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White House Summit on International Development: Sustaining the New Era

Remarks by Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,
President of Liberia

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: Now it gives me great pleasure to introduce a woman who embodies this great hope and has spread that hope to her fellow citizens and in doing so has spread that hope throughout Africa and around the world. She is the mother of Liberia, but she is an inspiration to us all. Will you join me in welcoming President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

President Dr. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Thank you. Secretary Rice, members of Congress, members of the Diplomatic Corp., Administrator Fore, Mr. Danilovich, Mr. Dybul, government officials, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, good morning, and let me join Secretary Rice in welcoming you to the White House Summit on International Development.

Secretary Rice, thank you for the kind introduction, and thank you even more for your strong leadership during these past eight years. Your contribution to, your leadership of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS relief, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the President's Malaria Initiative, and so many other initiatives have had a huge impact on alleviating suffering and fighting poverty in so many countries around the world. We cannot thank you enough for your efforts.

I would like to express a special thank you to Henrietta Fore for her strong leadership in our recent partnership forum in Berlin and for making the special effort to come and see us in Monrovia last month. It was a real honor for us to have you come and see for yourself all the challenges we face and the progress we are making. We hope that the rest of you in this audience will follow her example and come and visit with us in Liberia.

I'm delighted to be here today to participate in this Development Summit. The United States has shown tremendous leadership in development in recent years. The President, his cabinet, leaders in the Senate and the House on both sides of the aisle, church leaders, NGO leaders, foundations and individual Americans across the country have all contributed to help solving some of the most difficult challenges in our world.

It is fitting that we meet here today, both to celebrate and learn from the achievements of the past and to lay the foundation for continued progress in the future. Liberians are particularly grateful for America's commitment. The United States has been a true friend and partner in the five years since our conflict ended.

In 2003, the United States intervened to rid Liberia of a brutal warlord and pave the way for democratic elections. I would not be the in the position I am and Liberia would not be on the move today if it were not for the willingness of President Bush to say "Enough is enough" to a situation of national insanity.

U.S. troops came to our assistance, joining West African forces, to put an end to the war. The U.S. provided major support to the United Nation's operations that have been effective in keeping the peace, organizing two rounds of elections and laying the foundation for development. Like any relationship, it matures with time. Five years ago, Liberia pled for assistance from the United States to intervene in a civil conflict.

Today, Secretary Rice and distinguished guests, we are well on our way to rebuilding our institutions of government and welcoming the return of a vibrant civil society, a dynamic-based market-based economy, and an open press. We do not need to be rescued from our own excesses, and we are not asking for a handout. We stand before you as the testimony to the type of success that can be achieved when responsible governance is embraced and encouraged by the policies of donor nations. America is Liberia's largest development partner, funding projects in health, education, infrastructure, training of security forces, fighting corruption, attacking malaria, strengthening the rule of law, and many other areas.

It is often noted that Liberia was the first domino to fall in the period of extreme violence and unrest across much of West Africa. During this period, terminology like child soldiers, blood diamonds, and warlords became part of the standard lexicon for discussing the region. But now that we have turned the corner, the same logic can be argued in the reverse, that a strong Liberia grounded in the rule of law and respect for individual and human rights can be the foundation of a new era of peace and prosperity not just for Liberia but throughout the whole of West Africa.

There are significant benchmarks of achievement that mark how far Liberia has come. A new small professional army, a standby agreement with the IMF nearing the HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) completion point, an economy on the rebound with gross approaching 10 percent per annum, the ending of sanctions and the reactivation of our vast mineral forestry and agriculture resources, children returning to school, medical services expanding, small beginnings in providing running water, power, basic sanitation, and in repairing roads and bridges, shops and offices open and bustling with business, housing construction booming, new jobs and economic opportunities increasing every week, hope turning into opportunity, recovery, and development.

We encourage our many development partners to see Liberia as a lavatory for innovation, bringing projects to scale and public/private partnerships, in June we convened a meeting of our donor nations in Berlin to discuss how all these resources could be better coordinated and leveraged. Last month in New York, we brought together the philanthropic community to discuss how projects could intersect and provide economies of scale.

