I’m going to give every Liberian access to good healthcare, job, education, says Macdella Cooper
Macdella Cooper, fondly called, Liberia’s Angel is one of the Presidential aspirants in the forthcoming general elections in Liberia. She is running on the platform of the Union of Liberia Democrats (ULD) Party. She wants to sign a social contract with the people, because she is passionate about eliminating poverty and deprivation among all Liberians.Cooper’s life was deeply affected by the Liberian Civil War in the 1990s. As a teen, she lived in exile as a refugee in Côte d’Ivoire as thousands who fled the conflict that killed more than 200,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. At Barringer High School, Cooper ranked third in a class of 1,200 students. She was subsequently awarded a full scholarship to the College of New Jersey in Ewing where she earned a degree in Communications. Cooper, a mother of three, and committed to contributing to a better world, is coming into the presidential race with a lot of disruptive policies that will foster massive jobs creation, attract gigantic investments, and enhance GPD growth for the general wellbeing of the people. In this interview with Clara Nwachukwu, Cooper reveals her plans to win, and how she intends to walk the talk, which she believes is her edge over her competitors. Excerpts:
I was reading about your Foundation, and I see that part of your vision is to take the children, women and the less privileged out of poverty, why do you think you need to take that into politics?
That’s a great question and I think that what I would say is that for the past 15 years, since 2003, at the peak of my career in New York City, I started to look into how I could be of help to my country especially in a redeveloping process. So I started a Foundation to gather resources to Liberians returning from their neighbouring countries, returning from different refugee camps, and I thought about my own situation and my own home. My house was burnt down, my father was killed during the war, and if I was going to go home.
I had a work in New York City that was paying me good money, and I thought about those who did not have, and so I sowed this Foundation to just assist them; and I have been doing that for the past few years. It graduated from just being an organisation that generates resources to support refugees, and we started supporting children especially in education but because of the economic status of the children, we were disappointed. We knew we can’t just ask them to go to a classroom. We had to invest in their wellbeing, feeding them and housing them and most of them where homeless; and we had to transport them to the school houses. Year after year, we saw that all of the kids although we were paying their fees in full scholarships were not making their ways to the school houses in the raining seasons, and for their sakes we decided to go into building of institutions to house them. That institution provided their basic human rights for them including education.
When I saw how beneficial this was to the society and to those children who we were helping, I saw a need to replicate this across the country. The first thing we did by building that institution was we took children off the streets, and put them in the facilities where they have their own bed and their own little living space. We have a cafeteria across the road because when they were hungry they go there and they get three nutritious meals a day. We saw to it that we had a nurse on camp so that when any of the children feels sick, they went to the nurse’s office or doctor’s and she took care of them. This is mandatory, across Africa, not just Liberia alone. We have not been so fortunate enough to have these institutions in places such that we are easily there to give service to our people. When I sit back and see the children I took completely off the streets and garbage piles today, and how much their lives have changed, I feel humbled.
I was never interested in having a foundation that took pictures of young African children with flies and bugs, with dirty cloths and selling those images for contributions that some make. I wanted to take those kids with the flies on their faces and put them in a place so the next time you see them, their lives will be intact and that was what we hope to accomplish in the small institutions we established. I spoke to myself that if I could only take this model and replicate it across Liberia, and replace it within the next five to six or ten years, we will have the highest number of children in our country that are educated. So when you look at philanthropists like myself, those who try to reach out to people who are not being reached, so from other things, we are doing government’s job. It’s only this period that I thought that this model should be made available to every child of Liberia.
It is relevant to give a very short backdrop to why I’m doing all of this, and so I decided to step out of the philanthropist state and step into policy, where I can influence and push on this agenda. Liberia has 4.2million people, and out of this there are about 2.2 million young people, which out of them, there are only 700,000 of our young people in school. Less number of them actually have access to healthcare, security, and food. I deemed it extremely necessary to go into policy making, policy change; influence politics that will make people get access to basic human rights. Government’s role to its nation is to provide the highest quality of life for its citizens across the border. It’s government’s responsibility to see to it that we have access to standard electricity, to security, to protect our borders, provide education for our young people. We philanthropists are operating on a private level but the things we are doing is critical that the entire nation has access to them. Anyway, I thought it is now time to step away from just influencing a few thousand lives, and start influencing lives of all of the youth, all of the women, because I said: “listen, if people who are in government, don’t understand government’s role, then those people need to step aside.”
