“We won’t see a drop of oil in my administration, thank God, so I won’t have to deal with that,” she said, which elicited a laugh from the Columbia audience. Then she added, “But if we do not take the measures which protect future generations, then we stand a chance that Liberia, too, becomes a nation with a resource curse [as is the case in some poor nations].” To that end, she is trying to ensure that systems are in place so that any oil wealth goes back to the country and its people.
The president, now in her second term, also has a vision for educating her country, a key factor in lifting it to middle-income status. Sirleaf, who studied economics and public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is passionate about giving girls and women in her country the opportunity to attend school. “It’s one of my top priorities,” she told the audience at Columbia.
So far her efforts are paying off. While in New York, Sirleaf received an award from the Africa-America Institute for improving literacy in her country. The Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund was specifically set up to provide women who work in the markets with business, accounting and literacy skills.
Sirleaf points out that the challenge Liberia faces, along with many other countries in the region, is moving from a failed state to a fragile state to a competitive state. The failed state stems from 14 years of brutal civil war, which ended in 2003, but the Nobel Peace Prize laureate told the General Assembly that the country is past that period, even though 7,000 U.N. peacekeepers remain there. “Liberia is no longer a place of conflict, war and deprivation. We are no longer the country our citizens fled, our international partners pitied and our neighbors feared,” she said in her address.
She is asking for help for her fragile state. At a Sunday stop at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York’s Harlem community, the card-carrying member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority reminded congregants of the roots of her country, which was colonized by freed slaves from the U.S. The Liberian president also encouraged African Americans to aid her country in a way that has less to do with money and more with power.
“What can African Americans do for Liberia?” she asked the congregation at the historic black church. “You can be our ambassadors; you can be our advocates. The Jews in this country do it for Israel. Why can’t you do it for us?”
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.