Liberia: Misogyny, Ebola & the growth of tech
When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became President of Liberia—and consequently, the first female African Head of State—in 2006, Liberians, neighboring countries, and the wider world, rejoiced. Not only did her election seem to mark an emphatic end to the country’s decades of civil unrest, but the new president had spent many years working in international development and finance; this formidable experience led many to hope that she was the right person to jump-start Liberia’s stagnant economy.
Eight years later, Liberia is much transformed from the war zone it once was, and modernizing at an enviable pace. Before the Ebola crisis set in, it was projected that the country would enjoy nearly 6% economic growth in 2014, a rate many European countries can’t hope to match (although these estimates have now been sharply revised downwards). Despite some lingering concerns that President Johnson Sirleaf has not worked hard enough to root out a culture of political patronage and nepotism, the country remains a darling of development banks and NGOs.
Underpinning this modernization were rapid changes in the technological sector as well. Barely a decade out of civil war, Liberia remains stubbornly near the bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index, ranking 175th out of 187 countries in 2013. But there is a burgeoning tech scene, with several mobile phone companies competing for market share, and an ambitious “Universal Access” initiative underway by the government, to ensure that internet, data and telephone connectivity are available in rural and urban areas alike. In the capital city of Monrovia, some intrepid entrepreneurs have started a technology non-profit, iLab, which aims to offer access to modern equipment, IT training and expert assistance in an effort to promote “information sharing” between Liberian political power brokers and ordinary citizens.
From the outside looking in, it would seem that Ebola aside (more on that later), it should be “all systems go” in Liberia. A female president, financial backing from the West, and a committed interest in modernization—this seems like a recipe for success in Africa. And yet, Liberia has disappointed its supporters during President Johnson Sirleaf’s tenure, and remained stubbornly underdeveloped. Some of the contributing factors are undoubtedly beyond her control: corruption and mismanagement are a problem within many African countries, and it can take decades to tackle their root causes. However, there may be a bigger issue at stake here that could take even longer to address: the persistent marginalization of women.
According to a July 2014 report from the Carter Center (one of Liberia’s leading NGOs, and part of a sprawling humanitarian network headed by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter), a recent study in Liberian schools indicated that “75% of men and 22% of women believe that men are superior to women.” Despite the fact that in Liberia, women hold approximately 30% of minister-level positions within government—an enviable statistic many Western countries don’t come close to—many of these representatives are from the diaspora and have returned to help rebuild their country. Within the Liberian education system, the Carter Center estimates that only 8% of women have completed secondary education and 42% have never attended school all. More than 60% of Liberia’s female citizens are illiterate. Such low levels of participation doom women to the informal economy or subsistence farming.
Gender disparities are not unique to Liberia, of course. The International Parliamentary Union estimates that worldwide, the average for women in parliaments was just under 22%. Within the United Nations, only 15% of ambassadors (or 30 out of 193 representatives) are women. But the problem may be particularly insidious in Liberia, which ranked 139th out of 146 on the Gender Inequality Index.
There are some efforts to address this yawning gap: the government has introduced a long-term development plan called Liberia Rising 2030 with the goal of having the country reach middle-income status by the year 2030. One of the explicit goals of the plan is addressing the underlying obstacles to gender equality. There are also bold schemes taking root in the non-governmental sector as well: iLab has designed a “Girls in ICT” program, with the objective of training 100 young Liberian women in both introductory ICT skills and more advanced competencies like programming and website design.
Such ambitions, however, can’t be reached as long as Liberia remains in the technological “dark ages.” It is estimated that approximately 60% of Liberians have mobile phones and less than 5% have access to high-speed internet. A higher percentage can connect to the web through their mobile phones, but this remains an expensive proposition for many. Until the underlying infrastructure is improved, little can be done to connect Liberia to the outside world.
It is here that perhaps the Ebola outbreak has an unforeseen silver lining. The disease has wreaked havoc in Liberia, infecting more than 10,000 people, disrupting livelihoods and bringing the economy to a halt. Women—who serve as the primary caregivers in Liberian society—have been hit particularly hard. However, after the United States military sent troops to Liberia to help contain the outbreak, they launched plans to majorly upgrade the country’s high-speed internet capabilities in order to support their operations in the country. Such infrastructure, once developed, can then be used as the foundation for improving the nation’s tech network once the Ebola crisis is fully contained. Savvy entrepreneurs are no doubt already visualizing the possibilities.
Liberia has a long way to go in bringing both its women and its technology sector into the 21stcentury. But for a variety of reasons, it continues to attract interest and financial support from influential friends both inside and outside the continent. Going forward, the nation’s political authorities should be courageous enough to shake off the historical inequities and outdated power structures of the past and bold enough to take advantage of the available opportunities to bring all of its citizens online.
Brooke Whitmoor is a writer, researcher and former aid worker in Liberia