President Johnson Sirleaf Speaks on the Challenge of Nation-Building at Georgetown University

Former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf visited Georgetown University for three days last week. Her visit kicks off the formation of a forum through which Georgetown will engage leaders, academics, and development practitioners on the topic of nation-building in fragile states, with the hope of producing valuable insights for the global community.

During her visit, President Sirleaf met with faculty and students and participated in small discussions about her presidency and the challenges she faced during her time as the leader of a fragile country emerging from years of brutal civil war.

President Sirleaf (R) with Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield (L)

President Sirleaf’s visit was organized and planned in thanks to a committee of Georgetown faculty, comprised of:

  • Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service Dean Joel Hellman;
  • Professor Lise Howard, Associate Professor in the Department of Government and former Acting Director of UN Affairs for the NYC Commission for the United Nations;
  • Professor Scott Taylor, Professor and Director of the African Studies Program;
  • Professor Desha Girod, Associate Professor in the Department of Government and Director of the M.A. in Conflict Resolution;
  • Professor Ken Opalo, Assistant Professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a nonresident Fellow in Security and Strategy in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings;
  • Professor Steven Radelet, the Donald F. McHenry Chair in Global Human Development, Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Development, and the Director of the Global Human Development Program;
  • Professor Jeni Klugman, Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government’s Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard University and Managing Director, Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security;
  • Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Distinguished Resident Fellow in African Studies at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University and former Ambassador to Liberia (2008-2012); and
  • Dr. Scott Guggenheim; School of Foreign Service Centennial Fellow and former Advisor to the President of Liberia.

Also present for the discussions were several diplomats and dignitaries who had worked in Liberia with President Sirleaf, including:

  • Pam White, former Country Director of USAID Liberia;
  • George Werner, former Liberian Minister of Education and former Director-General and Head of the Liberian Civil Service;
  • Gyude Moore, former Liberian Minister of Public Works; and
  • Ambassador Donald Booth, Former Ambassador to Liberia (2005-2008).

Each of the discussions – Prelude to the Presidency, Building a Government, Restoring the Economy, and Security and Transition – focused on a different aspect of President Sirleaf’s presidency. During the first session, which focused on the run-up to her presidency, President Sirleaf shared that her gender was an asset and not a liability as she set out to show Liberians that she was the leader they needed. She emphasized that peace efforts in Liberia had been led by women. During the elections, she said, her support came from women who wanted peace, who wanted their children to go to school, and who believed that, with her education and training, she was the leader who could protect the fragile peace they needed.

GHD ’19 Alden LeClair noted, “This was a fascinating session to observe, since arguably Sirleaf’s greatest achievement is preventing her country from sliding back into war. One interesting takeaway was the need for greater emphasis in post-conflict countries on coherent police reform to demilitarize the criminal justice system and provide greater day-to-day security for citizens. This is an under-funded and under-studied dimension of post-conflict development, so I hope observers and participants to this session take the lesson as an opportunity to make more headway on this issue.”

Gyude Moore (R) and Dr. Steven Radelet (L) during a discussion with President Sirleaf

In subsequent sessions, President Sirleaf also reflected on some things she wished she could have done differently during her time in office. “There is a generation of traumatized young men who were bypassed by education,” she noted as she acknowledged the limited awareness that existed of how to help these men deal with the psychological trauma they had suffered. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield added that many of the child soldiers, ostracized by their communities because they were seen as perpetrators of violence, should be viewed as victims of non-voluntary recruitment.

President Sirleaf also spoke about the significance of the international community’s support, noting that the support from donors was “profound” and played an important role in the cancellation of much of Liberia’s debt. In addition, monthly meetings between Liberian officials, donors, and NGOs helped to ensure alignment and promote coordination of Liberia’s development efforts.

Between the four different sessions, President Sirleaf partook in interactive lunches with students and faculty, which one student described as “an amazing opportunity for us students to interact directly and informally with a former head of state and Nobel Peace Prize winner. We were able to discuss a really wide range of topics, and I appreciated her answer to my question about transitioning away from a post-conflict economy, where she emphasized that it is about action, not just agendas and plans.” President Sirleaf ended her visit to Georgetown by attending a student-led panel discussion hosted by the Georgetown Anti-Poverty Society (GAPS) on creating and maintaining peace in fragile states.