What then makes you think that you are prepared to do these disruptions that you are planning to do in Liberia?
It’s easy, Liberia is easy. Liberia is one of the oldest independent nations in Africa, and when I see where we are today, I’m not impressed at all. We should be more farther than where we are. We influenced Nigeria to fight for independence, we influenced Ghanaians to fight for independence, and as a matter of fact, we influence African nations to fight and get their independence. So, we are supposed to be the symbol of an innovative nation but we have been left so far behind. Something happened somewhere, so when I look at what needs to be done in Liberia, I did tell people to vote Madam Sir Leaf as the first female president to sustain peace, because her role as a leader of Liberia is critical to sustain the peace process.
Now we have to move from desiring peace to getting happy with peace and then start developing. I want to be that president that pushes those basic agendas. We have got to educate 2.2million people in our country. We are going to see to it that our mothers seize to die from child birth. We have got to see to it that every person that calls themselves Liberians can put food on their table. I’m not trying to suggest that I’m the best, and please folks, I’ve said that before and it was misconstrued. What Liberia needs right now is to put the basic structure in place, and I know I can do that. Amongst all of my opponents, I know that I can do that. I am not here to try to make this rosy, or make a big noise and do nothing; I’m actually an oriental person. As a young woman, I set out to build a foundation and I had no knowledge of what it took to build a foundation. Foundations were established and built by old families with billions of dollars that just wanted their tax break or their goodwill, the name and recognition and they gave back to the society. I started a foundation in the dark period, and I did very well. When people thought, “Wow, she couldn’t do it,” we did it, and now I see a major need in Liberia.
We have got to put solid structures in place. I’m not talking about building spaceships to go out to space, I am talking about to fix infrastructure. We have got to educate Liberians at all cost. We cannot sit down and watch and say, “wow, we are sending hundred thousand to school,” no, it’s not enough. It is not enough in my opinion. We have got to see, two months ago 20 babies died in a hospital from stillbirth in the same hospital. Don’t you see something is wrong with that? Something is majorly wrong, and for some reason, during an election process and folks start running for an office and they forget when they get into the office. I don’t want to stay here in this interview and talk about this amazing taking economy from GDP of $2billion to $20billion. There are some basic things that we must focus on doing before we can bring investors to Liberia. We are going to do this to appease the Liberian people from jumping into war again. So the next step requires strong leadership that is focused on bringing those things to the table. When we say let’s educate the young people, we must educate them. When we say let’s build the health system, we must hit where the doctors and nurses are paid. So disruption sounds great. My concept of this disruption is: people, let’s get serious and put these things in place. It would benefit us in a long while.
For you to have good education, good healthcare, security and food, you need to have a vibrant economy, you need to have in place good infrastructure, do we have that in Liberia, and if no, what are your plans to build these infrastructure?
We do have a national rolling budget, which I don’t want to say it because it sounds like a local Nigerian person’s savings account. Our national budget was about $650million the last fiscal budget cycle, and now it’s about $550million. We have year mark funding for healthcare, for education etc. now funds are being redirected. Funds are year marked for education are being used for something else. Funds for healthcare, some go to healthcare and some go to somewhere else. We are at a stage in our nation’s history where we cannot afford to take funds out of the critical areas of operation, and use it for something else. How important is that something else? In my opinion it’s not that important. We have an emergency right now. The emergency is to keep our healthcare system alive and functioning well. We have an emergency to keep our education system alive. So there is funding for our education, enough funding. Right now, we are spending $75 per year on educating our children. Nigeria, Ghana, of course spend about $115 per year to educate their children. We can do the same. We have enough money within our budget to do the same. That answers the question for our education sector, same with the healthcare sector.
