Liberia features rarely in the world's media these days. The recent 'blood diamond' trial of its former President Charles Taylor offered a brief glimpse into the country's dark history. Perhaps the court's verdict will mark a new phase of recovery for this troubled country.
For so long surrounded by conflict, this small West African country of 4 million is climbing slowly towards a better future, working to rebuild peace, security and development while still bearing the scars of it own vicious war and generously hosting nearly 60,000 refugees from last year's conflict in the Ivory Coast.
Less than a decade has passed since the end of the war that left the country's infrastructure, economy and governance in tatters. Almost 64% of the population are living below the poverty line with over 80% in vulnerable employment, alongside one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (nearly one death for every hundred live births), 31% of 15 to 19 year old girls are already mothers or are pregnant. Yet I felt, during my recent visit, a sense of optimism and belief, despite a catalogue of challenges that make everyday life a desperate struggle for most children and families.
The Redemption Hospital in the capital Monrovia is the country's only free ward for treating sick children. It has 35 beds to cater for last year's 700 admissions - including 500 children who were severely malnourished (stunting rate is over 36%). Here, I met children as sick as those I saw in last year's trip to famine and war torn Somalia. Yet, almost unbelievably, the survival rate of these children was over 99%. The hospital receives supplies and support from UNICEF but the dedicated staff could do so much more with additional resources to reach out into the community to help families before they need hospitalisation.
So what is the source of the hope I felt? It comes from two related sources - the incredible resilience, tenacity and potential of the country's young people, and the support they are getting from a government led by Africa's first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She sees the country's children as the best guarantee of a better future for all. While I was in the country she signed a new children's law and gave responsibility for its implementation to a newly titled Minister for Gender and Children. UNICEF is working closely with the president to promote the rights of children at the heart of the country's development.
As the UN's newest recruit to the panel responsible for creating a new set of development goals when the present ones expire in 2015 - Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will co-chair alongside UK prime minister David Cameron and president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, of Indonesia. Her child-centred approach to government represents hope for children beyond Liberia and across the developing world.
"I understand the need to focus on children and young people in a country where the majority of the population are under twenty-four years old," she told me. "We will meet some of the MDGs but for those countries struggling, like Liberia, you can't just say you haven't met the goals and are going to bring in another lot once 2015 comes round. You've got to build on the foundations and put the children at the heart of everything."
The young people I met in Liberia are amazing ambassadors for the power of this approach. From the articulate leaders of Liberia's Youth Parliament to the young peacebuilders working to resolve disputes in their communities, to the young women fighting the stigma of HIV/AIDS I came away inspired. Perhaps most impressive of all were the girls in their early teens living in the slums of West Point (rated as one of the 10 worst places in the world) who are using drama, art and storytelling to build their own strength and confidence, while teaching their community how to confront some of the challenges they face. This UNICEF supported initiative is giving these girls a chance to avoid early marriage and become role models for a new Liberia.
The children I met in this forgotten country face unbelievable hardships on a daily basis with an extraordinary mix of resilience and hope in the face of despair. They deserve all the support we can give them. With a helping hand they can be the proof of a new model of development which puts children's rights at the front and centre of national strategy. If Liberia's inspirational president can carry the spirit of Liberia's young people to her discussions with David Cameron about the global vision from 2015 then the world's children - and the world itself - will share the chance for a better future built on rights and equity for all.
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