Liberia: New Opportunities or More of the Same?
This guest blog was written by Alpha Simpson II, Managing Director of Q & A Inc. – a Liberian research firm.
Earlier this year the US Administration proposed cutting bilateral assistance to support Liberia’s democracy and governance sector by 66%. I worked with Publish What You Fund to measure the potential impact of these changes, and the conclusion was clear: a large cut would potentially set back a decade of progress. Why?
For one, last year we had our first democratically decided regime change since 1944, and Liberia is faced with a unique opportunity. In a country that struggles with tribalism and how it manifests itself in the composition of government, George Weah, a man of Kru descent, is tasked with moving the country forward beyond the work of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. A central part of this relates to supporting the “pro-poor agenda”.
The Pro-Poor agenda is so well known in the streets of Liberia, that ‘Pro-po’ is now an adjective used in the vernacular by all to describe any situation or anything that would appear to be beneficial or useful, but is not actually helping, and may be worse than the previous situation.
“I was eating pepper soup before, and now I eating dry rice. Dat Pro-po!”
While it is commendable to strive to uphold these campaign promises to the very people who have put their trust in you, there are certain realities to running a government. Laudably, the current regime is committed to development in Southeast Liberia, which is long overdue and a great opportunity for Liberia — though it must be noted, Weah and his closest allies all hail from this section of the country. However, will alone is not always enough. Many of the appointed members of the government have little experience in governance. And worse yet, there was little transition from the previous regime to the current one, and thus, little to no knowledge transfer. But is it a bad thing?
On the one hand, we heard yes. Throughout our study we were told the peaceful transition was a strong indication of progress, but not that it was time for the US to pack-up its democracy and governance programs. Instead, several interviewees told us that now is precisely the time to invest, and bring back previously successful programs which supported the capacity and capabilities of the Liberian government, such as the USAID-funded Governance and Economic Management Support Project (GEMS), or the Justice Administration and Management Support Project (JAMS).
However, we also heard how that this overhaul is an opportunity. The previous regime battled countless allegations of corruption while headed and populated by people of Americo-Liberian descent. The new government comes with a clean slate, led by an indigenous man whose deputy is closely tied to perhaps the second-most popular president in the country’s brief history. The opportunity for change that can rally the people is real. This government must learn to generate revenue domestically in ways the previous government failed.
Therein lies the importance of the democracy and governance sector in Liberia. Government is seen as chief of the tribe known as Liberia; everyone looks up to government. Government must improve schools, provide health care, build roads, and increase the wealth of all individuals. Much of the dependency of the populace on government stems from the lack of resources in one of the world’s poorest countries. People are under-educated, illiterate, malnourished, and impoverished. They look to leaders to set the tone and manage daily affairs. Service provision for all citizens must continue to be a hallmark of this current government. That service must be accompanied by awareness that people can understand.
A lettered man from rural Sinoe once informed me recently that he was coming to Monrovia to register his community organization with Liberia Business Registry. Considering the presence of the County Service Centers (CSCs), it surprised me he would brave the roads during rainy season to make his way from Greenville. He actually traveled twice before the paperwork was completed, the second time, he asked me to pay his way back. I asked why he did not do all of this in Sinoe, and he said, “to deal with government, you need a ‘Big Brother’ to carry you through.”
The CSCs are a great step, but it is not enough just to have them. They must be publicized and properly supported. It turns out my Sinoe brother had heard about the CSC, but he had no idea how to go through the process. Like many, he assumed that “anything in Monrovia is better.” ‘Monrovia is not Liberia’ indeed! Of course, since I promised to help him, that fact immediately made up his mind. This mentality also feeds into corruption. Organizations in Monrovia providing documentary services know that people have traveled a great distance. They know they do not wish to go back empty-handed. So the government workers will ask for ‘small something’ because they know these citizens have little recourse but to comply or leave with nothing: no birth certificate, passport, or health registration card. Lack of these items will lock them out of other services provided by the government, such as health care.
Imagine if these services were so common and ubiquitous that someone in Sinoe would never consider coming to Monrovia. The money he spent on two trips to Monrovia would stay in his pocket. He would have never gone “into debt” with me to finalize his paperwork and return home. He would be able to relate a positive experience to his family and friends to encourage their use of CSCs. Increased use of the CSCs would mean revenue for those counties so that the CSCs would be better supported, and better able to provide services. And no one would have to depend on a Big Brother…
As the largest supporter of Democracy & Governance work in Liberia, if it significantly curtails assistance now – with a new and inexperienced administration – there’s a risk to all US institution-building to date, as well as Liberia’s ability to move forward with her plan to decentralize authority and services.