One of the things we really need to give great importance to in the Cooper’s administration is we have to dispel the notion that we can do it by ourselves, and we can balance it all. We have to give serious consideration to western models and talk about deficit spending. We have to talk about needing more resources than we currently have available. You know we are not living in a utopian society where everything is perfectly aligned, so it should be relatively easy to accomplish this task with this amount of money. For these tasks to be accomplished it’s going to require this other amount of money. We have to consider deficit spending. We have to consider going beyond the budgetary constraints that we have. We have to let our partners talk about the extractive industries we have, talk about re-negotiating commitments so that we can receive the amount of money that we need because not only do we have to educate the people, the younger generation, the next generation. We have to excellently educate them to get them prepared for the technology of the present century. You know that just a standard education just won’t do anything at all. We are going to get these people trained in skills that the technologies of today and tomorrow represent. We have to talk about the public works project where we can redesign and redevelop our infrastructure, and put unskilled labour because we have a lot of unskilled labour.
Obviously, we have to get them to work to rebuild our infrastructure so that we can provide economic opportunities for them in the cycle being that they will contribute that money back into the economy. This will help us to expand, and which will help us pay off our deficit, and help us meet up with the obligations that we have. We have gone beyond traditional budgets constraints. We are going to do like America, and France, and all of these powerful nations. They are not powerful because they are living within budgetary means, they deficit spend. We are going to have to do that serious consideration if we want to seriously address the problems that we are facing.
Talking about deficit spending, we find that Africa is burdened with this huge debts overhang, and it appears that we are never going to get out of it mostly because we borrow these funds and then divert them to personal pockets rather than channel to the projects we claimed we wanted to do. How is the Cooper administration going to handle this?
By being honest and by being sincerely committed to the tasks in front of us. But make no mistake; there are frauds and abuses in the entire globe. America has problems with frauds and issues with wastes and abuse, and so is with the European Union. But we are going to spend beyond the budgetary constraints that we are faced with, if we are going to move an agenda that is going to expand the economy. The U.S. GDP is $17 trillion but that is probably $75 to $100trillion when factor in states and local governments deficits, the trade deficit, the insurances and the consumer spending deficits. So, the world is built on debt and that’s why bankers are extremely happy and there is nothing wrong with them being happy too. The American economy could not be what it is if it wasn’t trillions and tens of trillions of dollars in deficit spending that America has enjoyed on yearly basis. You just can’t have an economy on a government level within constraints, then you are not able to foster the economic opportunities for businesses to expand, and for the economy to expand, and that’s the political reality of how governments work on the globe.
In addition, to how we are going to gather resources, my focus is locally, because I have seen a lot of donor funds coming into Liberia to build our industries. We cannot depend on donor funds to continue to run our industries. We want to focus on collecting taxes locally especially property tax. That’s one area that we have not done well on, and we do need to start collecting property taxes. Property taxes because most of the people don’t have jobs, and you only have to tax on their income. We really hope to work with our revenue agency, LRA, and equip them to collect property taxes across Liberia, which will create jobs and also boost our economy and our revenue. With that, we can use that $115 that most Africans use to educate their children to educate our children.
One of my paramount focus is really we can’t run our industries without having trained workers. Teachers are not trained properly, teachers are not being paid, and I keep saying this because there are long term investments in every nation, and there are immediate needs. Most governments come in and they focus on the immediate needs and forget the long term investments. Today, we have 41 per cent adult literacy. People say I talk about education, it’s because it is critical. If you ever want to build factories, industries, if we do not have an educated society we wouldn’t have adequate works. Those companies will come in, use our people for labour jobs and go to other countries. So it is critical for our administration that we stopped everything and get our education system in place now. Nigerians have done a great job. We have a 41 per cent adult literacy rate, Nigeria has 80 per cent, and Ghana has 78 per cent. We are all the English speaking country in the region. That doesn’t make a difference with Ivory Coast, which got a very high adult literacy rate. We need an educated society. One of our problems today is that people can hardly read signs around the country, so what does that tell you? Imagine the number of individuals we have to run our institutions. The moment a person becomes educated they go outside to run other institutions, so we have a major problem and that is why I want to focus on those basic services across the board for all Liberians for long term because you will see the results later on.
