WASHINGTON - Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Malawi's new President Joyce Banda and several other female present and former heads of state and government gathered in Washington Monday for a panel discussion on the challenges of international development, democracy and global security.
The administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah, opened the first Frontiers in Development forum at Georgetown University by announcing a unique first panel.
"We did not try this morning and set out to produce an opening panel with five female heads of state. That that happened coincidentally is a signal of the way the world is evolving and changing," said Shah.
Female leaders attending the forum
In addition to Malawi's Joyce Banda and Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the panel included the President of the Republic of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, and the former prime minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark. President Banda said she is certain that women look at leadership differently, and that they look at leadership as an opportunity to serve the people.
"And I believe that leadership is a love affair," said Banda. "You must fall in love with the people, and the people must fall in love with you."
President Banda said she came out of an abusive marriage and her long-standing goals are to work tirelessly to empower girls and women economically and to promote maternal health and safe childbirth. She has only been in office for six weeks and attracted a lot of attention for taking quick action to sell the presidential jet and to reduce the size of the presidential motorcade.
Former New Zealand President Helen Clark said this was a refreshing change from normal practice.
"Sometimes symbolic decisions, such as President Banda has just made, around selling the presidential plane and the fleet of Mercedes, when I tweeted about this, I got an incredibly positive reaction about 'there's a woman in charge,' said Clark."
Ms. Clark said women tend to make better leaders because they are more directly connected to the needs of their people and because they still more often play a direct role in caring for children and frail relatives.
President Sirleaf of Liberia said having women in leadership positions does make a real difference. Ms. Sirleaf had this response when asked what she would like Western and international development assistance donors to recognize.
"That our people, particularly those is rural areas, are intelligent if not educated, that they know what their needs are, they know what best will help them to change their lives," said Sirleaf.
Several of the speakers pointed out that with tough economic times in the United States and Europe, there are likely to be cuts in the amount of development assistance. U.S. Senator Richard Lugar strongly defended U.S. foreign aid programs.
"But I would assert this morning that development assistance, when properly administered, remains a bargain for United States national security and for our own economic and moral standing in the world," Lugar said.
Senator Lugar, a moderate Republican from Indiana, lost his Republican primary race in his home state last month to a more conservative Tea Party challenger, and will be leaving the Senate after 36 years. He has been a leading champion of U.S. development aid.