President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on Friday received an honorary doctorate degree, Doctor Honoris Causa, from Tilburg University, in the Netherlands, in recognition for her leadership and her interest in education and social responsibility. The President accepted the distinction on behalf of the people of Liberia.
President Sirleaf was honored, along with two notable academicians, Professor Emeritus Sir Partha Dasgupta, an economist; and Professor Guido Vergauwen, a Catholic theologian.
“I eagerly accept this honorary degree,” said an enthusiastic President Sirleaf, “knowing that from this day forward, the relationship between our country and this university will never be the same. For from today, my country’s largest institution for tertiary education, the University of Liberia, represented here by its President, Dr. Emmet Dennis, and this renown university, at Tilburg, will enter into an Understanding that will bind us, forever, in the field of education.”
According to a dispatch from the Netherlands, the Memorandum of Understanding establishes mutually beneficial scientific, technological, educational and other relations, with activities to include a Master’s degree scholarship scheme; a Teach the Teachers Program, fostering collaborative faculty and student exchange; and an exchange of scientific and educational literature produced by either or both institutions. The President hoped the relationship would help Liberia improve the quality of education so that its capacity is enhanced and its partnerships strengthened.
Liberia and its children and teachers are the beneficiaries of this new adventure, President Sirleaf told the audience. Tilburg will benefit, she said, by learning from Liberia’s experience, and applying it in the research and analysis that will lead to interventions and to better approaches and policies in preserving world peace. “You will also do so in the spirit of the visionary Marga Klompé, as global citizens,” she added.
Madam Sirleaf thanked Professor Dr. Mirjam van Reisen, the Endowed Chair of Marga Klompé on International Social Responsibility, for contributing to and promoting her legacy in favor of international human rights and justice, social welfare and social responsibility. In presenting the President for the honorary doctorate degree, Dr. Reisen drew remarkable similarities between her life and that of the Dutch politician, activist and advocate for equal rights for all.
The Liberian President was guest of honor as Tilburg University, located in the south of the Netherlands, celebrated its 85th anniversary, or Dies. She delivered the Dies Lecture, on “International Social Responsibility,” as the university also marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the first female Minister of the Netherlands, Marga Klompé. Earlier on Friday, Her Majesty Queen Beatrix visited the campus to unveil a sculpture of Klompé, created by Dutch sculpturist Margot Homan.
Lecturing on “International Social Responsibility,” President Sirleaf spoke of the inequities in the world, and what must be done to mitigate or eliminate them. At its most basic, she said, international social responsibility is concerned with the development of the human person. A major thrust is to ensure human development and security through empowerment and sustainability, along with greater equity and productivity. The end result of international social responsibility must be to promote and preserve a peaceful world order, protect the environment, and bequeath to succeeding generations a more stable and a more humane international system.
International social responsibility is made necessary by multiple issues, the President continued, the most important being the vast gap that exists between the rich and the poor within countries and between countries. “We live in an unequal world that is increasingly becoming even more unequal. We live in a world where it is now possible for individuals to pay tens of millions of dollars for recreational trips to space when millions of school children still walk miles to unlit classrooms that do not even have enough chairs and desks, and some are forced to sit on the floor. That we are comfortable with such a world, that we will sit on the sidelines and let this continue, is blight on our collective conscience. Through international social responsibility, we move outside the margins of society to include those who have been excluded,” the Liberian President stated.
Highlighting some good news, she said that since 1990, there has been tremendous progress in reducing some of the inequities within and between societies. Women are becoming more empowered, particularly in the rural areas of Liberia; and young women across Liberia and Africa say boldly that they want to become President; they want to be a Prime Minister. For these young people, international social responsibility is beginning to take root. The 2012 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Report also gives cause for hope, the President pointed out, noting that three important targets will be met well ahead of the 2015 end-date: reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty; greater access to improved drinking water sources; and a decline in the share of slum dwellers in urban areas. Most of the world’s poor live in countries like Liberia, she observed, adding that if we are to reduce poverty, then aid is not enough. It has never been enough.
“The UN System is correct when it observes that human development encompasses more than the rise and fall of incomes,” the President said. “We need to create a global environment that allows people not only to develop their potential but to also lead productive lives. I also believe that the UN membership is correct to move beyond the old policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign State, to intervention in the interest of a repressed people, under the policy of the Responsibility to Protect.”
