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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Liberia: Major U.S. Charity Gives President Top Award

Africare awarded Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf the 2007 Bishop John T. Walker Humanitarian Service Award this week.

President Sirleaf, Africa's first democratically-elected female head of state, joined Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Gra├ža Machel and Bill Clinton as recent recipients of the Africare Bishop John T. Walker Humanitarian Service Award.

Sirleaf was honored at Africare's annual dinner - the largest annual benefit for Africa in the United States. The program highlighted the empowerment of Africa's women, and raised $1.2 million for the organization - the largest total in five years - for Africare's development projects throughout the continent.

In Sirleaf's acceptance speech, she emphasized that although a lot has been accomplished in her 20 months in office, incredible challenges remain, and Liberia needs the help of the international community - especially the United States.

"I want Liberia to show the world that in the time of great uncertainty, with sustained support from the United States of America and its partners, a post-conflict country can live in peace within its own borders," Sirleaf said.

Sirleaf reported that school enrollment has increased by 40 percent, and enrollment has especially increased among girls. She made education for girls a goal of her administration.

Liberia's infrastructure has also improved over the last year. "We have brought electricity to the capital city for the first time in 14 years and while it is still limited and costly, the children now gather under street lights to study and some can get clean water out of a faucet rather than a bucket," she said.

The most important infrastructure project in the country right now, however, is the road network, which was badly neglected over almost 20 years of armed conflict. Sirleaf said the people expect results, and the Liberian government must work efficiently with donors to rebuild roads over the dry season, which starts in October and continues until May.

United States First Lady Laura Bush spoke at the dinner, honoring Sirleaf and calling her a role model for women and girls everywhere.

"We commend the president's efforts to make Liberia's government more transparent, and to build up democratic institutions," Mrs. Bush said. "I especially appreciate President Johnson Sirleaf's commitment to free and complusory education."

Mrs. Bush announced that Liberia is one of six fast-track countries that will benefit from a new U.S. $425 million government program - the "Basic Education Initiative." The program seeks to train teachers and improve literacy.

Earlier on Thursday, Sirleaf met with Mrs. Bush's husband, U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House. President Bush thanked Sirleaf for her "very strong spirit and ... deep desire to enhance democracy and improve the lives of your people in Liberia."

President Bush also called on the IMF to offer debt relief for Liberia. Robert L. Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, echoed President Bush's call for debt relief at the Africare dinner. Sirleaf has campaigned for debt relief: "Liberia cannot recover under the burden of $4.5 billion in international debt, most of it representing accumulated interest on money that was lent to the unaccountable governments of the past."

The International Monetary Fund will be holding its annual meetings this weekend in Washington, DC. Friday morning, Sirleaf met with Rodrigo de Rato, managing director of the IMF. After the meeting, in a statement, de Rato said that "it is urgent that the international community make progress in moving Liberia onto the path toward debt relief."

President Bush also announced that after a long absence the Peace Corps will be returning to Liberia to help in the reconstruction effort.

Next week, the National Democratic Institute will honor Sirleaf with the the W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award and the Madeleine K. Albright Grant in Washington.

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