Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review: This Child Will Be Great

Well, what can I say? It’s pretty damned impressive. Nothing like the memoir of Africa’s first female president to make you feel like you haven’t done nor will you ever do anything truly meaningful in your life. Madame President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, you are amazing.

I recommend this book not just for the interesting historical aspect of knowing more about the life of such a remarkable woman. It is that, but it is also much more. She is an extremely educated and very smart woman, and while half of the book is a fascinating history not only of her life but also of a country that I really knew nothing about until now, it is also a very instructive book about economics and politics.

Now I know nothing about economics and I am very aware that, at the end of the day, this book was written by a politician. I jumped in completely ignorant of even the basics of economics, so I realize that I was entirely taking her word for it and I know full well how people can distort economic policies to make them sound logical for their own political agenda. However you can look up Liberia since 2006 and see how it’s doing. It seems as though her policies are working, and despite her being a politician I do not doubt her sincerity in how much she cares about her people. In a chapter about what makes a leader, she had this to say:

Sitting in prison day after day, coming to the understanding that if I were going to help the people, I needed to know, really know, their lives, was a humbling and important experience for me. Whenever I was inclined to feel sorry for myself or afraid I would reflect, “Hey! Poor people go through this all the time!”
            Perhaps this should be part of the proper grooming of leaders: to be put in a position where you suffer what the common person suffers. How else can you really understand what you’re working to do?

I agree 1000% with this statement, and it is a point I and many other have made time and time again. It is the point that Michael Moore was making when he was trying to get Congressmen that voted for the war to sign their kids up for the army, and it is glaringly obvious when watching the campaign of candidates like Mitt Romney that they haven’t the slightest clue what the average American has to struggle with every day. To hear it from a politician is particularly refreshing, and it is definitely a policy that I would fully support and think all countries should consider implementing.

It’s not only her passion for her people that makes her so special (and exceedingly rare among people of her profession). She’s nicknamed “the Iron Lady”, but I think only because that is far more polite than stating that she has iron balls. I just love her for her personality, which I think is excellently captured in this anecdote about when she was working in government overseeing spending on a particularly lavish Organization of African Unity conference:

In a nutshell, we simply did not have the money to host the summit. I found myself taking rather strong positions in opposition, both to the overspending on the summit itself and to the many blatantly inflated or downright fraudulent invoices being submitted to the government by contractors on behalf of OAU projects.
            I remember one bill that found its way to my desk […]. The bill struck me as outrageous. I decided to use one of the rubber stamps I had bought in a small souvenir shop in the United States that said BULLSHIT. I felt it was an appropriate response to what I was seeing, so I stamped the bill and returned it to the British contractor.

HA! I love it! Who does that?! Of course this was the most humorous example, there are plenty of others in which she demonstrates that she is not afraid to stick to her principles and speak her mind regardless of the consequences to herself, which makes her an exceptionally rare kind of politician indeed.

Our current economic turmoil makes this instructive aspect of the book ever more relevant to us in the “Western world”. Although of course there are some fundamental differences in our history and where we need to rebuild from, I still think that there is much to learn from a woman such as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in this regard.

If you know more about economics than I do and do not agree with the efficacy of what she has to say, please explain in the comments section and we can discuss it. I would love to begin to fill this gap in my knowledge. If, like me you know very little about this sort of thing, combined with the amazing historical information, you will love this book.

However, if there is one lesson that I think is essential to take away from this book and apply to the situation we find ourselves today, it is this one:

My release from prison shows the power of the public, the power of the people both home and abroad. Public opinion matters; if it is pointed, focused, and intense, it can turn things around. In this global age individuals are sometimes tempted to believe that they have no power, not even collectively. This is not true. The public can make a difference if it is willing to take a position and stand up for a cause in which it believes. Against a united and committed public, even the harshest of governments cannot stand, for certainly this was a harsh military government against which no one thought they could do anything.

A message of hope that I fully support, and Italians especially need to take note. Go forth, spread the word, get up off your lazy ass, quit whining and start that change! You can’t wait around for an Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to come run in our presidential elections and save the day. Women like her are one in a million.

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