Will your economic plan be structured on the public sector or the private sector or a coalition of both?
It has to be a coalition of both, but we currently have a government who is the highest employer in the entire nation. Government cannot be the highest employer in a nation. We want to build the private sector. As of now, our current arrangement doesn’t entice investment in Liberia. Why? There are so many tips. For example, we have this agency called the National Investment Commission (NIC), which any investor from outside can access, sometimes internally goes to declare what area of interest they have. And when you are done talking to the NIC, from the agency, the ministerial council is a panel of different agencies of ministries that have some involvements in what you are trying to do. If are going into agriculture, the minister of agriculture or the minister of lands and mines are going to be with you, in order to get your document signed you are going to tip all of them. I’m not knocking anyone getting their tip but no one’s personal agenda is going to take the forefront from the national agenda. So you tip all of them and when you are done with them you go to the subcommittee and then you have to do the same. Now those are rare tips we don’t need. We have got to make Liberia an investor friendly place.
Government’s responsibility to its citizens is of high importance. The government is responsible to its citizens. Private sector of course is encouraged. In the economy that we have right now and the situation that we are in right now, the country has emerged out of war, we have had 12 years of peace. The current
administration has done a very good job in stabilising the country and making it peaceful, but the attention on peace and stability in the country required a tremendous amount of effort, and I would say that because you have had to apply all of your effort to this aspect, other things may have been neglected. Inadvertently this has happened. So for example, we have education, we have a tremendous amount of people who are in the streets doing nothing. Now they have come of age, and in some cases and to some extent, it’s too late to go back to start looking for a formal educational training or probably a vocational one. Now, one of the main things is to get these people back to work, to put money in their pockets, to make sure that we have an economy that is revitalised. We have to make sure that the government is tailoring these public responsibilities towards addressing the needs of the country, while at the same time considering those private sector initiatives that may be adequate and applicable to what we are doing today and improving on them as we go forward.
What I will just add back to the original question of whether it will be public or private is that the success of any nation is really going to be measured by a couple of factors. One of them is economic sustainability, and socially how it deals with its citizenry on social agendas. You know housing, healthcare, and treatment of the disabled and so forth. What government has to do is to foster environments whereby the private sector can come into our nation and expand their developments, which will expand job opportunities, which expands the economy. You know the economy is only expanded by job opportunities. Then you need more healthcare facilities because you have more people with the income that can afford the medical care. You have the expansion of all the social services based upon a robust economy and the employment sector. The job of government is to create an environment so that businesses can flourish. Initially, government has to be a greater institution while it works to foster environments techno-economic transitions where the private sector will start taking services that the government would normally provide. Then government can just relax and just be the overseer of the regulations that are there to safeguard both business and personal interest. The citizenry but majorly, government, is going to ramp up their efforts so that they can foster the environment where businesses can be uncommon and be successful, and that’s what government has to do initially. First, it’s going to be about government transitioning towards the private sector.
To sustain the economy, you need to have people gainfully employed, and for people to be employed, they also need to be healthy. What are the things you are bringing on board to create massive jobs to sustain the system?
Liberia like most of the African nation has been a resource base economy. We want to now step aside from being a resource base economy, meaning this heavy dependence on the sales of our commodities like iron ore, timber, rubber, and all these natural resources that we have. The issue is that we always taken by the shortcut where the world’s demand for these commodities are down. If today the world stops buying iron ore, Liberia is not making money. I want to invest in alternative industries like agro businesses, invest in agricultural sector. We have the largest rain forest in West Africa, but we have not heavily invested in the agro sector. I want to invest in agriculture. I want to get young people to the farm and our plan to do that is that we want to combine agriculture with technology. As much as all these UN panels and all these high level discussions that agriculture is the future of Africa, yes, it is, but only if it is combined with technology. The young people are not going to dig the soil like our great grandparents they want to push buttons.
Young people want to go into agriculture only if we can bring technology with it; otherwise, we are just kidding ourselves. That’s one of the areas I want to get Liberia to look into in terms of investments.