We are continuing with our major investment partners to determine how commercial projects can support community development. We have achieved these benchmarks with support from the U.S. Administration and the U.S. Congress. The United States has embraced with enthusiasm the importance of Liberia moving out of the grouping of post-conflict nations and into a strong group of emerging democracies. But nothing reveals the progress in Liberia's society today more than the completion of our poverty reductions and growth strategy and the process that led to the setting of these goals.

Our PRS, which we call "Lift Liberia," was shaped by the Liberian people themselves in a participatory and inclusive process that started at the grass roots. We undertook an extensive process of consultation around the country to hear directly from the Liberian people about their aspirations, expectations, and priorities. We held two-day meetings in each of our 15 counties, which in turn, built on earlier district level consultations. We encouraged each county to develop its own county development agenda. We included members of our legislature, traditional leaders, farmers, business leaders, political leaders, women, youth, persons with disabilities, NGOs, our partners from the international community, and anyone else that wanted to come and contribute. We did this because we wanted to hear and we wanted to know what the Liberian people really want us to do. It was not easy.

I don't have to tell you, particularly those of you who live in Washington, that democracy can be a very messy process. But it was deeply satisfying and very helpful in allowing us to gain perspectives and formulate our strategies. The PRS is our roadmap for development for the next three years.

When I received the invitation to participate in today's summit, I was delighted to see the four main topics of discussion. They coincide with four of the key principles upon which we based our development in our poverty reduction strategy, local participation in ownership, good governance, poverty reduction through economic growth, and results. While all of these four are critical, I would like to make a few remarks on the first two; ownership and good governance.

The starting point for designing any development strategy is participation and ownership. For too long governments in developing countries and major donor agencies started with top-down approaches with well meaning experts telling local communities what to do. This approach, which unfortunately is still common today, leads to a range of problems. First the diagnosis of the problem is often incorrect. Second, even if the diagnosis were correct, without local participation, the design of the intervention may be flawed. And third, and perhaps more important, if people don't participate in the processes of decision making, they don't own the project. They will watch from the sidelines, wondering why certain decisions were made, and assuming that if the whole thing breaks down, someone else will come and fix it. Instead, what we need is for people to own their decisions and be deeply involved in determining their successes or failure of the outcome.

Both governments and donors are slowly moving in this direction but sometimes too slowly. With governments, the process is supported by the steady shift toward democracy. Slowly but surely, more low-income countries in Africa and beyond are becoming democracies. Among many other things, for both us in government and for the international community, it means this: the people are in charge. We must ask their opinions, get them involved in the processes, let them know what we are doing, and hold ourselves accountable to them for results. Anything less is shortchanging the basic tenets of democracy.

America's commitment to democracy and development and to supporting low-income countries around the world has been a signature of foreign policy achievement for President Bush, Secretary Rice, the bipartisan support of the U.S. Congress, and the American people. The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, PEPFAR, has contributed to putting over 1.7 million people on life-saving antiretroviral treatment and prevented nearly 200,000 infant infections. The President's Malaria Initiative has already reached over 25-million people with prevention or treatment services in its first two years.

Yes, aid continues as strong work. Sometimes, we believe, unappreciated in Washington in fighting poverty. U.S. aid programs helped immunize over 3 million children every year. Oral rehydration programs have saved tens of millions of lives around the world, and U.S. aid provides strong support to micro-finance, education, energy, and other programs around the world.

These traditional forms of assistance will be needed in Liberia and in Africa for the foreseeable future, and Liberia commends the leadership of the U.S. for this. We applaud support for accountable and responsible governance, the development of human capital, support for free market and sound fiscal policies, however such assistance, though gravely needed, cannot have a transformative effect. Transformation comes, by definition, when policies are implemented that change the terms of the debate that create a new way of thinking about problems and challenges.

Through many of his new partnership programs in Africa, the United States has acknowledged that these values must be nurtured, that ownership is critical to success, but nowhere is this accomplished in such an innovative manner as with the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The MCC has had a transformative effect across the developing world, responsible reform-minded governments have set their sights on the MCC benchmarks, and this has accelerated the pace of reform while empowering governments to make decisions on their own path for development and a direction for their future.

