In Liberia, Mmonbeydo N.J. Harrell is one of two female candidates running in a competitive 11-candidate race to fill a seat representing her native county in the country’s House of Representatives.
Fueled by her passion for public service, the 32-year-old Mmonbeydo says she is not intimidated in the least.
Mmonbeydo — whose name means “one of you” in the Bassa language — has returned to Grand Bassa, a county in west-central Liberia, after a lifetime marked by violence and displacement.
In 1989, the outbreak of civil war forced Mmonbeydo and her family to abandon their home in Grand Bassa. They resettled in Monrovia, but by 1991 the war had reached their new doorstep, and, on the eve of her seventh birthday, Mmonbeydo’s family fled the country.
Her parents — both educators — took their two daughters and son to the safety of Sierra Leone, opening a school with books they carried from Liberia. Mmonbeydo continued to study during the war in the refugee camp; upon returning to Liberia, she was one of the few students who graduated from high school that year.
Then, it took her 12 years to earn a political science degree because the University of Liberia kept closing amid continual conflict. At one point, Mmonbeydo was forced to flee to Ghana, suspending her education. The war eventually ended in 2003, after some 900,000 people had been killed.
Today, Mmonbeydo is a second-year law student on a USAID scholarship, and on weekends she travels the three-hour drive to her village. She serves as the head of a local women’s empowerment organization in her community.
Mmonbeydo has taken to the campaign trail, advocating for educational opportunities past ninth grade and for healthcare for citizens. She has overcome her husband’s and father’s traditional views of women’s roles, eliciting their support for her campaign.
Mmonbedyo credits a USAID-supported boot camp with boosting her confidence and providing the skills and strategies needed to navigate the upcoming election on Oct. 10.
“I could have run without the boot camp, but I wouldn’t have been effective.” — Mmonbeydo N.J. Harrell
A Pivotal Election Season
Through the Getting Ready to Lead boot camp, USAID and the National Democratic Institute are helping 146 women from all 15 counties of Liberia learn critical political and leadership skills — including role playing the fast pace and high intensity of a political campaign.
The women learned to craft a personal message and brand, establish a political base, navigate Liberian electoral law, and fundraise effectively — a crucial skill, as an average legislative campaign costs $60,000.
The pressure is high; just nine of the 103 seats in the Liberian House and Senate are now held by women — and a six-year term as a representative comes with a $180,000 annual salary.
This election season, 68 women trained by the boot camp are each running in their respective districts.
The abundance of legislative candidates mirrors the crowded field for the presidential race, also being held on Oct. 10. Honoring constitutional term limits, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will step down after two terms in office, ushering in a new government and Liberia’s first democratic transfer of power in over 70 years.
Should peace prevail through the elections and in this historic transfer of power, including within the legislature, Liberia will further reduce the country’s likelihood of backsliding into conflict and can serve as a strong example of a democratic political transition in Africa.
Promoting Voter Participation and Candidate Transparency
Inadvance of the election, USAID and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems are helping the National Elections Commission to produce a civic and voter education program on Liberia’s national radio station, targeting the 2.1 million citizens who are registered to vote — nearly half of the country’s population.
More than 50 live episodes of the talk show called “Elections and You” have allowed voters to call in and ask questions of experts, including National Elections Commission members and civil society leaders.
The National Elections Commission is receiving USAID support to improve their ability to manage the election and to promote citizen participation. The commission created new polling centers, for a total of 2,080 across the country, which will reduce the time it takes for some people to travel to the polls by as much as six hours.
USAID also trained 31 local journalists to moderate more than 100 district-level candidate debates so that Mmonbeydo and other candidates would come face-to-face with voters and each other. The trainings ensured the debates would be balanced and based on key issues, while providing equal time and questions to each participant.
“The debates will allow citizens to know the quality of the candidates they are voting for, ask burning questions, and hold them accountable to their promises.” — Francis Pelenah, trained moderator
The upcoming elections are a defining crossroads for Liberia, through which the country can consolidate the gains of the post-conflict period and advance along a promising democratic trajectory. USAID has helped lay the groundwork for a transparent, peaceful and inclusive electoral process, with an informed and active citizenry.
Liberians like Mmonbeydo are working toward a peaceful political transition.
“No one can love our country more than us. It’s up to us to protect the future of this country.” — Mmonbeydo N.J. Harrell
About the Author: Jessica Benton Cooney is the Communications Specialist of USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.
Editor's Note: This entry was originally published in USAID's "2030: Ending Extreme Poverty in This Generation" publication on Medium.