Liberia: Faith Akovi Cooper, A Humanitarian on A Mission

Faith Akovi Cooper

... For leading transformational efforts to positively impact the lives of others

Faith Akovi Cooper is on a global humanitarian mission — one that has taken her to over 40 countries, 23 of which are on the continent of Africa and involves work with some of the most impactful international development and humanitarian organizations in the world today. 

For over four years, she headed the International Rescue Committee (IRC) office in Liberia, where she led a team of over 150, implementing a diverse portfolio of multi-million dollar programs across various sectors — health, emergency preparedness and response, and Gender-based violence as well as women’s economic empowerment. 

Having transitioned out of her role as Country Director (CD) of IRC in Liberia, the Daily Observer had an opportunity to learn more about her as one of Liberia’s most respected leaders in the international humanitarian and development field. 

She left Liberia in early 2022 and is now working at IRC’s headquarters as Regional Director of the Southern Border Region, Resettlement, Asylum, and Integration at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC works in more than 40 countries globally and 29 U.S cities to help people affected by humanitarian crises survive, recover, and rebuild their lives. According to her, this is a mission in which she believes and to which she is dedicated.

Madam  Cooper with the MOH and donor partner during the COVID-19 response enhanced surveillance activity in Duport Rd community, Montserrado County, Liberia.

Cooper fled Liberia in the early 1990s during the height of the brutal civil war. She and her family, including her grandmother and siblings, walked from Monrovia to the Ivory Coast where they lived for a few months before they were relocated to the Buduburam refugee camp near Accra, Ghana. 

She and her family lived in the refugee camp for three years before they were granted refugee status to start a new life in the United States of America. Her experience of having narrowly escaped such brutal crimes against humanity while fleeing Liberia, and her journey as a refugee, influenced her decision to pursue a career in the humanitarian sector. 

Once a refugee herself, today she works to help those in similar situations she encountered many years ago.  She values the blessings and opportunities that were afforded her in the United States including obtaining a dual Bachelor of Arts degree in Foreign Language and Criminal Justice and a Master’s in Public Health Administration and soon began working in the public health field in America. 

In the back of her mind, Madam Cooper was passionate about giving back to Africa, especially her native, Liberia.  When she landed her first international role to work with African Nations as program manager for the United States Government-funded Pandemic Response Program, everything changed. 

“I felt like I was ‘pregnant’ for over 20 years and then that baby was finally delivered,” she said of her first assignment in Africa. “But when you give birth, it doesn’t stop, the real work actually starts.” 

While working with US government-funded initiatives, she focused on improving the capacity of African countries to prepare for, mitigate and respond to pandemics and other disasters. From 2010 to 2014, she contributed to developing strategies to address pandemics, including supporting the drafting of influenza preparedness and response plans across 17 west and east African countries.

Madam. Cooper center (colorful jacket) with Dr. Yatta Wapoe (center right), Montserrado County Health Officer as the IRC delivers Infectious Prevention and Control materials to the MOH Montserrado CHT during the COVID 19 response. 

During the 2014-2016 West Africa Ebola outbreak, she served as regional advisor for the West Africa Disaster Preparedness Initiative (WADPI) at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center in Ghana, leading coordination, and planning of the US AFRICOM funded-Ebola Preparedness project supporting 15 countries in the ECOWAS region. That effort led to training close to 1,500 plus disaster preparedness professionals across the region including Liberia.

This role would prepare her for other opportunities in the region including Africare’s country director, serving Liberia and Ghana. When the opportunity arose in Liberia, without any reservation, she embraced it and relocated with her children to Liberia. Soon after, she joined the IRC’s country office.

“I set out on the path to strengthen disaster preparedness efforts in the region and that was indeed a memorable experience, but it was just the beginning of exciting opportunities to come,” she said. “Returning to Liberia to work in the humanitarian sector, the country of my birth, where I fled a brutal civil war, was the greatest professional honor above all.”

Her role at the IRC

Cooper was the first Liberian native and African woman to lead the IRC Liberia country office. She said she joined the IRC at a very pivotal time — Liberia was experiencing two critical transitions, the peaceful transition from one elected government to another, and the withdrawal of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) after 15 years of providing security support to the country. 

UNMIL’s departure had economic consequences because of the loss of resources that came with UNMIL’s presence. The Ebola crisis also affected the country economically. Cooper accepted the challenges ahead.

