When word reached President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia that the women of the African Development Bank were requesting to meet with her, the President agreed instantly to this unscheduled addition to her already tight itinerary in Tunis, the Bank’s temporary headquarters.
And so, following her address to Deputies of the African Development Fund – the representatives of countries that contribute to the Fund and lend money to least-developed countries – in which she spoke of the need to focus on fragile states, such as Liberia and other Mano River Union countries, and to encourage growth corridors through such contiguous countries, and on a drizzly morning in Tunis, the Liberian leader, accompany President, Mr. Donald Kaberuka, headed to the Amen Bank Building to keep an appointment. She entered the hall to behold a sea of bright faces, 99 percent of them female, and all of them holding important managerial positions in the Bank’s structure.
Introducing the Liberian President, the Bank’s Vice President and Secretary-General, Madam Cecilia Akintomide, said it is an incredible honor for these women, truly committed to the development of Africa, to have, as their guest, “a woman who I know has been an inspiration to every single woman in this room, a woman who continues to give us hope whenever we talk about fragile states and post-conflict countries coming out of conflict and being on a sure path of economic development; whenever we talk about hope that people who used to leave and have faith only for the moment, can actually now start planning twenty years ahead.” And for those of you who have daughters, she said, I know that Madam President is also an inspiration to every single one of your daughters, and you will be telling them about this meeting today. She thanked the President for taking time, out of her busy schedule, to meet with the women of the Bank and share a few words of wisdom with them.
ADB President Kaberuka, in his remarks, said that President Sirleaf was an inspiration not only to women, but to everyone, as a woman leader, an African leader, and a world leader. He said he had known President Sirleaf for quite some time, and had visited Liberia in 2007, in his official capacity. Visiting the country again last September, he said he found a country transformed. It still has many problems, many challenges, he said, but President Sirleaf’s leadership has been transformational; and that with no school book on how to rebuild a country, she was writing her own story to achieve the rebuilding of Liberia, with Liberians, with Africans.
The President is here, he told his managers, to help us improve our processes. We are now engaged in the replenishment of the African Development Fund, and the President is here to give us her leadership, expectations, to share her thoughts, experiences and vision with the donors of the African Development Fund because, at the end of the day, what matters is what happens in the countries where things actually take place. He had also invited the President, and she had graciously accepted, to help to strengthen the Fragile States Facility, which is meant to help countries coming out of conflict, whether it be the Sahel, the Mano River, the Great Lakes.
President Sirleaf took the podium and said this to the women of the African Development Bank: “When I walked into the room, my first reaction to President Kaberuka was, my goodness, there are so many women managers! And he said, ‘that’s not all of them; some of them aren’t here; there are even more.’ That’s very, very encouraging, and I want to commend you for being able to compete so aggressively, because I know that to be where you are comes from the extra effort that all of us women have to put into the pursuit of excellence!
“The African Development Bank continues to be not only our premier financial institution, but the best partner, the best collaborator, the best advocate for our African effort in achieving our development goals, and you are at the crux of it because I know that President Kaberuka can go and advocate for the Bank and interact with partners and supporters. But at the end of the day, whatever comes out of that program that will affect the lives of our people, comes from the work that you do. It is you who will crunch the numbers; it’s you who will go on those missions to identify the opportunities and the obstacles, and be able to put together the responses to achieve that. You represent for us that catalyst that makes the Bank’s program work. I urge you to join the new thinking, finding ways to be more innovative, finding ways to step apart from the conventional that has described what development is all about, moving away from the growth theories to which we all ascribe, to begin to look at the human factor because that’s what is being demanded of all of us today as leaders. It’s our people who are saying, ‘I don’t care if you grow at 10 percent a year, if it doesn’t make a difference in my life, if it doesn’t improve my welfare; if it doesn’t give me access to an education, to knowledge, then that 10 percent doesn’t mean a thing to me.’
“We are all battling with how we respond to that; how do we find the means whereby we get to touch the lives of people. And we look to you for some of those answers. As women, I don’t have to tell you that most of our countries depend upon women – women in the informal sector – to provide the sustenance for what we do: the farmers, the traders, the feeders. What do we do about bringing them to a different level of participation in our development initiatives? How do we respond to their specific circumstances? Today we are talking about the African Development Bank supporting fragile states – those that have come from years of devastation and destruction, and are trying to find their way back to normality, large numbers of which are women who’ve been victimized during the years of conflict. How do we respond to them, and enable them to take their rightful place in society?
“These are the issues today that we ask you to look at. We ask all, men too – men who are in programming, who also must do their part. The leaders must do their part. But we’d like to engage you in a special way to say, give us some ideas, tell us what we can do to be able to change the lives and bring those women up to the level of equality and social equity in society.
