Africa's first female head of state. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. President of a country that self-identifies as one of the most corrupt states on the planet. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a lightning rod for praise and controversy. The Harvard-educated economist has presided over a remarkable period of peace and stability in Liberia, picking up the pieces after a pair of devastating civil wars and turning the former economic backwater into one of the fastest-growing countries in Africa. But she has also drawn criticism for appointing family members to powerful government positions and for entering into agreements to lease a quarter of Liberia's landmass to logging companies in a two-year span. Most recently, the arrest of leading journalist Rodney Sieh in Monrovia has thrown the West African country's reputation for free press into question.
Foreign Policy sat down with Sirleaf last week during the U.N. General Assembly in New York for a wide-ranging interview, touching on everything from the crisis in Syria to corruption to the president's own complicated image at home and abroad. "Call [me] the 'Iron Lady' if you want to say so," she said, "because I have the capacity to take hard decisions. I'm not worried about my personal popularity. I'm worried about doing the right thing."
Sirleaf was particularly hopeful about the prospects for developing Liberia's petroleum sector. "What we did in the oil sector is to bring in the big players -- the players that have integrity, regulations," she told FP. "I met with the executives of both Chevron and ExxonMobil oil on this trip, and they said to me that when the reform is over and there's another international bid round, they will bid again. That tells me a story."
Below is an edited transcript of FP's conversation with the Liberian president.
Foreign Policy: Since we're in New York, I wanted to open with Syria. As a survivor of Liberia's long civil war, what role do you think the international community can play in Syria? In particular, what role do you think the United States can play?
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: I think the role that the United States is playing right now is the right role. They've decided to engage in dialogue to try, at a minimum, to bring the war to an end. We have condemned the use of chemical weapons by any group anywhere in the world, and we're glad that that particular issue will be resolved in terms of weapons being turned over. We support what the U.S. is doing right now in collaboration with others such as the U.K. and France. Our own African countries on the Security Council are also a party to that. Where innocent people are dying, women and children are suffering, we share the view of the United Nations policy -- to which Liberia is a party -- about the responsibility to protect. Our own society was protected by the United Nations, and we expect that they will act similarly.
FP: Turning to Liberia, you've enjoyed explosive economic growth since your government has taken the reins over the economy, but development has lagged behind. Spending on education hasn't grown in proportion to GDP. There's only been a modest increase in public expenditures on the health system. How do you balance this economic growth with the job of providing services to the citizens of Liberia?
EJS: Perhaps you're not fully informed. First of all, when one mobilizes resources for investment, given the scarcity of our own domestic resources while we try to build the economy, there is a time lag between when you mobilize investments and when those investments create jobs and that improve the infrastructure. However, we have indeed begun to deliver basic services. We've been working on our roads. We've been working on our schools and our hospitals. We've been expanding the services that we render through our health institutions, our educational institutions. We've increased civil service pay because of that. The period we're now entering is the period when the benefits from the $16 billion in foreign direct investment which we mobilized will begin to be felt. There's no shortcut to the processes of development.
FP: So looking forward to the next several years in your government, what do you anticipate will change in terms of basic services, education, health care?
EJS: We expect first of all to [improve] our infrastructure, our roads, our power. Power is of critical importance -- it's a major constraint to being able to move from mobilizing investment to delivering services and increasing income, to move from being a primary commodity exporter to being a manufacturer and adding value to our natural resources. That's what's going to happen in the next few years. The jobs that we talk about cannot come until we train young people who were bypassed by an education for so long. Technical and vocational training is something that we're now putting emphasis on, to give them marketable skills. Give us four more years, and the results of all of this growth will be felt. We're now exploring for oil. Oil is a transformative commodity, because we [have] sizable resources there. We have [a] discovery, but not a commercial discovery. The process is ongoing. What we did in the oil sector is to bring in the big players -- the players that have integrity, regulations -- like Chevron, like ExxonMobil, to make sure that we have the bona fide ones in there.