The other one is eco tourism. Look at the hotel where we are sitting, I can leave Liberia and come on a weeklong vacation with my children. Nigeria, Ghana, all these other countries are using tourism to boost their economy to some degree. We want to do the same in Liberia. Liberia has beautiful coastal line, but it has only one hotel resort, which was built in 2010. So, I want to see multiple resorts in Liberia. We have the property, which is untapped. But we are not looking to say, forces should come here now. We want eco-tourism, basic constructions. Look at the Gambia’s model for tourism, I love the Gambian model. We also want to invest in fishery, we have the waters, when you look at the coastal line Liberia, it is the most beautiful. We want to invest in tourism, fishery and agriculture. These three sectors are really going to provide jobs. Tourism will create series of jobs. We haven’t done our calculation yet to see how many jobs we can actually create. We are still working with our economists, but tourism, agro and fishery, Liberia doesn’t even have a fishery board to fish in our waters. We have the Chinese, the Ukrainians, and others on our waters fishing and selling our fish to us when we can do the same naturally. So these are the industries I really want to focus on investing in. We have a GDP of $2billion, but according to economists our GDP is actually $4billion; so we are under-invoicing so the reflation is off. If we seriously invest in these three industries, we can increase our GDP over the next six years.
Also, one of the things we need to look at as the Ambassador said is going back to agriculture. For example, we are importing things in the neighbourhood of $280million just for rice importation and that’s the staple, and we have hundreds of thousands of acres of land that have not been used. What government can do right now, remember we’re talking about the linkage between government spending while on transition to expanding to private sector, the government has to be in the rice production business. We need to take a hundred thousand acres of land and plant rice, and while we are doing that, we can establish an export industry, provide our own natural food security.
We have a transition plan where over five to 10 years whatever the model, would transit out of government and go into the private sector. Also, we want to help small scale farmers, who don’t make much profit trying to do wholesale their products because there is no large infrastructure in place that can help offset their cost. So they can fix the prices of their own products in as much the government’s model for sale that is going to help support them, and help them be sustainable. Some these farmers under this transition model will be able to buy lease because the government doesn’t want to give up its land. If we lease hypothetically 100,000 acres on long term between small and medium and even large business interest, as the government transits into private sector that is going to help maintain the sustainability to provide food security, export dollars, and export income, and obviously we would need bankable models. Those are the kinds of things the government can do. We talked earlier of government increasing its role to help create private sector investment to a transition period, those are the kinds of models we need to be looking at.
Talking about a government in transition, you did say earlier that you are not happy with the level of development in Liberia. Do you think that Liberia has effectively transited from the war experience and if not, what does your government plan to do to effectively integrate Liberians into the 21st Century that you spoke about?
Our government would fight to create access for Librarians. That’s critical when you talk about transitioning out of war. Folks in Liberia right now want to know that their country is working for them. About 85 per cent underemployment rate because of the informal state of industries, we have a small market and people selling whatever they think they can sell. We have to provide access in order not to revert. Most Liberians feel that Liberia works for others but not for them, and that is why I keep pushing for basic services. When a government cannot provide basic services like school or hospitals the people feel bad, and revert to violent tendencies.
First and foremost, I want our administration to focus on providing those basic services across the board; it is so critical. We can talk all the great talks of building economy but if Liberians feel Liberia is not working for them, they would hurt Liberia. I think that Liberia has done a great job in sustaining peace, I think development has come to Monrovia, which is the capital, but you see nothing happening outside. Lack of jobs, lack of access, young people are out of school, and no food. We want to see to it that we work for the people before anything else, and while we are doing that we have a committee in house that focuses on the other areas of development like infrastructure. One of the platforms we are riding on is the decentralisation of government. Liberia has 50 counties, which is equivalent to your states here, and Monrovia is the capital where everything happens, and nothing is happening in the other counties. Again, the primary focus will be to appease Librarians.
In appeasing Liberians, are you going to rely on the country, or are you going to partner with some external institutions or friendly nations?
