by Laura Mortkowitz
After completing education in both Liberia and the United States, Rider alumnus Milton Nathaniel Barnes (’78) took his finance degrees back to Liberia to make a difference in the government.
According to Barnes, his experience as a Rider student helped prepare him for his current role as Liberian ambassador to the United States.
“Even though I had read extensively and knew a lot from family who had come to the U.S., it was my very first exposure to American mentality,” he said in a phone interview from the Liberian embassy in Washington, D.C. “As a result of that, it really shaped and formed my own way of thinking and understanding the diversity of our common humanity.”
In September, Barnes was named Liberian ambassador after serving two years as Liberian ambassador to the United Nations.
“In both roles I was supposed to represent Liberia’s interests on the world stage in the U.N. and, of course, here in the U.S., represent Liberia’s interests in our bilateral relationship with America,” he said.
After beginning his collegiate education at the University of Liberia, Barnes came to the U.S. and entered Rider College in 1975. After graduating with a B.S. in finance, Barnes obtained his MBA from Pace University in 1979. That same year he returned to Liberia, where he worked with The Insurance Company of Africa in Monrovia, which he had previously worked with in both Philadelphia and Des Moines, Iowa.
However, Barnes did not stay in Liberia for long. In 1980, he once again came to America, this time with his wife, because of a coup d’etat. At the time, Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe seized control of the country. Barnes did not return until 1998, after a civil war erupted in Liberia and Charles Taylor usurped Doe.
In 2005, the country saw its most fair and free election when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state, was elected to office.
“The one thing that has been absolutely phenomenal in Liberia’s rising out of this post-conflict environment is this outreach by the international community,” Barnes said.
International peacekeepers, including the 11,000 still in the country, helped bring the hostilities to an end.
“They were also very instrumental in ensuring that we had free and fair democratic elections in 2005,” he said. “And then, as a result of those free and fair elections, we have seen an outpouring of international good will and partnering with the international community in meeting our own development needs.”
After years of civil war and unrest, Liberia has much infrastructure to rebuild, including education. Barnes has said that education will receive the largest portion of the country’s budget.
Barnes views several pillars that Liberia needs to work on: education, health care and infrastructure.
“The enrollment in schools has doubled over the last years as a result of the government’s efforts,” he said. “We have done very, very well in health care delivery. For example, we’ve been able to nearly eradicate polio from Liberia because of this very, very aggressive inoculation program for children.”
Barnes added that the government is creating more roads and getting water and electricity back to Liberia.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “We’ve made progress but there’s still a long way to go in all of those areas.”
In July 2007, the African Union began to outline an agenda of integrating the African continent to form a United States of Africa. Although Barnes told Western Africa Magazine that this would make a “stronger and more influential Africa from a global perspective,” he also believes it will take time. He cited the European Union, which took shape over the course of 40 years.
“We in Africa have to understand, number one, it will have to take time,” Barnes said. “The second very important factor is all of the individual countries must have their political, economic and social houses in order, before we can talk about any kind of integration or unification. And the third thing is it must be done regionally.”
Liberia is helping neighbor countries during difficult times. The government is reaching out through two different groups to stay open and in contact with neighboring countries.
“One of the most important things about what we have gone through, our own transition, is we realized that for us to have peace, our neighbors must also have peace,” he said.
The country joined the Kimberley Process, an initiative to stem the flow of conflict diamonds.
“It’s a certification process where we have systems in place that allows us to track a diamond from its point of origin, from where it is mined, to where it’s exported,” Barnes said.
Also, Sirleaf is the president of the Mano River Union — — a union for trade, immigration and security — composed of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast.
“We realize the importance of having security and stability in our neighboring countries,” Barnes said. “Because when they are stable, we are stable.”