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Liberia: Children in the Fight Against Corruption

OPINION

I remember the first time I stared corruption in the face.

It was 2010, and I was chairwoman of a Liberian government committee responsible for reforming the awarding of international scholarships. We discovered that a group of 18-year-old boys had forged their national exam records to become eligible for a scholarship to Morocco.

I wasn't surprised; fraud has become a national pastime in Liberia. If you're ethical and upright, you're called stupid. If you're ruthless, greedy and cunning, you get praised as a national hero.

In her 2006 inaugural address, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf vowed to make corruption public enemy number one, despite the country's long history of patronage and graft. Seven years on, corruption remains in full public view and has yet to be stamped out.

This month, the country's auditor general was dismissed for using his private company to get a government contract. And earlier this year, a member of the House of Representatives was caught on tape allegedly soliciting a bribe, yet he remains in office.

In the last 10 years, Liberia has received billions of dollars in international aid, but questions are starting to be asked about how those donor dollars are spent. Last month, $13 million from the European Union for health-related projects reportedly went missing before resurfacing. While maternal mortality remains high, government officials are squabbling over who should get the lion's share of the country's meager $553 million budget.

The only way corruption will be rooted out here and elsewhere in Africa is if we teach our children to recognize it, reject it and condemn and shame their elders.

When we invited the 18-year-olds who had forged their records to a meeting to coax them into confessing, they initially sat stone-faced, in their pristine white shirts and pleated pants. Then one of them cracked.

"Yes, it was me. I did it," he said. But more disturbing than the act of cheating was the fact that these young men believed they had done nothing wrong -- that falsifying documents was a legitimate exercise as long as you didn't get caught. They were simply parroting the kind of corruption they've seen in school, government and the private sector.

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