Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Commencement Address at Harvard University - May 26, 2011

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
May 26, 2011— Cambridge, Massachusetts
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President Drew Gilpin Faust, president and members of the Harvard Board of Overseers, members of the Harvard Corporation, faculty, staff students, fellow honorands, fellow alumni, members of the graduating class of 2011, parents, family friends, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen: I am honored not only to be the 360th commencement speaker at my alma mater, but to do so in the year Harvard University, as the oldest institution of learning in America, celebrates 375 years of preparing minds for service and leadership. Thank you for the invitation and congratulations to you, Dr. Faust, the first female president of Harvard University! It is a great pleasure to share in Harvard’s distinguished and storied history. Harvard has produced presidents, prime ministers, a United Nations secretary-general, leaders in business, government, and the church. But more than anything, Harvard has produced the men and women on whose talents our societies become functional—the leaders who remain learners, and the learners who become leaders, in classic disciplines and religious dimension, in modern technologies and social processes.

An event four decades ago put me on the path that has led me to where I am today. I participated, as a junior official of Liberia’s then Department of Treasury, in a national development conference sponsored by our National Planning Council and a team of Harvard advisors working with Liberia. My remarks, which challenged the status quo, landed me in my first political trouble. The head of the Harvard team, recognizing, in a closed society, the potential danger I faced, facilitated the process that enabled me to become a Mason Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government. The Edward S. Mason Program provided me with the opportunity to study a diversified curriculum for a master’s degree in public administration. Perhaps more importantly, in terms of preparation for leadership, the program enabled us to learn and interact with other Fellows and classmates who represented current and potential leaders from all continents.

I readily engaged with that opening, thrilled to be among the world’s best minds, yet overwhelmed by the reality of being a part of the world’s most prestigious institution of learning. As a result, I did things that I should have done, like studying hard, going to the stacks to do the research for my papers and for better knowledge of the history of my country. I’m glad there’s so many people in here that, like me knew, what the stacks were. They were those isolated things that contained books, which people used to read, and others used to write, before Google Scholar was created. I also did things I should not have done, like exposing myself to frostbite when I joined students much younger than me to travel by bus to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

It is difficult to imagine achieving all that I have, without the opportunity to study at Harvard. It is, therefore, for me a profound honor to be counted as an alumna. I speak with utter gratitude and humility when I salute my fellow graduates who share the rich Harvard heritage of academic excellence and the truthful pursuits.

In preparation for this address, I was pleasantly surprised to learn how far back Liberia’s connection to Harvard goes. The establishment in 1862 of Liberia College (now the University of Liberia), the second-oldest institution of higher learning in West Africa, was led and funded by the Trustees of Donations for Education in Liberia. Simon Greenleaf, the Harvard College law professor who drafted Liberia’s Independence Constitution of 1847, was the founder and president of that institution, which is still in existence today.

The first Liberian graduate of Harvard did so in 1920, and since then there has been a steady trail of Liberians to Cambridge—over 30, to my count. Most of them returned home to pursue successful careers.

Thank you, Harvard, thank you President Faust, and thank you to the many Mason Program professors, dead and alive, for the compliments you paid when my papers and interventions were top rate, and for the patience you showed when I struggled with quantitative analysis.

The self-confidence, sometimes called arrogance, that comes from being a Harvard graduate can also lead one down a dangerous path. It did for me. One year after my return from Cambridge, I was at it again, in a commencement address at my high school alma mater. I questioned the government’s failure to address long-standing inequalities in the society. This forced me into exile and a staff position at the World Bank. Other similar events would follow in a life, in and out of country, in and out of jail, in and out of professional service. There were times when I thought death was near, and times when the burden of standing tall by one’s conviction seemed only to result in failure. But through it all, my experience sends a strong message that failure is just as important as success. You cannot appreciate success if you do not know failure.

Just yesterday a student here. Today I stand proud, but humble, as the first woman president of my country, democratically elected. This has allowed me to lead the protracted processes of national transformation, change needed to address a long-standing environment characterized by such awesome challenges as a collapsed economy, huge domestic and external debt arrears, dysfunctional institutions, ruined infrastructure and social capital, poor regional and international relationships, all completely degraded by the scourge of civil war.