“I wasn’t 100% sure I was ready for the challenge at least not then, but I knew I had a significant role to play in carrying out the IRC’s strategy in Liberia,” she said.

Her approach was to focus on three core areas: strategic leadership — communicating a clear vision and way forward for IRC Liberia both internally and externally; Capacity building and strengthening IRC’s relationships with strategic partners and key donors, national partners, and civil society, especially women-led organizations; and restructuring the country office to improve operational processes and effectiveness.  

Cooper credits her success at the IRC to her dedicated Liberia staff who supported the vision, working collaboratively with government, civil society organizations, and donor partners including but not limited to USAID, Irish Aid, and GIZ among others.  

One of the major highlights of IRC’s success in Liberia was the USAID-funded Partnership for Advancing Community-Based Services (PACS), an initiative that was instrumental in working with the Ministry of Health, international and local civil society partners to implement the National Community Health Program in the rural areas of Liberia, Bong, Lofa, Nimba, and rural Montserrado.

PACS supported the government to strengthen health systems, improve reproductive maternal and child health, as well as restore public confidence in health facilities and health staff. PACS also provided support to build the government of Liberia’s capacity to control infectious diseases and efforts to rebuild the health system.

“Under PACS, we saw an almost 20% increase in the number of children under five years of age being treated for Malaria. IRC also trained over 2,500 community health workers who identified and treated children with pneumonia hence reducing the number of children needing to be referred to health facilities. 1,061 communities were certified as open-defecation free (ODF), communities that shifted to using toilets instead of openly defecating and IRC also supported COVID-19 training for over 2,000 community health workers. Through PACS, we were also able to repair 424 hand pumps, build over 6,000 latrines, and constructed 73 maternal waiting homes.”

Under Cooper’s leadership, the IRC Liberia with the support of HQ and regional teams bidded on and won the USAID flagship Community Health Assistance $17.8 million grant to scale up and build on the gains achieved through PACS with a focus on increasing the capacity of county health staff and communities to plan, manage and monitor the comprehensive delivery of health services in rural areas of Liberia, especially the Southeast.

The IRC under Cooper’s leadership also empowered civil society organizations to respond to sexual and gender-based violence.

Some of the interventions included efforts such as Engaging Men and Boys through Accountable Practices (EMAP), a tailored curriculum designed to motivate men and boys to change their attitudes toward women and work toward women’s empowerment. “We must prioritize and advance the rights of women for our nation to progress,” she said.

There were numerous other initiatives, partnerships, and programs which are highlighted in a report recently released by the IRC, entitled, ‘IRC Liberia: A Legacy of Humanitarian Accomplishments’. In that report, Cooper pens a heartfelt message to the government, partners, IRC staff, and the people of Liberia, thanking them for their partnership in supporting Liberia's development agenda over the years.

Her Mentors

Cooper also sees herself as a role model for young Liberian women. Mentoring, she said, is her way of giving back to the women who paved the way for her. One of her long-time mentors is Minister Jeanine M. Cooper, of the Agriculture Ministry and formerly with the United Nations and, most recently, Sara Beysolow-Nyanti, deputy special representative for the United Nations in South Sudan, Resident Coordinator and Assistant Secretary to the UN Secretary-General. 

“I appreciate and honor many women from every walk of life who have impacted my life in various ways,” she said. “We have a moral obligation to pave the way for the generations to come.  When asked about her legacy, she said, “I want to be seen as a woman of courage, a woman of strength, a woman of integrity, a woman who gets it done, but most importantly, a woman who is a model for others to follow especially the young women of Africa, and indeed my own home, Liberia.”

Cooper also credits her mother for her success.

“My mother is my hero,” she said. “She raised us as a single mother in America, making sure she put food on our table, clothes on our backs and sent me and my siblings to school. I could not have done this level of international work without her support. My career requires extensive traveling, and she makes it possible for me to crisscross the world because I know my girls are in good hands when I travel.”

While Cooper enjoys working around the globe, her passion is in Liberia. She wants the best for her country and hopes to return someday with her three beautiful daughters, all of whom lived with her in Liberia.

“We must be the change we want to see for this nation,” she said. “If we don’t tell our stories, somebody else will tell it for us and they won’t tell it the way it needs to be told.”