The new dynamics of population growth, developed country stagflation and financial stress suggest that the world is at a crossroads, President Sirleaf observed, adding, “We must either adopt new policies and strategies to bring the world’s poor nations into the competitive and contributive arenas of development through the exercise of international social responsibility, or we face the reversals of prosperity in the richer nations of the world.”
Madam Sirleaf continued: “The time to act is now. The time to bring about women’s equality is now. The time to address poor education in children in poorer nations is now. The time to bring international responsibility to all nations in an interdependent world, where everything you do, and say, also has ramifications for us, is now. And every time we succeed or fail, you feel the consequences.”
She said that the new Global Development Agenda, now being formulated – the one in which she participates as co-Chair, in going beyond the Millennium Development Goals to formulate an agenda that, will be global and, coming from rigorous global consultations, will reflect an agenda and an objective that says we cannot allow people in the world to be poor. “Poverty must be eliminated. We must formulate this. We must demand this. We must insist on it. And we must act on it,” President Sirleaf concluded.
As the Dies anniversary program commenced, the university’s Rector Magnificus, Professor Philip Eijlander, who had recommended President Sirleaf for the honorary degree, welcomed all and said the theme of this year’s celebration, “the connection between society and university,” illustrated Tilburg University’s aim to connect to society through its various disciplines, and that more and more, the university was crossing the borders of these disciplines by working and conducting research in such relevant topics as ageing, health care, human safety, consumer behavior, and sustainability.
The program for the celebration included a short video about the life and work of Marga Klompé, as well as a fashion show in her honor; and a musical interlude by a trio of West African musicians. The evening concluded with a dinner, hosted by the university, for the three honorees.
The President also found time, while at the University, to grant a number of interviews and to meet with members of the Liberian community living in the Netherlands. They requested her to appeal to the Dutch Government for clemency for undocumented citizens of Liberia; to establish a Liberian consulate there to address their needs; and who wanted to know what help the government could offer to those interested in entrepreneurship once they returned home to Liberia.
Activities in the Netherlands
Arriving in The Hague on Thursday evening, President Sirleaf paid a courtesy call on Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and dined with Their Royal Highnesses, the Prince of Orange and Princess Máxima, who also serves as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advocate for Inclusive Finance for Development.
On Friday morning, President Sirleaf held bilateral talks with Prime Minister Mark Rutte, during which she recalled over 150 years of economic cooperation with the Netherlands. She requested the Prime Minister to consider placing Liberia to the list of countries that receive preferential treatment – a status the country enjoyed prior to the civil war. She also sought Dutch support for companies with expertise in soil erosion, to come to Liberia; and made a commitment to work with the Netherlands on illegal immigration. Prime Minister Rutte sought the President’s support for an agreement with the Liberia Maritime Authority in fighting piracy.
Meeting with Members of both Houses of the Dutch Parliament, President Sirleaf spoke of Liberia’s long-term relationship with the Netherlands; of the country’s rebuilding process, under the four Pillars of the Poverty Reduction Strategy – peace and security, economic revitalization, governance and the rule of law, and infrastructure and basic services. Challenges facing the country, said President Sirleaf, included youth unemployment, national reconciliation, Liberia’s vulnerability in the sub-region and the need for regional integration. She touted Africa’s 5% rate of growth, and the continent’s move forward as a land of opportunity for private sector investment.
In the discussion which followed, the Liberian leader responded to MPs questions about the success of African women in politics; how to convince Dutch firms, reluctant because of the fragility of the environment, to invest in Liberia; the next steps in the reconciliation process for former child soldiers; what to do about the Sahel region; and the concern expressed by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women regarding women’s rights in Liberia under customary law. The President was also asked to explain the quote, from her Harvard Commencement Address, that “if your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough”; and, lastly, about her work, as co-Chair of the UN High-Level Panel of Eminent persons on a Post-2015 Development Framework.
The President was slated to meet, on Saturday, November 10th, with officials of several Dutch companies, including Philips Global, Royal Haskoning, and APM Terminals.
The Liberian President and members of her delegation were due to return home on Sunday, November 11th.