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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Faculty member's work on Governance Commission highlights IU-Liberia connections

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April 30, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- For the past two years, Indiana University faculty member Amos Sawyer has traveled back and forth between Bloomington and Liberia, where he chairs a Governance Commission that is charting an ambitious course of reform.

"The country has been ready for this type of change," said Sawyer, a research scholar and former co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at IU Bloomington. "The leadership had not been ready, but now both are ready."

The position of the Liberian leadership changed with the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who took office in January 2006. Indiana University will award an honorary Doctor of Laws degree to Johnson Sirleaf during IU Bloomington commencement exercises this Saturday, May 3.

"I think it is important," Sawyer said of the Liberian president's visit to Bloomington. "There is a longstanding relationship between IU and Liberia."

Ties between the university and the West African nation date back at least to the 1930s, when ethnomusicologist George Herzog traveled to the Liberian coast to make cylinder recordings of music and drum language, which he later brought to IU. What some call a "special relationship" began in the 1960s, when J. Gus Liebenow, a noted expert on Liberia, began the African Studies Program at Indiana University. Today, the relationship includes:

Also playing a major role has been work done at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis and by Sawyer, who served as interim president of Liberia from 1990-93. Sawyer was on the faculty at IU in 1986-88 and returned in 2001.

In addition to supporting his own work, Sawyer said, the Workshop, established in the 1970s by IU political scientists Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, provides research materials and an intellectual framework for governance reform in Liberia.

Working under pressing deadlines and with little professional staff, the Liberian Governance Commission is developing policy statements and strategic framework documents to support land reform, anti-corruption efforts, national security, constitutional reform and the development of a sense of national identity.

Also, the commission has been working on the decentralization of government authority, aided by James Wunsch, a political science professor and director of Africa studies at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. Wunsch, who has done in-depth work on decentralization in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Botswana, received his Ph.D. from IU and is a visiting scholar at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.

Sawyer and Wunsch said the concentration of Liberian civil authority in the hands of the central government has led to inefficiency, instability and a risk of corruption. The Governance Commission is seeking to facilitate the empowerment of local leaders and the establishment of local governing councils.

"Fortunately," Sawyer said, "President Sirleaf is very keen on dismantling what she calls 'the imperial presidency.' She is encouraging these new approaches."

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