TONY COX, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.
Liberia brought government and business leaders together at a meeting this week in Washington D.C., but their focus wasn't corruption or atrocity, it was rebuilding. The meeting came after auspicious news earlier in the week.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the U.S. will erase nearly $400 million of Liberian debt. And on Wednesday, President Bush met with Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf at the White House. The president recommitted to helping the West African nation reduce its international debt. That's good news for investors who say now is the time to get in on the ground floor.
NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with Stephen Hayes, president of the Corporate Council on Africa. His group sponsored a Liberia Private Sector Investment Forum in Washington on Thursday.
FARAI CHIDEYA: How common is it to actually have a forum that focus on just one nation?
Mr. STEPHEN HAYES (President, Corporate Council on Africa): Well, actually we don't do that often. It's very rare. And I think that what makes this even more uncommon is the fact that it's link with the last two days of donor conference on Liberia. So, you had the very unusual, and I think almost historic confluence, of having 20 donor countries, plus the private sector, all focusing on one country, and that's Liberia. So, I think it's quite historic.
CHIDEYA: Why Liberia and why now?
Mr. HAYES: Well, I think Liberia is key, absolutely, to the stability of West Africa. And I think now because they have a president that I think a lot of people believed in. We certainly do, as we've been very, very close to her before and since she was elected. And also, the quality of the Cabinet that she's putting around. I think here we see a leader who has not only the potential but has the commitment to make things work.
They're not going to work unless the private sector, unless the governments get behind her. She or the Cabinet can't do it alone. It's just too much of a problem in that region. So, I think the fact that all these are coming together now is also because of the president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and the quality of the Cabinet she's putting around her.
CHIDEYA: You mentioned that it's a very important nation in West Africa, and if you look at the sweep along the coast from Sierra Leone through Liberia into Cete d'Ivoire, you see a lot of warfare that's going on. Do you expect Liberia, if it develop more business, to become anchor country there?
Mr. HAYES: I think, that's the exact word that I would use. It's an anchor country, and I think that's the whole strategy in why both the public and private sectors looking at that. I think that if Liberia stabilizes, it can provide the jobs for a lot of people, and I think that's going to be the major challenge.
And that's why you have to have the private sector involvement. In terms of providing jobs, I think it can be the anchor. The problems are, you know, greater than Liberia, but one stable country can make an enormous difference in that region.
CHIDEYA: I want you to focus in a little bit more on what your organization, the Corporate Council on Africa, does. Africa has been in the news in recent years through people's humanitarian efforts, celebrities adopting babies, the new Red campaign to aim consumer dollars at the issues Africa. What do you guys do?
Mr. HAYES: We're known as a trade organization, but I think we're a very unusual trade organization. Certainly, I'd like to think we're perhaps one of the most progressive. We have 180 companies. Collectively, they represent 85 percent of all U.S. private investment in Africa, and that includes small and large business. But what we do is cover trade issues that affect U.S.-Africa relations.
We do a number of types of progress. We have a very strong HIV-AIDS program for business, keeping businesses engaged in Africa. We have a strong business development, business linkages programs. One special one in South Africa, where we work almost exclusively with black and women who ran businesses, finding them partners in the United States, and we generated over $2 billion of businesses. That's in transactions and that creates 16,000 jobs.
So, as I say, we're a very different trade organization. But we do focus on issues, sectors such as infrastructure, certainly the energy issue as well. But agriculture - those areas where we can increase U.S. investment in Africa, and, frankly, U.S. investment needs to be increased dramatically in Africa.
CHIDEYA: You mentioned South Africa. A country that has a lot of issues, including crime but also has a vast amount of economic opportunity and growth. Is that the kind of model that you're looking for Liberia to become, or are you looking for something completely different in terms of business?
Mr. HAYES: I think that Liberia has the chance to be its own model. But yes, certainly South Africa is a model that I think could be an example to others. It's got different problems, of course, than does Liberia both historically and present day. I think that the model, if there's any one model, is basically a working economy and where some people are represented and which where people are employed.
If that fact can be developed, then I think that's going to be a huge success. And it's important that it'll be a success and be seen as model countries. I think it can create its own model, really.
CHIDEYA: Stephen Hayes, president of the Corporate Council on Africa. Thank you so much.
Mr. HAYES: Thank you for the opportunity.
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