“Liberia is not a poor country. It is a country that has been managed poorly,” according Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s president and Africa’s first female head of state.
Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of violent conflict, which decimates economies, destroys infrastructure, and undermines a state’s capacity to meet basic needs. Yet Sierra Leone and Rwanda have each demonstrated that with the right policies and the right partners, countries can emerge from conflict and achieve positive economic results for their publics. Liberia can be a third example—and wealthy countries, far-sighted investors, and strategic philanthropists alike are betting on the policies of its reform-minded leader.
Undaunted by the problems inherited from 14 years of civil war, Sirleaf’s government undertook a highly inclusive public process to develop its Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). It encompasses policies aimed at integrating former combatants, promoting reconciliation, combating corruption, welcoming investment, and encouraging the growth of civil society. It is a blueprint that has persuaded wealthy countries to provide much-needed debt relief and both private philanthropists and investors to work in close coordination with one another—and with a government they feel they can trust.
I write from Liberia, where I am traveling with 19 philanthropists committed to Liberia’s success. The origins of this trip lie in a 2008 Clinton Global Initiative “commitment” undertaken by Pam Omidyar’s Humanity United, the Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF), the Open Society Institute, the Daphne Foundation, the NoVo Foundation, the McCall-MacBain Foundation, TrustAfrica, and the government of Liberia.
As part of the commitment, the grant-making foundations stepped forward to finance the establishment of a Philanthropy Secretariat within President Sirleaf’s offices, with the mandate to coordinate their investments so as to best support Liberia’s reform agenda. For our part, at the GPF, we agreed to expand the number of “new philanthropists” alert to Liberia’s potential and to test and refine this extraordinary model of partnership between a post-crisis government and a consortium of private donors and investors.
Ultimately, our hope is to be able to demonstrate—to our satisfaction and to other donors seeking to engage—that this model of highly disciplined and collaborative philanthropic engagement can be adapted and made portable to other post-crisis situations. Many of the GPF members who joined the trip are also leaders of The Philanthropy Workshop West or members of the Aspen Institute Society of Fellows. They are strategic philanthropists, discerning, intent on impact—and deeply respectful of local voices.
They recognize that many of the prescriptions contained in Liberia’s poverty reduction strategy would apply to most post-crisis states. At the same time, they are cognizant that Liberia’s history is unique. Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, it became the first independent republic in Africa. It established a constitution that met the needs of those settlers, but excluded indigenous peoples. The inequities inherent in that formula helped lead to political instability and ultimately a brutal civil war, during which the GDP of the country dropped 90%, poverty rates rose 64%, the physical infrastructure was decimated, the management class was dispersed, 270,000 died, and many hundreds of thousands were displaced. Its young population, 75% of whom are under age 25, has spent more time in battle than in school.
As a group, we will explore whether and how private actors can contribute to the public goals that are designed not only to reverse the damage done, but to build a new Liberia that can be a model for others emerging from crisis.
In particular, we will report to you—and gain your views—on four hurdles ahead: improving security, promoting public health, rehabilitating infrastructure, and strengthening government capacity.
As we report out to you on the status of each of these areas, we will be eager to hear your views on the role that private actors can play and how they can best work in partnership with each other and with Liberia’s government. Barack Obama has often said that government alone cannot solve all of our country’s problems. If this is true for us, it can be no less true for Liberia, where philanthropy and investment have a significant role to play.
– Jane Wales