we need some of you thinkers in this room to think about that. How do we change? I know we’ve got some structural problems and deficiencies that we’ve got to address too, and some of it is being addressed.
You know, in my case, maybe I should not have done too much democracy. (Laughter.)
BURWELL: I think that is a good place—(laughter)—for us to bring our conversation to a conclusion, with a challenge. I’m going to—I think the president has challenged each and all of us to think about how we should think about those contributions that tie into that entrepreneurial nature that bring us to what we are very pleased about, which is that her restlessness continues, that her restlessness continues with the efforts that she’ll be doing; that thinking about women and business, thinking about women in leadership, and continuing on that path.
And I think you’ve challenged us to think about how we think about those contributions. I want to thank you so much for your time, for your incredible leadership, for your inspiration, and being with us today. Thank you so much.
And I also want to make sure to recognize and also thank the Behrman family. This lecture and this time is sponsored, and it is incredibly important. And this was an incredible opportunity, I think, for all of us; so just want to make sure that, as we close, we not only express our appreciation for the president, but also for the family that helped make our time together today possible.
So thank you all very much. (Applause.)