After election, I moved quickly in mobilizing our government’s teams, sought support from partners, and tackled the challenges. In five years, we formulated the laws and policies and strategies for growth and development. We removed the international sanctions on our primary exports; introduced and made public a cash-based budget; increased revenue by over 400 percent; and mobilized foreign direct investment worth 16 times the size of the economy when I assumed office. We built a small, professional army and coast guard, and moved the economy from negative growth to average annual 6 percent. We have virtually eliminated a $4.9 billion external debt, settled a large portion of international institutional debt, and recrafted domestic arrears and suppliers’ credit. Moreover, we restored electricity and pipe-borne water, lacking in the capital for two decades; reconstructed two modern universities and referral hospitals; constructed or reconstructed roads, bridges, schools, training institutions, local government facilities throughout the country. We established and strengthened the pillars of integrity; brought back the Peace Corps; and mobilized financial and technical resources from U.S. foundations, sororities, and individuals for support of programs aimed at the education of girls, the empowerment of adolescent youth, and improved working conditions for market women.

To build a nation required unremitting tasks. Nevertheless, the challenges of sustained Liberian growth and development remain awesome and performable. Our stability is eroded by thousands of returnees from U.S. prisons and regional refugee camps, the bulk of whom are lacking in technical skills. Our peace is threatened by furious neighborhood tensions where we live: two of our three neighbors have either experienced, or narrowly avoided, civil war in the past year, and we patiently host refugees, since not even a decade ago it was they who hosted so many of us. Implementation of our economic development agenda is constrained, not by funding alone, but also by slow project execution and low absorptive capacity. Plans to enhance performance in governance move slower than desired due to long-standing institutional decay and a corrupted value system of dependency and dishonesty. The development of infrastructure is hindered by the high capital cost of restoration, engendered by the lack of maintenance and exacerbated by wanton destruction covering more than two decades of failure.

Yet, today, we are proud that Liberian children are back in school, preparing themselves to play a positive role in the new Liberian society. Our seven-year-olds do not hear guns and do not have to run. They can smile again. With multivariate tasks and transformation in tow, we can say with confidence that we have moved our war-torn nation from turmoil to peace, from disaster to development, from dismay to hope. And in this we are proud to note that it was the Liberian women who fought the final battle for peace. They came, their number and conviction the only things greater than their diversity, to demonstrate for the end to our civil war and to rededicate their ardent energies to the peaceful pursuit of progress. I am, therefore, proud to stand before you, as humbled by their resolute sacrifices to symbolize also the aspirations and expectations of Liberian women, African women, and, I dare to say, women worldwide.

I stand before you today equally proud to be the first woman president of our African continent, a continent that has embraced the process of change and transformation. I am proud that Liberia could once again became an elevated beacon of hope in Africa, an opportunity to join a few others as a post-conflict success story. Africa must no longer be regarded as a continent of countries with corrupt big men who rule with iron fists. It is no longer the Dark Continent in continual economic free fall, wallowing in debt, poverty and disease.

When he addressed the Ghanaian Parliament in 2009, President Barack Obama reminded the people of Africa that it would no longer be the great men of the past who would transform the continent. The future of all our countries is in the hands of the young people, people like you, he said, “brimming with talent and energy and hope, who can claim the future that so many in previous generations never realized.”

All tensions being subdued in Africa today, a realizable future can be reclaimed by solid tenets of accountability. At the beginning of this year, 17 elections were scheduled across our continent. In 1989, there were three democracies in sub-Saharan Africa; by 2008, there were 23. That, to me, is progress. In the electoral process itself, a significant improvement from the days when violent overthrows were the default means of transition. A clear example stands out in West Africa. Although they did not get as much focus as postelection violence in Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and Guinea proved exemplary where the military oversaw democratic elections, turned power over to the civilian government, and returned to the barracks. In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union recognized a non-incumbent as the legitimate winner. In previous instances, African states would stubbornly back the incumbent in different parties in conflict. Today, African states act in concert on many substantive issues, adopting a common African position and negotiating as one. That, for us, is progress.

