Harvard program hears from Sirleaf on putting education first

By Alvin Powell Harvard Staff Writer |

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian politician and economist who was president of Liberia (2006ñ18), addresses ministers at the Harvard Leadership Forum. Harvard T. H. Chan School for Public Health Dean Michelle Williams (left) speaks with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard Kennedy School graduate, in Loeb House at Harvard University. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected Liberia’s president in 2005, she had a difficult decision to make: Where to begin?

Ravaged by two civil wars that spanned 15 years, with a two-year interlude in the late 1990s, the country had seen its economy collapse, and worse. Schools and hospitals had been looted and destroyed, roads had deteriorated, and civil society was in disarray.

In short, Liberia needed everything.

But Sirleaf knew that she couldn’t deliver everything, she said Wednesday at Harvard’s Loeb House, and she also knew that to try would have robbed her of an opportunity to move her country forward in important ways. She chose education as her primary focus, reasoning that such a priority would both provide a foundation for her nation’s future and instill hope in a generation of youth who were already too familiar with war.

But the situation was bleak. Government-run schools were in ruins, and many of the country’s remaining teachers were unqualified. Also, teacher colleges had been destroyed, so the nation had no means to train a new generation of educators.

But Sirleaf persevered, building and repairing schools, getting kids back in classrooms, and working to improve teacher qualifications and quality of education. Special programs were developed for students with special needs, such as the child soldiers who were typically three times the age of classmates.

After two years, Sirleaf said, 194 schools had been built, and over 10 years the government-supported student population increased from just a few thousand to 1.5 million. There’s still a long way to go, but her administration — which ended when she left office in January — provided an important start, she said.

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