| ||Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf|
“If ever there was a country ChildFund needed to be in, Liberia is it,” wrote ChildFund President and CEO Anne Lynam Goddard on her recent return from that country. She highlighted Liberia’s 13 years of civil war that had turned children into soldiers, turned thousands into refugees and destroyed the country’s social fabric by the time Liberia finally signed its peace treaty in 2003.
Two months later, ChildFund arrived and began working to reintegrate child soldiers into their communities. UNICEF would recognize us as foremost in child protection work, which involved training children and youth as well as local authorities around gender and child protection issues. ChildFund has also implemented medical referral and legal aid services, constructed housing, built water and sanitation facilities, set up child-friendly spaces, raised awareness about sexual and gender-based violence and more. Much of this work has been and continues to be in partnership with UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency.
The long recovery continues. Liberia, says Goddard, is a country “slowly crawling back from having been decimated.”
Since 2005, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has led the way on that difficult journey. A Harvard-educated economist, erstwhile bank vice president and former Africa director of the United Nations Development Program, Johnson Sirleaf is Africa’s first elected female leader. She is known as Liberia’s “Iron Lady.”
Goddard reports having heard again and again from Liberian people how much they admire and believe in Johnson Sirleaf. “We have peace now, and good leadership,” they told her. “That’s what’s moving the country forward.”
At a reception honoring ChildFund early in her weeklong visit to Liberia, Goddard was able to meet with the Liberian president. In addition to reaffirming the longstanding relationship between ChildFund and the Liberian government, their conversation also touched on Liberia’s dependence on foreign aid. The country’s operating budget is a comparatively meager $0.5 billion.
Johnson Sirleaf has been understandably concerned by the U.S. congressional proposal to cut humanitarian aid. Recent developments in the region serve to deepen those concerns: When fighting erupted in the neighboring Ivory Coast in late February, Ivorian refugees began pouring west into Liberia, adding to the more than 30,000 who had arrived since the Ivory Coast’s embattled elections in November. Johnson Sirleaf told Goddard, “Our worst fears are coming true.”
As of March 8, UNHCR had registered 75,000 Ivorian refugees in eastern Liberia.
| ||ChildFund President and CEO Anne Goddard greets Liberian children.|
“The complexity of the situation in Liberia is quite high,” says Goddard, and it is no understatement.
Still, as fragile as Liberia’s recent progress may be, the country will not turn away refugees, because Liberians were refugees themselves not long ago — tens of thousands fled to Sierra Leone and Ghana during the Liberian conflict. “They won’t say no because they have been hosted themselves,” Goddard says.
Amid the struggle, Johnson Sirleaf continues to lead her country through its long healing process. She spends her weekends visiting Liberia’s far reaches, to see how its people are faring, says Goddard. She even visited one of ChildFund’s Early Childhood Development sites and contributed to its fencing, as well.
“If we had leaders like this in every country,” Goddard declares, “the world would be a better place.”
The Iron Lady of Liberia is up for re-election this fall. She is expected to win.