We are beginning to see evidence of a progressive environment, not merely in overall accountability, but also in performance of the African economy and the economic status of its people. The index of growth has been growing at more than 5 percent over the past decade. A recent African Development Bank report measured the rise of the middle class in Africa, totaling 313 million out of 1 billion Africans. The countries experiencing exceptional growth in their middle class include Ghana, Mozambique, Mali, Tanzania, Cape Verde, Botswana, Burkina Faso, and Rwanda. The middle class is changing the face of Africa. Instability and years of conflict in Liberia have pushed us to the bottom of this table in terms of the size of our middle class. We are, however, preparing a development agenda that aims, through proper allocation of our natural resources, to graduate Liberia from development assistance in 10 years, and to propel Liberia to a middle-income country by the year 2030.

The future of Liberia and Africa must remain intimately linked if sustainable progress is ever to be realized and replicated. Meanwhile, I see optimistic signs of a continent on the upsurge. Food and agriculture base producing, manufacturing, trading and cooperating more fully. I see an uncompromising emphasis on words like accountability, transparency, and reform as elements that must adjudicate closed-door decisions concerning African governments which seek re-election. And I see the emergence of youthful and truthful leaders, ever talented, ever tackling, ever learning the pathways ahead for progress and development, especially for the disadvantaged.

I am excited about Africa’s future, and more so about Liberia’s future. In a few months, the Liberian people will have the opportunity to select their political leadership. This means that Liberia will know a second peaceful democratic transition in six years: this in a country that was riven by political rivalries, tribalism, and civil war for two decades. It is, nonetheless, with cautious optimism that we approach this event and the future. Anxieties remain because we know that as impressive as Liberia’s rebirth has been, our achievements remain fragile and reversible.

Anxieties and misgivings aside, I feel utterly confident, that in a decades-long career in public service, I may have learned many lessons that I can share with you today. In my bumpy journey, I have come to value hope and resilience. As an actor in Liberia’s history as it unfolded over the last 40 years, I have seen these characteristics come full circle. I was there in the early 1970s; a decade after the independence movement had swept across Africa. Back then, the future appeared full of endless possibilities. But I also witnessed the gradual descent into militarism, sectarian violence, and divisive ethnic politics. I witness our country engulfed in the fires of civil conflict and rage for almost two decades. But in my witness, I have also been blessed with the opportunity to watch and participate the nation rises out of the ashes of war to become a force for peace in West Africa. With cautious optimism, it is my hope that I will continue to lead this country to consolidate and realize the abundant dividends of peace.

As much as I have lived and experienced, dear graduates of today, what will know and what you do will far exceed it. History, it seems, is speeding up. After graduation, you leave the relative security, predictability, and certainty of these walls for a world full of accelerated uncertainties. Across the globe, entire societies are being transformed, new identities forged, and national stories retold. People your age across the world are becoming increasingly vocal about how they are governed and by whom. Old templates of control have been overturned as states struggle internally with issues about national character and destiny. People who, heretofore, had no say in those conversations are asserting themselves and taking a place at the table, with or without an invitation.

Ten years ago, information about the tragic events of September 11 came to us mainly through traditional media: radio, television, and … cnn.com. There was no Facebook, no YouTube, no Twitter and all the other social networking sites that my grandchildren now take for granted. In the intervening 10 years, young people like yourselves who graduated today have gone on to use technology to improve the overall quality of life and created wealth. In those 10 years, the world has become smaller and more connected. Ten years ago, the complex financial instruments of the day would seem quaint to the hedge funds and investment banks of today. In those 10 years, our markets and our economies have become more connected and rapidly adjusted.

Just six months ago, the Tunisian revolution began, leading rapidly and inexorably to fundamental change across North Africa and the Middle East. Could this have happened without digital social media, or without heightened correlation of food prices across time and space? Could this have happened just 10 years ago, with the same preconditions but a different degree of connectivity? Can you imagine what the next 10 years will bring? The next 50?

