NewsWest AfricaLiberia: We empowered communities against Ebola- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf


Posted on Friday, 24 April 2015 14:54

Liberia: We empowered communities against Ebola- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

By Billie Adwoa McTernan and Patrick Smith in Monrovia Photo by Francis Kokoroko for The Africa Report

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President, Liberia. Photo© Francis Kokoroko for The Africa ReportLiberia's president talks to The Africa Report about how changing policy during the crisis was key to eradicating the disease, the country's relationships with the US and the government's plans beyond ebola.


The Africa Report: Many people here in Liberia say the Ebola outbreak was a crisis of politics more than of public health. Is that how you see it?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: When Ebola hit, we didn't know what to do. I was just as frightened as everybody else. People were suspicious: our people were dying, our doctors were dying. Some called it witchcraft. Some felt the government was doing it to get money because they had a budget problem.

You started with a security approach, putting communities under quarantine. Why did you change tack?

We started by trying to restrict movement to cut down potential transmission. We quickly learned that was not giving the best results. We changed policy. We began to empower communities to take responsibility, to do the contact tracing.

Grassroots activists and volunteers were critical in ending the crisis. has this created a new political spirit?

If the mood has changed, it's because of the effectiveness of the unified effort. There's no one person who can take credit for it. It was the effect of everyone coming together. People didn't want to lose their lives and their livelihoods.

You wrote a personal letter to President Barack obama on Ebola. how important was help from the United states?

The US intervention was forceful and effective. I don't think they anticipated we would get where we have in such a short period of time. My message to President Obama and Congress was [one of ] appreciation, then to say this virus is a global threat.

We have two countries, our neighbouring countries, that still have the virus.

Liberia was spending more on healthcare than most developing countries, but the system nearly collapsed due to Ebola. Why?

It tells you the limits of putting funding into one sector without recognising the inter-relationships with others. Even if we put nurses and doctors – of which there are very few anyway – into a rural area, in the rainy season there are no roads to get there.

And if you don't have clean water and sanitation, the chances are that the curative method alone would have little effect.

Will you allow more autonomy so ministries can speed up their programmes?

We do allow them a certain amount of latitude. However, accountability is always an issue for Liberia, so the ministry of finance has to be careful that we don't get charged with misuse of funds or corruption.

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It comes from years of deprivation. People lived by any means they could. It's become part of the culture.

How do you balance devolving power to the regions and controlling your policy agenda?

In 2006, we said that we're going to give to what we call county development funds. The experience has not been totally what we wanted.

One of the most important lessons is the need for local authorities to manage that money properly. Part of our work is to build capacity and to transfer people from the centre to those areas be- cause they have the training.

Some ministries are already transferring authority and offices to the counties. Health has done that to a large extent, agriculture is doing it too.

How do you react to criticism of your government on the management of mining concessions?

On the concessions, I don't think they are in any violation of our Our tax people are pretty tough. Illicit financial flows are an issue all over the world. Sometimes we don't have the capacity to judge whether we are getting fair value for our exports.

And risks of corruption in the new oil sector?

Liberia has been recognised by the EITI [Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative] as having met its standards. EITI was meant for mineral resources, but we have added agriculture. We did that because we have these large concessions, and we wanted to make sure that they too have to report.

Do you think the economy would grow faster with a stronger state-led strategy?

I struggle with the approach: an open society versus some authoritarianism. Given the many years of oppression in our country, we put a lot of weight on freedoms [...] of speech, of religion.

Do you worry that you are feted abroad but heavily criticised at home?

That's the freedom that we have allowed. They can say what they like. The needs are so massive and so many. Rebuilding a broken country doesn't come about in a decade. It takes two to three decades to rebuild when everything has been broken down.

With relatively few resources and an economy that is still relatively small and extractive industry-based, our tax base is too, too small. The expectations when we came in were high.

We get international support because they know what we inherited. The people out there know me, what I stand for and what I'm doing. That's why I don't listen to too much of the criticism and just try to stay focused. ●


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