“ENDING EXTREME POVERTY IN LIBERIA” – The keynote address by Wynfred Russell delivered at the 3rd Annual Gala of the Checago Bright Foundation,Inc. in Columbia, Maryland:

It is a privilege to join you this evening for what I hope will be a productive evening of giving and reflecting. I am truly honored and immensely humbled by this opportunity to be your keynote speaker.

Early this year, I spent four months in Liberia, working on a policy to standardize technical vocational education. I had not been back since 2007 and before that, since the war. A lot has changed. Progress is being made in various sectors, but what I was not prepared for was the wide scope of poverty.

Since the dawn of the republic in 1847, poverty has eroded the gains of progress—by stifling hopes and undermining growth over the years.

In the U.S., with one dollar and twenty five cents, you can buy a bottle of water or a burger.

But for 3 million Liberians, this is the equivalent of what they live on every day.

No matter how much you adjust for the price of local commodities, a $125 is a desperately meager amount to live on. With it, families must make daily choices among food, healthcare, housing, and education. Most households are headed by one breadwinner who earns less than $10 U.S. dollars a month – that is not enough buying power to make a difference.

Thus, every decision is a trade-off with potentially catastrophic consequences. Do you buy medicines for a sick child, provide a meal for your family, or put a few cents away towards next year’s school fees, books, and uniforms?

This is what we call extreme poverty.

For families who endure it, water is as much a luxury as a necessity. School is a privilege.

According to the United States Agency for International Development – USAID, “by 2020, extreme poverty will primarily become concentrated in countries like Haiti, Nigeria, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.” That is because they are not developing and enacting policies that are producing great development gains like Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania, and Mauritius.

The reason is partly because of conflict, which is essentially development in reverse. The guns in Liberia may have been silenced but there is major conflict of leadership and competence that are eroding the people’s trust in the democratic process.

Did you know that in the 1970s Liberia was a middle income level country, although with some inequalities, but it is now ranked 182 of 189 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index? Development challenges include: the rapid population growth – 64% of which are under 25 years old; poor road conditions; the migration of young people from rural farming communities to urban slums, exacerbating already severe competent labor shortages.

Of the country’s 3.5 million people, 84% live on less than $1.25 per day: 1.7 million are described as poor and 1.3 million as extreme poor, reports the United Nations. The cycle of poverty is compounded by: low literacy rates, only 59% of adults are literate; 55% have difficulty accessing food, resulting in chronic malnutrition with 35% of children under 5 dying because of malnutrition. Only 58% of the population has access to safe drinking water and 37% has access to latrines. The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is around 5%; and there are high levels of teenage pregnancy, the 2nd highest in the world—a dangerous hedge against the awful reality these children may die from malaria, diarrhea, malnutrition or easily preventable diseases.

Despite these dreadful statistics, Liberia continues to receive significant private sector investment – additional to rubber, oil palm, timber, diamonds, gold and iron ore, crude oil has now been discovered. Liberia maintains a good image abroad through the good will entrusted in the President which also has resulted in continued institutional donor support from the World Bank, USAID and the European Union.

My contextual analysis is not based on data gleaned from various international organizations and Liberian government reports alone, but first-hand experience of the daily grind of surviving in Liberia. The work that I do puts me in close proximity to understanding the conditions on the ground. Though, extreme poverty is not a precise measure of income or food consumption per day. It is more powerfully understood as the denial of basic freedoms and basic human dignity.

Now, we know it doesn’t have to be this way.

So, today, let us renew our commitment to that basic objective, as we embrace the Checago Bright Foundation’s call to partner with others to end extreme poverty in Liberia. We can advance these priorities with a new understanding and appreciation for community service.

With an understanding that a new public-private model of development can achieve broader results than government investment alone—with a focus on mutual accountability and integrity with ourselves and all of our friends and partners. Liberians are the only people that I know, for the most part, that expects government to do everything.

A few years ago, I asked myself, if I died tomorrow, what would I want my legacy to reflect? Working at a research one university or working for Fortune 500 companies? And when I answered myself, the resounding answer was, absolutely not.

The death of my father last year reawakened my devotion to working for the common good and inspired me to quit my job and choose a career in public service. There is nothing more fulfilling. It's an opportunity to put my faith into action in a way that regular jobs don't allow.

I urge you to get involved with community service, individually or as a family, I believe, it is a great way to demonstrate one's values and to give back to the community.

Checago Bright-Sawo is a young man in America with an Ivy League education. He has no incentive to do what he is doing, but he knows it takes more than the government to help solve Liberia’s nagging development challenges. It takes you and it takes me. It takes all of us.

Therefore, I strongly encourage everyone to consider volunteering with organizations like the Checago Bright Foundation and countless others that are changing the trajectory of development in Liberia.

When I was growing up, volunteering and doing community work – I grew up on the mission – was part of my weekly routine. It helped shaped who I am today. Plus, I am a direct product of what a belief in the human spirit looks like. I was very interested in reducing the impact of diseases from an early age and while at a refugee camp in Danane, Ivory Coast, two professors from the U.S. noticed my drive and commitment and decided to mentor and support me. They said they had not seen a young person, let alone a refugee, as involved and serious about such important topic as eliminating health disparities as I was. I eventually received a scholarship to study in Michigan. So, I came to America on the backs of total strangers who saw something positive in my disposition. This is part of what drives my passion for community service and giving back.

This same altruistic mindset, having grown up during the war years, is what motivates Checago to work to ensure no young Liberian boy or girl experiences what he experienced. His Foundation’s approach, as witnessed over the years, aims at strengthening linkages between the communities, county and national levels for a brighter future – building latrines, hand pumps, and improving sanitation and hygiene for all.

We now have a roadmap out of extreme poverty that is driven by broad-based individual support, committed and accountable community service. We need to embrace it!

Instead of trying to deliver results with our dollars alone, we need a new model of development that creates public-private partnerships that deliver measurable results. The Checago Bright Foundation has shown that it can be trusted with our resources. Its processes are clear, verifiable and transparent.

This model is grounded in the reality that community empowerment and service with attitudinal change are essential preconditions to improving the lives of people in neighborhoods and sectors where it will have the biggest impact on reducing extreme poverty and ending the most devastating consequences of poor nutrition, child hunger and child death in Liberia.

Let’s support the Checago Bright Foundation, generously; let’s embrace its work to help end extreme poverty in Liberia.


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