It's time for Americans to again invest in the West African country of Liberia, former President Bill Clinton said Monday night at the Statehouse Convention Center during a lecture with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The lecture was hosted by the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton School of Public Service. It was the 27th installment of the Frank and Kula Kumpuris Distinguished Lecture series.
Liberia, with a population of about 4.6 million, is rebounding from 14 years of civil war that claimed more than 250,000 lives by 2003 and an Ebola outbreak in 2014 that killed more than 2,800 people. Its economy is improving, with a 9.5 percent GDP growth rate and infrastructure that is getting stronger by the day, Sirleaf said.
"It's time to start thinking about this again. Americans have a special, I think, responsibility to know about the country, to know what's going on and to help as they can," Clinton said. "But the most important thing, and I hope you see from what President Sirleaf has said today, there is a world of opportunity there which will be seized by someone. And it should be the United States."
Clinton urged Americans to "go live and work for a while" in Liberia and to do what they can to contribute to the country's success and help the small country rebuild its infrastructure, increase its access to health care and to cultivate the country's many resources.
The country's forests are beginning to recover after deforestation occurred from illegal logging and clearing land for agricultural use. The forests were also depleted after Sirleaf granted licenses in 2012 to companies to cut down more than half of the rain forest. The country struck a deal with Norway in 2014 to cease all logging in exchange for developmental aid.
The land is rich in agricultural potential, Clinton said, drawing comparisons between the African country and Arkansas.
"There may come a day when Africa retains the largest amount of arable farmland on earth," Clinton said.
Sirleaf said that the country needs to think beyond its current exports and resources and expand its offerings.
"Liberia needs to have value addition," she said. "We can't keep sending logs out of the country. We've got to be able to produce furniture and make plywood."
Supporting women and encouraging them to seek political office is also important for the country's growth, Sirleaf said. She is two weeks away from the end of her second term as the first elected female head of state in Africa.
Clinton pointed out that there are more female than male farmers in Liberia and more women hold professional work roles while still carrying the weight of the family responsibilities.
"Every time I go to Africa, I'm always impressed that women are acutely aware -- maybe because of your example and others -- they seem to be acutely aware of their responsibilities not only to raise their children, but to try to support them if they can," Clinton said.
The crowd erupted into laughter and a shout of "Right on!" was heard when Sirleaf declared, "Women are just stronger than men."
Sirleaf -- who shared the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011 with fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights -- said her presidency represents the aspiration and expectations of women in Liberia and throughout Africa.
"I go out there and meet real women and they say, 'Thank you. You're giving us a voice. Now we can sit along with the chiefs, along with the crowds and we can speak. We can now participate in the discussions that lead to the decisions in the community,'" Sirleaf said.
Young girls are learning to demand respect and to stand up for themselves, she said.
"When I go in and there's a little girl who is getting admonished by a principal, she can stand up to him and say, 'Be careful how you speak to me. A woman is president,'" Sirleaf said.
Clinton elicited laughter from the crowd when he quipped, "We're not so careful how we speak to each other in America."
More and more women are vying for and gaining political leadership roles in Africa and around the world, Sirleaf said.
"What I'm saying is," she began then paused. "America is behind."
Clinton thanked Sirleaf for her courageous example.
"To me, the most important thing I was hoping would come out of this, besides having this great crowd see you and hear your story, is there is a world of opportunity out there in this remarkable place that is big enough to make a difference and small enough to make an impact," Clinton said.
Chris Kingsby of Little Rock said in an interview after the event that he was inspired by the passion of Clinton and Sirleaf.
"I applaud President Clinton for giving us that call to action and saying, 'Here's what you can do in your very city, your state,'" he said. "I think here in Arkansas we have a lot to offer and a lot to give. I think this is an awesome way to make that known."
For 10-year-old Molly Chosich of Cabot, Sirleaf gave her a vision of her own future.
"I'm going to take over the world," Molly said.
"It was awesome. I'm trying to think of other words to describe it that are other words besides awesome," she added. "It was just amazing."
Her mother, Jennifer Chosich, said she brings her daughter, who is home-schooled, to as many of the Clinton School of Public Service lectures as she can.
"The genius is in the overhearing. It's important for her to overhear this stuff," she said. "I want to make sure she's paying attention that we're living in a global society, not just in her 10-mile surroundings."
State Desk on 12/05/2017
Print Headline: Lecture features Clinton, Liberian; W. African talks up women’s role