The Role of Leadership in Changing Africa

February 11th, 2016

Phoebe Miller (a faculty member at ALA) shares an amazing experience that she had with an ALA alumnus James Kiawoin, in December 2015. James is currently working at Last Mile Health – living the ALA mission. She interviewed him for a Global Health blog that she writes. She shares her thoughts on the promising future of Liberia, its healthcare system and her views on the role of leadership in changing the African continent.


My story intersects with James’ story almost a year ago today.

I was deep into my first job search, calling and getting coffee with almost everyone I knew, or a friend knew, or a friend of a friend knew. Around December, I had already applied to the African Leadership Academy’s fellowship and happened to be getting coffee with a Haverford alumna named Jenny who worked at a Liberian NGO called Last Mile Health.

Jenny was kindly giving me some advice about jobs, life, and working abroad. It came up that she knew someone who had graduated from ALA five years prior: James Kiawoin who worked at her organization.

A year later, I am a teacher at ALA, blogging about amazing Global Health work and Jenny’s Liberian NGO happens to be at the center of this post. Moreover, a week ago I had the privilege of interviewing James Kiawoin for this blog.

James’ story is a fascinating one and will take me through three slightly different but equally interesting topics. The first is the role of leadership in changing Africa.

Through this narrative I hope to answer one question: how can countries who have experienced both political turmoil and natural disaster prioritize health as a human right?

I will begin with the vision of Fred Swaniker who co-founded African Leadership Academy. Swaniker believes that countries with strong institutions, like the US, are less susceptible to both bad and good governance. This is a good thing when existing institutions create financial sustainability and physical security. This is a bad thing when countries need to adapt and evolve but cannot.

Countries with weaker infrastructure, like many African countries, are more susceptible to their leader’s will. This is a bad thing when leaders run their countries into the ground, but, this is also an amazing gift when good leaders can make a huge difference and change their countries in important ways.

This is the vision for ALA students. They will be the good leaders who steer their countries towards happier, more prosperous futures.

James Kiawoin makes this vision seem possible.

He grew up in the middle of the Liberian Civil War. He and his family lived there until 1996 at which point, the stray bullets and the foreclosure of schools forced them out of the capital city, Monrovia, to Ghana and then to the Ivory Coast.

He finished high school at fourteen and, unable to attend university yet, applied to African Leadership Academy (ALA). After studying at ALA for two years, he got accepted to Colorado College where he studied political science. After college, James returned to his hometown of Monrovia, Liberia where he is working at Last Mile Health and running his own organization called SMART Liberia.

In many ways he is fulfilling ALA’s mission, returning to his home country to make a positive change. SMART stands for Students Making A Real Transformation, which does advocacy and empowerment work with the Liberian government.

His other job is also very cool. James works for Last Mile Health, advising the Liberian Ministry of Health on how to build a coherent national community health care policy.

I would like to stay focused on James and his style of leadership. In keeping with Swaniker’s vision on leadership, an abusive ruler like Master Sergeant Samuel Doe who staged the coup that started the Liberian Civil War, could completely disrupt a country’s progress. But, now, a strong leader like James Kiawoin can advocate successfully for both a stronger health and education system.

What James and our work at ALA also makes clear is that financial independence is hugely important to emerging African countries like Liberia. According to Dambisa Moyo, foreign aid is subtly destroying the possibility of real African economic power and independence. A leader whose pockets are lined with foreign aid dollars has no incentive to run his or her country well. His election does not depend on good governance but his relationship with donor countries.

A huge part of James’ leadership is around the financial sustainability of Liberian healthcare. James aspires to work for the ministry of finance. The recent discovery of oil in Liberia could bode well for the country if the government can manage the resource well. With the right set of people in charge, Liberia can become less reliant on foreign aid.

Leadership appears key to Liberia’s success.