This stands in stark contrast with the house sentry of development policy that sought trillions of dollars invested in Africa and elsewhere with shockingly limited results. In recent years the international community has begun to take governance seriously, and the MCC is now on the forefront of putting good governance at the center of their programs. We in Liberia are big fans of the MCC since its focus on good governance, local participation results is so consistent with our own approach.

Our government is aggressively trying to meet the benchmark set by the MCC and the other donors. We try to meet the various thresholds because it means more assistance for development, but more so, we strive to meet these benchmarks because it is what our people deserve. They are our own priorities, because if we cannot achieve them, stability and prosperity will remain fleeting dreams. We in Liberia have made significant progress in recent years, and we are hoping that we will soon be selected to join the MCC family for a threshold program. We are definitely ready for the MCC challenge in Liberia, and we hope that the MCC is ready for us.

We need the dividend that comes from efforts, the incentive provided through threshold status. Local participation democracies are also at the core of the second major problem underlying our approach, good governance. The steady shift towards democracy in Africa has been accomplished by measurable improvements in governance in these countries. Greater stability, improved human rights and civil liberties, a strengthening of the rule of law, greater accountability to the people, and lower rates of corruption. The numbers back it up.

In 1989, in the last days of the cold war, an apartheid regime, there were just three African democracies. Today, using independent academic measures, there are at least 20 democracies in Sub-Sahara Africa, and we in Liberia are just the latest to join the ranks. To be sure, some are strong and some others are still fragile. This change, this deliberate choice engendered by an empowered citizenry, has huge implications for Africa, but it is rarely noticed around the world. Let us, for example, look at the World Bank Institute Worldwide Governance indicators.

On every one of the six indicators the average score for African democracies has improved for the last decade. Unfortunately for the non-democracies, the scores have deteriorated. That, in a nutshell, tells us a lot about the relationship between democracy, local ownership, and good governance. For Liberia, our scores on the World Bank Governance Indicators have improved every year since 2003. We recently registered the largest improvement of every country in the Mo Ibrahim Index of African governance. We are proud of our progress in fighting corruption.

According to the World Bank's control of corruption index, two years ago, we were ranked 185th in the world, a terrible ranking, but this year we are ranked 112th. We have moved up 73 places in just two years. We are proud of our progress but we are not satisfied, for we know that we still have a long way to go. We are continuing every day to take the difficult steps necessary to build strong institutions, local accountability, and systems of good governance.

We recognize that through support of the United States worldwide achievements are tremendous but the U.S. as a great power is capable of even more. It can streamline its democracies and shorten the time between commitment and cash. It can rely more on country ownership and local participation as the cornerstone of most of its programs. It can begin to provide budget support to a small number of select countries on a pilot basis to help strengthen local systems of financial management rather than imposing new and complicated parallel systems, and, yes, it can commit greater financial resources to fighting poverty and supporting stable democracies in Africa. The last point may seem farfetched.

In these turbulent financial times when countries around the world are facing difficult fiscal situations, there has been much talk in recent weeks about whether increases in foreign assistance will have to be trimmed or delayed as a result of the crisis. Many wonder whether donor countries will keep the commitment made at Gleneagles to double foreign assistance to Sub-Sahara Africa by 2010. Many wonder if individual and institutional philanthropists will stop their support. We wonder if risk capital for frontier risk areas, like Liberia, will diminish. But this would be exactly the wrong reaction.

The global financial crisis is likely to create significant difficulties and hardships for the world's poorest country. We live in a tumultuous world with many different groups and countries trying to win the battles for ideas, vision, and leadership. Original leaders will quickly try to take advantage of any void in leadership and will step in to provide assistance if global leaders do not. While some people claim that the industrialized countries cannot afford support for the world's poorest countries at this time, I believe that you cannot afford not to.

Developing countries will be looking to the United States to step up during these turbulent times and emerge as the true global leader for democracy, stability, and expanding economic opportunities for the poor. Strong global leadership and vision alongside local country commitment is needed now more than ever. We want to thank President Bush for his commitment to rise to that challenge.

We in Liberia are ready to do our part. The emerging democracies in Africa are ready to do their part and I'm confident that with the progress and results achieved in recent years that America will continue to do its part. Today, as partners, we can contribute to build a better and safer world. Thank you for your attention.