Absolutely, and that is what we already started doing before we get into leadership; building our networks around the region, talking to our partners. I strongly believe in inter-African trade. I think we haven’t done a good job in that area, and it’s something that we should start doing now. For example, Nigeria and Ghana has done a great job in assisting Liberia, and I think it’s time for us to trade more and not going across the Atlantic. We want to see how we can build stronger relationships – Ivory Coast has done a great work in the energy sector. They are now selling to Ghana, they are now selling to Guinea, and they are going through Liberia. We don’t need to re-invent the wheels, we can take their models, that which they’ve done right and do the same here in Liberia. Just as they have done well, we can also take The Gambian model of tourism. There are some great things happening in the region. We might still have the tendency to look outside the region for models, for partners, but we think it’s time to build a stronger West Africa, and then go beyond West Africa. Nigeria has done a great job for Liberia. We can’t give them enough credit, but we see more of the dollars and other currencies coming from overseas, those are what we consider as partners, but I believe that Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Guinea are our first partners. We want to build a strong relationship within West Africa.
You find that in Africa there are a lot of Diaspora talents, and you are one of them. What is your government going to do to attract Diaspora Liberians to come home and build this beautiful economy you are talking about?
Well, we just had series of meetings with some of our partners that are going to come in to work with us from the region to help build Liberia, because when I go around in the Diaspora and I talk with Liberians, we have 4.2million people, and we have 500,000 people outside especially in the United States. A huge demographic Liberians living in Diaspora are living in the U.S. When we talk to them, their response is that Liberia isn’t equipped to give them the quality of life they’re accustomed to in Diaspora. So we thought it wise to build Liberian affordable housing. They don’t have Uber millions to build big fancy houses, but affordable houses that has running water, an indoor toilet facility. We spoke to a Liberian, who happens to build affordable houses across the border whether for Liberians living locally or Liberians coming from overseas and that’s what they want. They want security. They are not willing to take that risk to root out their family from America or any other country to come home to build their own nation at the risk of hurting their families. If we can put a mechanism in place to rent an apartment in Liberia for a minimum of $2,000 to $3,000, people in Diaspora can afford that.
It is very vain for us to start bringing in investors until we make sure first that we have that peace, security factor and build some housing estates and that’s a long term. But we have to pave the way for other companies and pave way for a better healthcare system. People say MacDella you are preaching ABC policy without those ABC factors in place, but we cannot bring the Diaspora community down to our nation.
One of the things they are struggling with now is dual citizenship. Liberian constitution does not recognise dual citizenship. Other countries in West Africa recognise dual citizenship, but Liberia does not, and the Liberians in Diaspora are beginning to ask: “if we come back home, does it mean we can’t be able to work?” We have to put a few things in place to be able to invite them to come home, and that is the ABC politics that I’m preaching, those basic services that I talk about that sounds so first grade. It is extremely relevant in this process.
Most economic activities are done on the land only but a few are done on the water, and you find that in Africa, I don’t know what the experience is in Liberia, the government owns the land and there is this tussle between the government and the indigenes. What is the process in Liberia if you are planning to attract foreign direct investment and bringing back Diaspora Liberians, what are your plans to access to land?
Well the beautiful thing is a lot of the indigenous groups own the land. Government has some but not all. So there are still privately owned lands and properties, and one of the things we have been talking about most times in our planning process is synchronisation of our systems. We want a platform system that is a win-win; my platform is protecting land ownership because once we identify a piece of property, we identify the rightful owner so that investors can come and to build on that property, and they can work out their terms. There have been a lot of problems with land ownership. We really have a great land reform policy that is in place but it’s not active.
And the reason why we put it on our five star platforms is to push it, because there has been serious series of conflicts over the rightful ownership of land in Liberia. If we can synchronise and identify the rightful owners of properties, we can link them up with investors, but until the land reform policies are active or activated, we are going to have a big issue. For example, the beach farm property; most of the beach farm properties are privately owned; we can start giving companies incentives to come in and build on them. It helps the owners; it helps the country, unlike most countries where the lands are owned by the governments because they can’t identify the rightful owners. But here, people know their properties but it’s been underdeveloped all these years.
Reform is the buzz word everywhere.
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