In the time even before Friendster succumbed to Facebook, our world went through phases of transformation, and Harvard graduates, students, faculty, and commencement speakers have been key actors, writers, and chroniclers of those changes, quite impactful on Africa. Some, like U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall, have stood in this very yard before a graduating class such as yours, to propose a massive post-World War II plan for reconstruction. This would lead to a takeoff in global economic growth, rebounding Europe and rebounding Asia, both of whom have been the catalyzing forces behind Africa’s own recent progress.

When President John F. Kennedy, another Harvard graduate, spoke to this audience in 1956 as the junior senator from Massachusetts, he pointed to two keystones for progress, namely scholarly objectivity and technological capability. He said, “We need both the technical judgment and the disinterested viewpoint of the scholar, to prevent us from becoming imprisoned by our own slogans.” In newly democratic societies, where ballots are marked with distinctive icons as well as names since many voters remain illiterate, the danger of sloganeering political populism is only greater, and can lead down the road of war, not just bad policy choices. Kennedy, of course, would go on to launch the Peace Corps, which has impacted the lives of millions throughout the world by bringing Americans across the ocean, teaching students and training teachers, and making our world a smaller place.

Ralph Ellison, speaking at the 1974 commencement, told the graduates and alumni: “Let us not be dismayed, let us not lose faith simply because the correctives we have set in motion and you have set in motion, took a long time.” Ellison believed that despite the challenge, the chance for national regeneration was there.

In the more recent past, Bill Gates, a famous Harvard attendee, has made our world smaller by having all of us speak the same dialect, by connecting us electronically and opening doors that just one generation ago seemed to belong to the realm of science fiction. Today, because of him, we are closer to living in a global village.

With the election of Harvard graduate Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, the face of American politics has been altered for good. His presidency brings American another step closer to the fulfillment of the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King of an American where a person’s true worth would be measured by the content of character, and not the color of skin. In the sea change that his election represents, let me remind you, America, that Liberia has you beat on one score: we elected our first female president, perhaps 11 years before the United States will do so.

Today, I share more than a Harvard background with you. In a way, this is also a commencement year for me. Just as you end one journey today, graduates, and begin the next, so too do I in November. As my first term as president of Liberia comes to an end, I will be standing for re-election. The person who claims to be the strongest opposition contender is a Harvard graduate. But I want you to know that the incumbent, who is also a Harvard graduate, is determined to win in a truly free and fair process. The relationship between Harvard and Liberia is thus secured and in good hands!

I urge you, Harvard graduates, class of 2011: to be fearless about the future. Just because something has not been done as yet, doesn’t mean it cannot be done. I was never deterred from running for president just because there had never been any other female elected as a head of state in Africa. Simply because political leadership in Liberia had always been a “boys’ club” didn’t mean it was right, and I so I remained undeterred. Today, an unprecedented number of women hold leadership positions in our country and throughout Africa, and the numbers increase annually.

As you approach your future, there will be ample opportunity to become jaded and cynical, but I urge you to resist cynicism — the world is still a beautiful place and change is possible. As I have noted here today, my path to the presidency was never straightforward or guaranteed. With prison, death threats, and exile, there were many opportunities to quit, to forget about the dream, yet we all persisted. I’ve always maintained the conviction that my country and people are so much better than our recent history indicates. I have come to appreciate its difficult moments. I believe I am a better leader, a better person with a richer appreciation for the present because of my resilient past.

Graduate of 2011, the size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. If you start off with a small dream, you may not have much left when it is fulfilled because along the way, life will task your dreams and make demands on you. I am, however, bullish about the future of our world because of everyone in this yard, because of those who have graduated today. Fearlessness for the future, youthfulness of the heart, toughness for the distractions, creativeness for the complexities: these remain the indispensable ingredients of national and global transformation. Add to that envelope, the elements of hope, robust hope and resilience, and there’s no telling what can be accomplished.

Go forth, graduates of 2011, with the wind behind you, and embrace a future that awaits you.

I thank you.

Speech from http://gradspeeches.com/2012/harvard-university/president-sirleaf.