“I thank all of you for giving me the opportunity; thank you for being here. I commend and congratulate each of you for the level of success you’ve achieved in the Bank. We’re not quite there yet. We still haven’t had a President of the African Development Bank that’s a woman! It’s changing: now we have two women Presidents; the first President of the African Union Commission, a woman; and so the list is expanding, the potential is growing. Each one of you stands a chance, and you should go for it, if you can.
“I have no doubt that, as our numbers of women increase in political decision-making, whether through parliaments or through different areas of society where their leadership is being exemplified, that we will see the day when there will be no need to say, we’re seeking a woman president for this or for that, because it becomes so normal or so natural you don’t have to mention it because we’re all going to be seeking the same kind of equality in our societies. Thank you for being with the Bank. Thank you for your contribution to the Bank. And thank you for the contribution which the Bank makes, the Bank Group, to our effort.
“I always like to close with some fun, something that leaves you laughing. I was told that a classroom of about five kids, and the teacher went though and pointed to a little boy and said to him, what do you want to be in life when you grow up? He said, maybe a policeman, or maybe a Vice President. The teacher stopped and said, goodness, you don’t have ambition? Why don’t you wish to be President? No, President is a women’s job.”
The President got the reaction she had sought, as the room erupted into laughter and applause.
In the interactive session which followed, the Liberian President was asked about her “Iron Lady of Africa” legacy and comparison to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; she was informed about a water and sanitation project, just approved for Monrovia; she was asked what measures are being taken against domestic and sexual-based violence; she was asked, looking back on her time as President, what she would have done differently; and, as a woman, a nurturer, a mother and as a President, what were two things she would tell her colleagues to do to bring Africa, a rich continent, from a state of undevelopment, to a force to be reckoned with in the world.
President Sirleaf responded by first thanking the women who had made such nice comments about where Liberia was headed, under her leadership. I’m not Margaret Thatcher, she declared, noting that any comparisons had more to do with fiscal discipline than anything else. Concerning the new sanitation project for Monrovia, the President said it was a much needed intervention, and also gave strong support to the City’s Mayor. When she pressed for a timeframe, the President received assurances that the project would commence in two months, and she promised to give Mr. Kaberuka a follow-up call on April 21st.
On what she would do differently, President Sirleaf said that, in the initial year of her leadership, she probably should have stuck with the decision to fire everybody from the civil service. But she had relented, having been told that it would not be good to take jobs away from people who had mouths to feed. She said she did not realize the entrenched nature of the impropriety and corruption in the system. Perhaps those strong measures would have sent a stronger signal, because the longer you wait, the more difficult it is to stem those practices.
As to advice to other leaders, President Sirleaf said this: “In the African context, I think we could do more to have common positions, particularly on the exploitation of our natural resources. Many of us, particularly in West Africa, are natural resource rich, and we all are carrying out our individual national consultations, negotiations, arrangements and what not, without fully benefitting from the experience or the position of others. I think we would make a much more effective use, if we had the common position where we say, for example, we’re not going to do bartering for our mines or our roads, and that that would be a common position across. Or, if we’re going to have participation and national equity, we all agree that we’re not going to sign an agreement unless there’s a certain percentage of national ownership on local content, and as a common position.
“Most times investors will come in to negotiate, and if they find that my terms are a bit more difficult and they can get better terms, maybe in Sierra Leone or Cameroon, the investment moves over. Yes, competition is important, and you’ll never be able to take that out of our system, what with cartels and more, but at the same time there are some things in which we can do – because we all have the same natural resources, and we all have the dearth of infrastructure that enables us to integrate – that’s the common position of being forced to the integration route. I think we all could do better in how we allocate our resources, efficiency in allocation and use, the establishment of priorities. We all try, but there’s room for improvement in all of us. We can all look at the experience and use best practices in a much better manner. Some countries are transforming much faster than others, so what are the elements of their policies and decisions that are causing this acceleration? I think we all should do more, should learn from others, and see if we can adopt synchronized positions.
On domestic and sexual-based violence, the President said that, in Liberia, measures have been adopted to respond to violence against women. There is a Special Court against sexual violence; Special Units in the Ministry of Justice and in the Ministry of Gender and Development; rape has been made a non-bailable offense; and we have safe houses around the country. The government had taken all of these measures, but there was still not full effectiveness, simply because the courts are still dominated by men who don’t see the severity in these cases. It was important, therefore, to try to change the mind-set and the culture so that such acts could be perceived as truly a crime against humanity.
Land ownership for women has improved, and women have full access to land. However, the ability to make the land productive was quite different because women do not have as easy access to credit and to technology as men would, particularly if they’re operating as head of the family, as a single woman without the support of a husband. Targeted programs were needed for them, and so she was looking forward to the implementation of the ADB-supported small-holders agriculture because the target for that would be women, because it is the women who are actually working the farms. That project should help to make a big difference.
President Sirleaf and her delegation departed Tunis on Thursday afternoon, en route to Freetown to participate in the inaugural ceremonies of Sierra Leonean President-elect, His Excellency Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, on Friday, February 22.