Tuesday, January 13, 2009

You think Obama has a challenge (check out Iron Ladies of Liberia)

Yeah, sure the economy is in the toilet and we've got a couple intractable wars going on. Sounds like a tough challenge for a presidential newbie like Obama.

But if you want to look at someone who really has to do a turnaround job, consider Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was elected as president of Liberia in 2005. Not only was she the first woman elected president in Africa, she also happened to be taking over a country that was essentially broken. Years of civil war and corrupt rule by Charles Taylor left behind a bankrupt nation with an infrastructure in shambles. With a population of just over 3 million and a national debt of over $3 billion, President Sirleaf had only a very small budget with which to try to make even the most basic changes.

The first year of her presidency is documented beautifully in the film, Iron Ladies of Liberia. Directed by Daniel Junge (who also happens to be my step-brother-in-law, and who has another film that's short-listed for the Oscars this year), the movie looks not only at the president, but at the strong women that she appoints to her government, especially her minister of finance and chief of police. I was really taken by how President Johnson Sirleaf could balance talking to the folks at the IMF (she's a Harvard-trained economist) at one meeting, and then talk openly (and toughly and compassionately) with workers protesting at a rubber plantation or soldiers seeking pensions.

It's hard to see how she can fix Liberia, but from the film, you can see that Liberia is lucky to have her.

(There is a nice short interview with her in September in the Brown Daily Herald.)

You can see a clip from the film at www.just-media.org.

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