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Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf believes international charities help Africa, but only ‘if that charity is directed to needs that are identified by the beneficiaries themselves.’

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

A decade ago, Liberia emerged from 14 years of civil war to become a relatively stable democracy. Despite starting five years late, it has already achieved three of the eight Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2000: gender equality, combatting HIV and AIDS and building partnerships. Much credit for these accomplishments goes to Liberia's two-term president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf became Africa's first female elected head of state in 2005 and was the co-winner, with two other women, of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

But while Liberia is often touted as a model for a modern Africa, 56 per cent of Liberians still live in poverty and the country is grappling with widespread corruption. In mid-September, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf paid a state visit to Canada. I had a chance to sit down and talk with her about the opportunities and challenges facing Africa as it seeks to control its own destiny and take its place as an equal member of the global community.

Many have called the 21st century "Africa's century." Do you agree with this assessment?

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It's been a long time coming. But yes, Africa is indeed a continent of the future. It's growing at over 5 per cent a year – equal to or better than most other regions. Democratization has finally taken hold. At least 33 countries here now have political maturity and have seen two or three successive peaceful transitions. Our infrastructure is improving, so the movement of goods and services and people across borders is what we're concentrating on right now. It's the age of transformation, of renaissance.

When do you think that renaissance will come to full fruition?

Give it another decade.

A decade?

Yes, the processes are slow.

That to me sounds quick!

Well, our pace is faster. We're moving now. Look at the transformation of Ghana. In a decade, it has become a middle-income country.

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Still, many people believe corruption is so rampant that the West should cease or scale back aid. How do you respond to that?

The Western world has to partner with Africa in addressing the problem. Don't forget, many times it's the large multinational corporations that compromise African leaders or African civil servants. We need to all see it for what it is.

So what should the West do to help stem corruption in Africa?

At the last G8 meeting, they talked about tax evasion undermining the resources and development of poor countries. They talked about money laundering. This is money sitting in banks in developed countries. Now, I'm not trying to say that corruption or graft is not taking place in Africa. Certainly it is. We have to resolve that problem through our laws, our institutions, our societies. But I'm also saying we're all in it together. It's a global problem. We must continue to work on it, in the fullest way – prevention as well as penalty.

That's something you don't hear, frankly, very often. Do you wish the media would report more often on the culpability of the West in corruption?

Yes, the media should talk about corruption in this broader context: the value system on both sides. How do we stop people from offering bribes because they want to get a better deal or because they want to get certain privileges? And if they do, what are the penalties?

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There are some countries like the United States with laws that really restrict companies. But there aren't such laws for every country that's doing business and operating in Africa.

China's investment in Africa is on the rise, and some fear that the support of repressive regimes may further compromise human rights in Africa too. How do you feel China is affecting Africa's future?

China is an interesting case. It's penetrating Africa, and we know why: They want access to natural resources. But China is also investing in Africa and doing business here – without conditions. Sometimes conditions from Western partners slow us down. So do all the different partnership arrangements with Western countries. China is a one-stop shop – they want to do something, they get it done.

Now, we have challenges with China. Don't let me say it's all lovey-dovey. China has 1.4 billion people and has to put those workers to work. With all of their operations, they bring loads and loads of them, so we have to make sure that we don't displace our own workers and that we develop our own talent. But fortunately, we've grown up in Africa. We can manage our affairs. We can take them on.

In the past, resources have been a curse for many African nations. Outside influences have brought conflict and corruption as well as wealth. Why now can Africa "take them on"?

With the communication revolution, we can see what's happening in every other African country that's making progress – and how they've done it, best practices, accountability. The interest in ownership, in controlling our own destiny, is so strong today in Africa.

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There are some misuses when we talk about natural resources, particularly oil. Oil-producing countries still have their own specific challenges. But many of them now are beginning to look at good examples, like Norway or Brazil.

When an international military intervention was planned for Libya in 2011, the African Union was not consulted. On greenhouse gas emissions, Africa has pleaded with the developed world for better controls to little effect. Do you feel Africa's voice is heard on global issues?

It's beginning to be heard. But we have to do more to have a common African position – to get past our own traditions, histories and relationships. And we still have language divides: francophone Africa, anglophone Africa, lusophone Africa.

All of this constrains us from being able to move at the pace that we should to develop a strong voice.

But similar factions affect Europe and other parts of the world. Is the issue really language? Or is a common voice more difficult because of outliers like Zimbabwe and how they shape the world's perception of Africa?

It's all of the above – the complexities of a balkanized and divided Africa that we've been trying to counter through development and, of course, the image portrayed by the West that Africa is divided against itself, that it's a place of famine, destruction and wars. We have to work on changing that perception.

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Speaking of perception: What about those Sunday morning commercials for large aid agencies, those "send money now" images – do they hold Africa back?

The charity does help Africa – if that charity is directed to needs that are identified by the beneficiaries themselves. Official development assistance and charitable aid through non-governmental organizations do have a role to play, but the places they help must own the process and take the lead.

What we don't want is bleeding hearts – people going to the middle of nowhere and building a school where there are no teachers or books for them to use.

What would you say to critics who insist Africa is not yet able to play that sort of leadership role?

They have their heads in the sand. I invite all of them to come to Africa today. That doesn't say that we know it all or that we can't learn from some of our partners' progress and successes. There's a whole lot we can learn. But that will not take away from us owning our own process and determining our own future.

When I visited you at home, you pulled out a possession that still makes me smile. It was a Hillary Clinton nutcracker. You are Africa's first woman head of state – but no longer the only one.

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I think we're going to have at least five before this decade ends. ...

If you look all over Africa, you see strong women rising, competing.

What about the Millennium Development Goals – where do you see Africa going once those are met?

I hope that those goals will be redefined and improved upon. For example, the MDGs called for enrolment in schools – they should aim now for quality education. Or the idea of "global partnerships." That was paternalism: "We're going to do all these things, you're going to put up the money." Looking ahead is "equal respect, equal responsibility."

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