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 You are in: Under Secretary for Political Affairs > Bureau of African Affairs > Releases > Remarks > 2006: African Affairs Remarks

Keynote Speech: Investing in the Lives of Liberia & Beninís Most Vulnerable Children

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs
Elliott School of International Affairs
Washington, DC
October 26, 2006

INTRODUCTION

Good evening, and thank you, Del [Walters], for that kind introduction. I would like to thank Bantie Brownell-Forschner for inviting me, and I would like to recognize the ambassadors of Benin and Liberia who are here -- Segbe Cyrille Oguin and Charles Minor.

It is my pleasure to join you, as the representative of the Bureau of African Affairs, on this special occasion. Those of you who know me are aware that until very recently, West Africa was my particular portfolio within the Bureau, and so, Iíve become familiar with the people of both Liberia and Benin.

This has been a momentous year for West Africa. In January, the whole world watched as Liberia made history by inaugurating Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. President Sirleaf is Africaís very first democratically elected woman head-of-state, and she has played a pivotal role in promoting reconciliation and peace in Liberia, in the wake of civil war and Charles Taylorís destructive rule.

Benin also witnessed elections this year with a peaceful transition of power, setting itself as an example of democratic success in Africa. Moreover, in February, the Millennium Challenge Corporation signed a five-year compact with the Beninese government for $307 million, signaling U.S. confidence in economic and governance policies.

The Program is expected to benefit up to 5 million Beninois, over half of Benin's population, and lift an estimated 250,000 of its citizens out of poverty by the year 2015.

EDUCATION: NATIONAL RENEWAL


Part of Beninís strength is the governmentís commitment to education. While there are certainly challenges, particularly in the area of resources, the government deserves credit for making primary education compulsory and tuition free for girls. It is also worth noting that the government offered books at reduced prices to promote childrenís access to primary schools and enhance the quality of the education.

In Liberia, education and other youth-oriented programs are key to the nationís overall recovery. These initiatives provide critical protection mechanisms for the countryís most vulnerable, as well as supporting Liberiaís general advancement and stability.

The nationís education system suffered almost total destruction during the 14-year civil war, which pushed some 350,000 refugees Ė primarily women and children Ė into asylum countries and another 500,000 to internally displaced camps near Monrovia. During the conflict, the U.S. Government supported Liberian refugee children in asylum countries by providing education and other programs through support to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and international NGOs.

Since the end of the conflict, some 600,000 Liberians have returned home, and the U.S. Government has provided support for the United Nations and international NGOs that are implementing community-based education, health, and other programs for youth in Liberia, in an effort to offer protection and other assistance to Liberian returnees, as well as community members.

In 2006 alone, the U.S. Department of Stateís Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration has contributed more than $31 million to United Nations and international NGO community-based programs in Liberia to support the repatriation and reintegration of refugee returnees and help protect vulnerable children and women from exploitation and abuse.

At present, an estimated 1.4 million school-aged children are still not receiving the education they need to improve their potential for success, as well as that future of their country. Students have had to deal with overcrowded and poorly equipped classrooms led by unqualified teachers. Teachersí salaries have been irregular and remain less than $1 per day. Incidentally, only 19 percent of teachers in Liberia are women.

We understand that the country is in transition, and we want to be involved. We want to be part of a sustained effort to make sure that education and effective youth-oriented programs are successful. Liberiaís youth, like those in Benin, deserve a bright future, and the United States will do its part to help.

AFRICAN EDUCATION INITIATIVE

These are hopeful developments, and they have prompted President Bush to push for concrete actions to turn these ideas into results.

When the President arrived in Washington in 2001, he directed his team to make the world "safer, freer, and better." Part of making the world safer and better is ensuring that families are healthy and that children have access to education.

In 2002, President Bush announced the African Education Initiative. The Initiative is based on the notion that children are the future of the continent and that education is key to increased stability, democracy, and prosperity.

Investing in education is much like planting a seed; it takes time for a child to grow and flourish, but by the time she reaches adulthood, like an oak tree, she is stronger, better rooted, and more capable to deal with any storms she encounters.

For all of these reasons, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer convened the first ever Africa Education Forum on the edges of the United Nations General Assemblyís opening during September. The conference was intended to spark discussion among African ministers of education and first ladies about best practices and shared challenges.

There was a great deal to discuss. Children in sub-Saharan Africa have not always had access to schools. More than one-third of primary-school-age children are not enrolled in school at all, and of those who do enter the first grade, fewer than half will complete primary school.

So we are pleased to note positive trends in places like Ghana, where the enrollment for school-age children has risen from 73 percent in 1998 to more than 86 percent in 2004. The change is remarkable.

But for the continent, it is only a start. In order to spur similar developments elsewhere, the United States has committed $600 million to provide books, scholarships, school uniforms, and teacher training. As Mrs. Bush announced during a trip to Nigeria in January 2006, the funding is also intended to support training for 920,000 teachers in 20 nations in sub-Saharan Africa.

GIRLSí EDUCATION

We have also put a special emphasis on increasing access to education for African girls, who account for 55 percent of the approximately 40 million primary school-aged children who are not enrolled in school.

Through the African Education Initiative, the United States is making 550,000 scholarships for primary and secondary education available through the Ambassador's Girls Scholarship Program. So far, 120,000 scholarships have been provided to students in 40 countries, subsidizing: tuition, fees, books, uniforms, and other essential supplies.

These scholarships are making a difference in the lives of girls, especially those from poor families or rural areas, where their parents might be hesitant Ė or unable Ė to send their daughters to school due to financial barriers.

This is an area where we hope to continue reaching out to work with partners. For example, in March, we were pleased to host Beninese singer, Angelique Kidjo, who visited the Department of State and spoke with Africa Bureau staff about her work with UNICEF in support of expanding education for girls.

We also recently participated in a book drive, intended to collect English language dictionaries, which are quite costly in Liberia, for girls in schools to use in their studies. After all, if they are to follow in the footsteps of their new president, the girls of Liberia will need to master language and the art of persuasion.

CONCLUSION

We want every African child to grow up dreaming big and feeling hopeful about life. We want the future Nelson Mandelas, Angelique Kidjos, Charles Minors, and Cyrille Oguins to have the opportunity to shine and make their mark on history.

At bottom, we see literacy as the key, not only to economic prosperity and advancement, but also for good health. Education is the best way forward. And our hope is that by working together, we will put education within reach of every girl and boy in Benin and Liberia. Thank you again for inviting me to speak this evening.

For more information, please visit the African Affairs homepage: http://www.state.gov/p/af



Released on October 30, 2006

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