If the MDGs are a report card on the progress of developing nations, the message this week will be, "Must try harder." Sub-Saharan Africa has made great progress and seen remarkable economic growth, with many countries bucking the global recession. But all of us gathering in New York know that the region still has a lot to do. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are changing lives for the better. As we take stock, we must also recognize Africa's progress in the two areas that success with the MDGs depends on: good governance and a thriving private sector.
The MDG Summit will remind everyone of the challenge of lifting Africa out of poverty, and that achieving all our targets in the next five years will be tough. But steady advances are being made. Poverty, though still too high, is falling. Seventy-six percent of children are attending primary school, up from 58 percent a decade ago, and access to safe drinking water is increasing. With democracy flourishing across the continent, economies improving and the political will to make citizens' lives better, there is more hope than ever. It is on this basis that the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) works with the leaders of Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. AGI's team is working at the heart of the government of Liberia to help build the systems necessary for the country to achieve its vision.
We both believe that for Africa to achieve its potential, governments themselves have to lead from the front. Together with their public, they will have to take ownership of their own development and turn collective aspirations into practical results. In Liberia, as in the rest of Africa, there will be no quick fix. When the present Government came to power in 2006, it inherited a country devastated by a 14-year civil conflict, an economy in ruins, no real physical infrastructure, and a population tired and disillusioned by fighting. Both its governance capacity and its private sector were in desperate need of rescue.
Today, Liberia is well on its way. Where a decade ago, the state was in ruins, now capacity is being rebuilt. Two private donor programs support repatriated and non-Liberians in enhancing capacity. The Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program, a unique partnership between government and donors, laid the ground for renewed financial integrity. Two independent Commissions now operate in the fight to increase transparency and end corruption. Liberia has joined the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), extending coverage to the forestry sector, and became the first African country to be fully compliant under the scheme. This is being done in partnership with AGI and many other international partners, to all of whom Liberia is grateful.
But good governance is only the foundation. African countries will lift themselves out of poverty by nurturing their private sector. Governments do not create growth by themselves; it is individuals that take the risks, come up with the inventions, and develop the markets that create wealth. Governments which create the conditions for individual entrepreneurship, and which harness the expertise of international companies, will reap the rewards.
Here, again, Liberia is making strong progress. Over the last three years, the country has climbed nearly 30 places in the World Bank's "Doing Business" indicators. The number of days required to open a business has been reduced by two-thirds. The country has a new investment incentive code and a new revenue code. Public financial management has improved so quickly that in June this year the IMF and World Bank declared HIPC completion after just over two years, through the final phase of the Paris club, $4.7 billion dollars in external debt has been written off.
Reforms like these are not for nothing. From 2005 to 2009, Liberia's GDP grew at 7 percent, more than double the global average. Investors are looking afresh at Liberia - the country has struck deals worth over US$5 billion with international companies in the last year alone. These will not only raise money through taxes but also help repair critical infrastructure like roads, hospitals and schools, and create thousands of jobs. Beyond extractive industries Liberia has seen growth across a wide range of sectors, encouraging competition by opening the markets for strategic commodities like rice and cement, and seeing a sharp reduction in prices.
This is the long, hard work of building a nation, and a continent. Africa might not meet all its MDG targets by 2015, but we are optimistic that real and lasting change will be achieved. Those African countries that have made the most progress on the MDGs are those that have sustained high growth. That growth relies on and reinforces a lively, open private sector and honest, accountable governance. That growth will make our great advances on poverty, hunger, education, health and gender permanent. And lead us closer to a prosperous and thriving continent.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the President of the Republic of Liberia. Tony Blair is patron of the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, a charity that works with the leaders of Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia. (www.africagovernance.org)