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The NS Interview: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia

“I’m a mother, so there’s a certain sensitivity I bring to the job”

How is Liberia today different from the country of your childhood?
Despite periods of destruction [during the civil wars], Liberia is more developed than it was during my childhood. Yet the past was also so peaceful. I wish we could bring back the serenity but, at the same time, have development.

You married at 17 and had four children. Did you think that your story would end there?
I didn't think I would go beyond that. At the time, I didn't have much of an education because I got married right after high school. The best that I could hope for was to become a teacher, like my mother.

How did you manage to forge your career?
I've been lucky. It took a lot of hard work, determination and courage - but a lot of luck, too.

What state was Liberia in when you became president in 2006?
I don't think people realise the extent of the damage that had been done to our country. Institutions no longer functioned, the majority of skilled people had left, the infrastructure had been destroyed. We inherited a broken society.

What gave you hope?
The resilience of the Liberian people was the positive side. They demonstrated the strength of their will to survive by any means they could.

What has been your greatest accomplishment as president?
I'm proud of getting rid of our external debt. [In 2006] we had an $80m budget. We couldn't even borrow from local banks, saying: "Give us an advance to meet salary payments."

Some say that you haven't been tough enough on corruption. How do you respond?
We're trying to change people's mindsets and tell them that corruption is a crime - it retards the development of society. I'm convinced that we are making progress at a structural level: not in a way that is sensational, where we grab people and throw them in jail, but in a way that will change the whole value system.

You have said you will run for re-election in October. What will be the priority for voters?
Employment is going to be a big issue. We will have to come up with a very clear programme to address that in a significant way.

Does the world need more women leaders?
Absolutely. Where we have seen women leaders, they have been strong, honest and effective. They have all left something behind that they and their people can be proud of.

Has your gender influenced the way you practise politics?
I'm a mother, so there's a certain sensitivity that I bring to the job, a certain caring and sharing that I'm able to balance with the need for hard decisions and courage.

Do you believe that Liberia will have a peaceful future?
Yes. Liberians have not forgotten the suffering they faced during the many years of war. There will always be political battles, but I don't think that Liberians will tolerate anyone who wants to take us back to war.

What are your thoughts on the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt and the effects on Africa?
We have already been through a lot of that: the war in Nigeria, the wars elsewhere in West Africa, the rebellion in South Africa. We are now on a different trajectory of trying to enhance democracy and promote development. There are pockets here and there of long-standing dictatorial regimes. But, by and large, our people are conscious of their rights and our young people are very active.

If you could talk to Laurent Gbagbo, the president of Côte d'Ivoire who is refusing to stand down, what would you tell him?
I would say, "Please consider the experience and the tragedy of Liberia." When a country descends into conflict, the damage that is done is so profound. It's not worth any one person; it's not worth the destruction of your country. It's so easy to destroy but so hard to rebuild.

Is there a plan?
Oh, there is a plan. We're now formulating the long-term vision that will make us a middle-income country by 2030. That's our plan.

Is there anything you would like to forget?
I wish I had not supported Charles Taylor [the ex-leader of Liberia who has stood trial for war crimes]. But the support was so minimal anyway and I wasn't even in the country. We were in the US and supported what we thought was an effective counter to a dictatorial regime. But it continues to haunt me. If I had known who he was, I would have stayed away.

Do you vote?
Yes. I have registered for the next vote that is coming up.

Are we all doomed?
No. I'm an optimist, an optimist for Africa's development and Africa's democracy.

Defining Moments

1938 Born in Monrovia, Liberia
1956 Marries James "Doc" Sirleaf
1961 Moves to United States
1964 BSc in accounting from Madison Business College, Wisconsin
1971 Earns Master's degree in public administration from Harvard
1979 Becomes Liberia's first female minister of finance
1985 Jailed by Samuel Doe-led regime
2006 Is sworn in as president

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.