Recently I returned from Liberia, which USA Today just rated as the poorest nation in the world. It was a bittersweet trip, because Liberia is a land I love, and it wasn’t always at the bottom of this list. And yet, over the ten years I have been connected to Liberia—through work to advance women and higher education, as well as through marriage and family—and particularly over the last year, I have witnessed changes in people’s fortunes, for better and for worse.
Liberia is a small country of about 5 million people—not much bigger population-wise than Greater Boston, where I live now, and not much bigger land-wise than where I came from, namely, the state of Georgia. It is the kind of country where “almost everybody knows each other” and a person—from villager to government minister—is never more than a few degrees of separation from anyone else. It is the kind of country, then, that could easily serve as a laboratory for effective social change and a test model for various human wellbeing schemes.
Many such schemes were launched, with mixed success, during the historic two-term administration of Liberia’s first woman and first post-war head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. President Sirleaf brought women to center stage, and brought the world’s spotlight to the possibilities for gender development in Liberia. It was a thrilling ride to watch people, nations, and organizations from around the globe invest in Liberia and President Sirleaf’s great experiment. There are still some residuals from that effort today, although some of the initial gains have also been eroded.
Last year, after closely watched yet ultimately peaceful elections towards the end of 2017, Liberia welcomed a new government. H.E. George Manneh Weah, a former soccer star who was the 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year and who previously held a senatorial position in the Liberian legislature, is now President of Liberia, representing a different party than his predecessor. Notably, he has made youth a priority of his administration—a shrewd choice given that youth were among his most enthusiastic supporters and youth now comprise about 65 percent of Liberia’s overall population. For context, the African continent as a whole is expected to have around 1 billion youth by 2050.
Youth are a source of creativity and innovation in every society, but also a population in need of investment and guidance all over the world. Could Liberia become a laboratory for forward-thinking youth programs under President Weah, just as it was a laboratory for innovative approaches to gender issues under President Sirleaf? This question was on my mind as I toured the country, meeting with government officials, new university leadership, representatives of various NGOs and community-based organizations, as well as many youth themselves.
Some prognosticators see danger in Africa’s youth bulge, focusing on a supposed causal chain that links youth unemployment to youth unrest, and, ultimately, youth radicalization. In the gender arena, these same prognosticators tend to raise the alarm about adolescent sexuality and parenthood, particularly as they pose risks to girls’ educational outcomes and correlate with sexual violence and exploitation of girls and young women. These are all very real issues, but they are only one lens through which to view the realities and futures of African youth.
Another view—one that I would like to align with the research and action of the Wellesley Centers for Women—is one that sees (and contributes to) hope, promise, and enthusiasm in and with regard to African youth and their prospects. An approach that asks African youth for their own perspectives and aspirations, one that embraces African youth and their insights and talents, and one that takes the historical, political, economic, structural, and systemic context of African youths’ lives into consideration—and, at times, challenges those—is the one I would like not only to endorse, but to operationalize. It is an approach that sees the wealth in people, not just one that sees the poverty created by their circumstances. It is also an approach that cultivates African youth leadership.
One of the most touching moments of my entire trip was when I met with the Minister of Youth and Sports, the Hon. Zeogar Wilson, along with a number of his deputies and the Honorary Consul General for Liberia, Hon. Cynthia Blandford, with whom I was traveling. During the meeting, I handed Minister Wilson a folder of information about the Wellesley Centers for Women. Inside the folder was a large bumper sticker emblazoned with WCW’s famous motto, “A World That Is Good for Women Is Good for Everyone.”™ As soon as our meeting was over, Minister Wilson said, “I’m putting this on my car immediately,” and we all walked together to his official vehicle, where he affixed the sticker for all to see.
Even though our meeting had focused on youth issues, the conversation had resonated with themes of equality and empowerment—for boys, for girls, for women, for all. Minister Wilson “recognized the connections,” as intersectionality theorists are perpetually encouraging us to do. His whole team was clear that youth issues encompass gender issues, and approaches to youth empowerment are enhanced by maintaining a gender lens. I left feeling good that the past had informed the future for Liberia’s youth.
People often ask me, as I scout the world for international partnership opportunities for WCW, why I pick particular countries over others. Isn’t China more important, they ask? Isn’t Europe easier? Why not just stick close to home, when there’s so much going on in the States? But my answer is always this: We go where the need is greatest and where the opportunities for practical, felt impact are most immediate. We look for the places that have been overlooked, and the places where the opportunity to widen the circle is greatest. We also go to the places where we have the greatest potential to be transformed by what we learn.
As an established, highly-successful, economically secure women- and gender-focused research institute in the global North, WCW must use the tools at our disposal to tip the scales in the direction of global equality—not only gender equality, but also equality with regard to the power of data to shape the fortunes of populations and nations. This is the kind of partnership we are wedded to, and the kind of partnership that comes from seeing the wealth in people where others only see poverty.
Layli Maparyan is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. An expert on Womanism, her scholar-activist work interweaves threads from the social sciences and the critical disciplines, incorporating basic and applied platforms around a common theme of integrating identities and communities in peaceable, ecologically sound, and self-actualizing ways.
Photo 1: Liberia's young women are in the forefront of change. L to R: Tina Wollie, Hon. Cynthia Blandford, Dr. Layli Maparyan, Mama Tormah of Traditional Women United for Peace. Photo credit: Tina Wollie.
Photo 2: Liberia's Minister of Youth & Sports, Hon. Zeogar Wilson, affixes a WCW bumper sticker to his official vehicle. Photo credit: Author.