Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently joined a session at Meridian 2020, a virtual conference convened by Stellar, focused on making ‘Global Connections to Solve Real World Challenges.’ Madam Sirleaf spoke about the challenges being posed to already fragile financial systems by the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of financial inclusion in driving sustainable economic growth.
In a conversation with the event Co-Host Lisa Nestor, Madam Sirleaf talked about the current global economic environment, including the prediction by the International Monetary Fund that global growth will decrease by 4% this year and the fact that many people around the world are at risk of losing—or have already lost—their employment. She also discussed increasing civil unrest and calls for social change as demonstrated by the Black Lives Matter movement. These challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and she noted that there is a real need to address those who have been excluded the most from the economic environment: women and youth.
“Unless new global financial architecture can reach those who have been left behind, we can be assured that we are not going to be prepared for any pandemic.”
While the need to create new financial architecture is understood as being essential for growth, challenges remain about how to provide access to under-banked communities. Madam Sirleaf commented on the role of technology, and how she has seen young entrepreneurs in rural communities using digital cash transfer systems and women using new platforms to market their businesses online. She said that while too often women and youth are disenfranchised by financial architecture, they are beginning to find new and innovative ways to use technology to reach people.
Talking about the importance of a good banking system in developing countries, Madam Sirleaf highlighted the challenges she faced in Liberia when she became President in 2006:
“In Liberia, we had to rebuild central and commercial banking systems to facilitate trade and access to external financing. Without that, you can’t grow an economy. You can’t create jobs.”
Looking to the future, Liberia is becoming an increasingly cashless society, with technology enabling more cashless payment systems. However, there are challenges here and in other developing countries to get access to the technologies required to make digitization an every day means of transaction. Mobile phones have gone a long way to enabling digitization and advancing greater inclusion, but there is still work to be done.
Madam Sirleaf also spoke about the need to make sure that the cost of money isn’t too high, and that finance is able to flow freely from richer to poorer countries. In answering questions from the conference audience, she said that good governance was essential in creating financial inclusion:
“Governance is an important factor; policies that lead to creating a conducive environment for growth. Technology will follow growth, and then become an enabler of growth. But you’ve got to have the environment that is welcoming to technology. That falls back on national policies. It falls back on national leadership being willing to adopt measures that enable confidence of investors.”
You can learn more about the conference and see other speakers here.