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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf shares important lessons from Liberia’s transformation following civil war

A set of three priorities guided former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s approach to her leadership of Liberia: keeping the peace, restoring basic services, and improving the country’s credit rating.

Writing in the Daily Maverick about how she led Liberia following the country’s civil war and transformed the “poster child of death and destruction” into a growing economy, Madam Sirleaf commented that good governance and consistency of its application made a big difference when reforming a failing state, as well as maintaining a laser focus on the things that matter most.

During the 12 years of Madam Sirleaf’s presidency, Liberia’s per capita income went from $80 to $700, life expectancy increased by eight years, and the population grew by nearly 50% to just under five million people.

Achieving these results wasn’t without challenges. Tackling corruption and building a culture of honesty and integrity were at the top of the agenda:

“I made bold statements about corruption without realizing the extent to which it had become part of the culture. This was worsened by the familiarity of our society, where people would expect things from family members.”

These challenges were reflected at local levels, and it was particularly hard to reach younger constituents. Social media could (and still can) only have limited impact, and so devolving responsibility to local leaders became necessary:

“To get things to change, outsiders have to sometimes take account of people’s priorities and allow locals to take the lead.”

After long periods of civil war, employing a democratic approach was key to maintaining peace, despite it taking longer to achieve goals than a more autocratic approach might have done. Madam Sirleaf concluded that bringing people along on the journey is key to success, and Liberia now enjoys membership of a distinct group of states that have made a peaceful transition of democratic power:

“Liberia’s lesson is distinct. Consistency is key to recovery. Don’t avoid the difficult things. Plans require matching resources and timelines with political will. Change is possible, even if it takes time.” 

The full op-ed in the Daily Maverick is available to read here.

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