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Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf reflects on the need for coalitions and women’s leadership in a post-COVID-19 world

Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf described COVID-19 as a clarion call to “work together to overcome our common challenges” while speaking at a North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) event, Building Coalitions for Positive Change.

Delivering the keynote address, Madam Sirleaf reflected upon the role of coalitions throughout her career. Looking back to her historic election as the first democratically-elected woman head of state in Africa, she told audiences of the vital role coalitions played in healing her country, Liberia, after almost two decades of civil war:

“The environment was anything but organized; setting a new national agenda required cutting across lines that included victors and victims; tribal and religious sects that had become mutually suspicious of each other; finding common ground with combatants and warlords who were elected as representatives and senators; and building accountability systems where public accountability had never been demanded.”

Madam Sirleaf noted that by making compromises, building relationships, and growing trust amongst groups formerly at odds, she was able to leave office with Liberia at peace with itself and its neighbors.

Placing the importance of coalitions within the context of fighting a pandemic, she drew upon her experiences fighting the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2014. At the time of the epidemic, scientists predicted that there could be up to 100,000 cases in Liberia, but what these predictions didn’t take into account, she reflected, was the resolve and resilience of the Liberian people. From the outset, she took an inclusive approach, calling for partnership and collaboration:

“Religious, civil society, political, traditional, and community leaders – we built a coalition from the bottom up. Providing a space for everyone to get involved in the ownership of the problem and the solution.”

This sense of collaboration, she said, is key to finding our way out of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Madam Sirleaf reflected on the untold cost COVID-19 has had on human lives and economic growth, but also how the disease has starkly revealed global inequities and injustices:

“If the present unfortunate global reality of this pandemic is not a clarion call to come together, to work together to overcome our common challenges, I don’t know what is. What affects all of us must involve all of us in its solution, for all of us – this is common sense.”

In her closing remarks, Madam Sirleaf looked to one positive that has come out of the pandemic – remarkable examples of women’s leadership. With clear evidence that women-led nations have fared best in the face of this pandemic, women’s ability to lead collaboratively and successfully can no longer be questioned, she said. Describing the EJS Center’s Amujae Initiative as one such example of women coming together for the greater good, she noted:

“These women are ready to steer their countries away from the calamitous rocks of inequality and exclusion.”

The keynote address and event can be viewed in full here.

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