As my tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Liberia comes to a close, I first and foremost want to thank all Liberians for so warmly welcoming me to your beautiful country. You have all made me feel very much at home here during the past three years.
I am sad to be leaving Liberia, but I can assure you that I will carry this country and its people in my heart. The bond I share with you is not only because of the friendship between our two countries or your warm hospitality; we are bound together because of our shared experience in facing the national nightmare of Ebola.
When the disease struck Liberia in March 2014, Liberia was on the right trajectory in its recovery from conflict – moderate but steady economic growth resulting from thoughtful policies and the support of citizens, who keep the government accountable to the people.
The Ebola epidemic was an unexpected and unprecedented emergency that hit a region with few resources to address the threat. Winning that fight has proven to be a marathon task, with many unexpected obstacles and difficulties along the way. Liberia, despite having the most Ebola-related deaths, was the first of the three highly impacted countries to reach zero. Led by President Sirleaf, the Government of Liberia achieved this milestone by clearly communicating with its citizens at the local level and empowering them to take action – qualities which will serve Liberia well as you move toward the important goal of decentralization.
Dealing with this extended emergency stalled the Government of Liberia’s broader efforts to improve life for Liberians, but there have been notable successes over the past three years that may have been obscured by the Ebola response. To those who are impatient about the pace of change, I say that change is hard, but many hands make light work. What do I mean? Development, consolidation of democratic governance, and reconciliation are all processes that take time, but by working together, valuing differences and committing to the greater good, progress comes more quickly. More importantly, progress comes when Liberians put their country ahead of their own narrow interests and work together, as the united fight against Ebola so forcefully demonstrated.
A notable success – Liberia has one of the liveliest and most open forums in Africa for the media to do their jobs. That is a direct result of changes your government instituted, including embracing the tenets of open government and granting ordinary citizens access to information. This is all the more significant as Liberia enters the 2017 election cycle.
Another notable success – the National Elections Commission has organized multiple successful contests, including the December 2014 Senate elections. Although the elections were delayed by Ebola concerns and judicial challenges, the NEC and judiciary were able to resolve the situation and allow the elections to proceed. It was a very positive sign of the maturation of Liberia’s political and institutional development and the ability of Liberians to organize well-run elections that were judged by observers to be free and fair.
And that’s not all. The Ministry of Health is rebuilding its capacity at the central, county, district and community levels with support from our extensive USAID programs that have helped put in place the underlying structures leading to better health sector governance, management, accountability, and effectiveness. Major accomplishments include improvements in the quality and availability of primary health care services for mothers and children in some of Liberia’s hardest to reach communities. Additionally, by mobilizing the leadership of rural communities, USAID has brought those communities improved sanitation facilities and greater access to clean drinking water.
We also welcomed the establishment of a permanent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) country office in Liberia, to assist with building capacity to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease outbreaks. Since the Ebola outbreak, the CDC has worked with the Ministry of Health to strengthen data management and surveillance systems and strengthen laboratory capacity and testing for diseases of public health concern, establishing infection prevention and control standards at health facilities and building the public health workforce capacity in country. With the strengthening of the health systems in Liberia, we are progressing towards a healthier and better prepared Liberia to respond to another disease outbreak.
Of course, none of these accomplishments could happen in a security vacuum. Maintaining peace and social stability is a prerequisite for Liberia’s democratic and economic development. The United States has worked closely with the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and with the Liberia National Police (LNP) to strengthen these institutions, and both are increasingly ready to assume full responsibility for Liberia’s security as the drawdown of UNMIL continues. The growing cooperation and joint exercises between AFL and LNP is of vital importance to improve the interoperability between the forces and reinforce the military’s role in support of the civilian security forces. The merit-based appointment of career law enforcement officers in the leadership positions of both the LNP and the Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency (LDEA) is a critical step towards fulfilling the government’s responsibility to protect its citizens through its civilian security forces. The LDEA has also made tremendous strides over the past two years in its operational capacity and professionalism, and the passage of the new LDEA Act and drug law in 2014 provides a strong foundation for even more effective law enforcement activities. LDEA’s deployment in 2014 to both Monrovia-based airports quickly resulted in several successful interdictions, and I am confident that its deployment to the Freeport of Monrovia will prove just as fruitful.
These accomplishments provide the underpinnings on which future growth and investment will be made, but are intangible. Improved roads and a functioning electrical grid are the tangible items that Liberians want and need.
On November 2, Liberia signed a compact with the United States’ Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which will contribute significant resources to rebuilding the Mt. Coffee hydropower plant and to upgrading maintenance of Liberia’s road transportation network. This $256 million partnership compact is remarkable for a number of reasons. Very few countries each year are approved for a Compact, and in most cases it takes years of negotiation and preparation before a Compact is actually signed. The fact that this Compact was signed in one of the fastest time frames undertaken by MCC is a testament to the dedication and professionalism of the Liberian government and to the robust friendship that has been a hallmark of U.S-Liberia bilateral relations for more than a century. This Compact is a very tangible symbol of our friendship and more importantly will contribute enormously to making affordable electricity available to all Liberians.
Let’s be honest. Challenges to development remain. Even as Liberia began to emerge from the Ebola epidemic, its recovery stalled due a sharp decline in revenues from iron ore and rubber; a sharp reminder of the need to move more aggressively away from a concessions-based economy. There has been progress in developing public financial management systems that will make official corruption more difficult going forward, but there is no substitute for holding people accountable – and not just members of the government. The fight against corruption has to begin with personal responsibility of each and every Liberian – to do the right thing every time, especially when no one is looking.
Liberia still needs to ensure women have every opportunity to participate fully in the country’s economic and political life. If you leave behind 50 percent of the population, you’ll never fully develop. Incidents of rape and sexual and gender-based violence continue to plague the country, and remain a stain on the country. Although strides are being made, the courts are still backlogged with cases, leading many to forego their right to a fair trial. This also undercuts efforts at national reconciliation, since disputes fester and explode, rather than being dealt with in a fair, just manner.
The upcoming transition is perhaps the most critical in Liberia’s history. The 2017 election will show Liberians and the world whether they intend to remain on a path of democracy and inclusion or to return to a time of conflict and exclusion. Protecting the peace and achieving the future that Liberians desire requires personal and collective effort and a commitment to national, rather than personal benefit.
It is my fervent hope that even more positive developments are imminent. The United States stands ever-ready to help Liberians help themselves, and I am pleased to have been the steward of this partnership during my time here. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
By Deborah R. Malac, U.S. Ambassador to Liberia