Strengthening Governing Capacity in Post-Conflict Liberia

1st March 2010

This article by Jane Wales, Vice President, Philanthropy and Society of the Aspen Institute, appeared in the Huffington Post on 1 March 2010.

"I fear my own conscience on Africa. I fear the judgment of future generations," former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is quoted as saying. "I fear their asking how can wealthy people, so aware of such suffering, so capable of acting, simply turn away?"

While in office, this sentiment led Blair to commit British troops to end Sierra Leone's civil war and to later establish the Commission on Africa in order to advance the continent's growth and development. Now, as former Prime Minister, it has inspired him to create the African Government Initiative (AGI), a nonprofit foundation that offers African reformers Blair's personal help. He has established teams of up to 15 UK or U.S.-trained technocrats who are embedded in their ministries. Neither Blair nor these teams come with policy prescriptions, but rather their task is to help far-sighted leaders achieve their own goals -- goals that have been vetted by the process of democratic elections.

Arguing that good governance "is not simply the absence of corruption, but the presence of capacity," Blair and his AGI have worked with President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda on matters from preparing the president's schedule to the harder political questions like how to manage public expectations during times of transition. Each country has made great strides in rebuilding its society and economy. While they are not without problems, they are both expanding their economies and broadening participation. Blair argues that as a result the citizens have a growing stake in their country's future and an increasing reason to believe that hard work and merit -- rather than political connections and favors -- will provide the ticket to a better life.

Blair has now taken his model of philanthropy to Liberia, which its president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, says "is not a poor country" with its rich natural resources, "but is a country that has been managed poorly." Fourteen years of civil war has decimated its infrastructure and impoverished its young population, 75 percent of whom are under the age of 25 and all of whom have spent more time in battle than in school.

But, soon after the country chose peace, it also chose a remarkable leader in Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. A former Assistant Minister of Finance (in the William Tolbert government), Sirleaf now leads a government committed to transparency and an ambitious Poverty Reduction Strategy.

Blair is not the first to invest in the capacity of Sirleaf's reform government. Soon after Sirleaf's election, philanthropist Ed Scott created the Scott Fellowship program, which places young professionals in Liberia's ministries for one-year stints to work alongside mid-level officials in carrying out day to day tasks of governance. While Scott fellows initially were Americans without familial ties to Liberia, they are now predominately Liberian-Americans returning to the country from which they, their parents, or their grandparents came from. Many are hoping to stay in Liberia.

Philanthropist George Soros has similarly helped to strengthen governmental capacity and Pam Omidyar's Humanity United joined forces with the Open Society Institute, the NoVo Foundation, the Daphne Foundation, Trust Africa and McCall MacBain Foundation in creating the Philanthropy Secretariat within the office of President Sirleaf. They and the Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF) were a part of the 2008 Clinton Global Initiative "commitment."

The grant-makers agreed to finance the creation of the Secretariat. The GPF agreed to expand the number of new philanthropists and alert them regarding Liberia's needs. As part of that effort, I am now traveling with 19 GPF members, many of whom are also alumni and leaders of our close collaborators, The Philanthropy Workshop-West. We will be learning what we can do and reporting to you along the way.

We'll be cognizant that Liberia has a special history -- having been settled by former American slaves -- which may give us a special responsibility. But beyond that sentiment lies the practical recognition that if Sirleaf -- a tough leader with integrity, vision and smart policies -- does not succeed, that failure may stand as a discouraging lesson to all states struggling to emerge from crisis. Some might argue that it will tell them whether the outside world will be there for them, or whether we, despite being "so aware of such suffering, so capable of acting, simply turn away."