I often get asked what I am doing in Liberia. Thankfully, people always ask this genuinely (although sometimes I get cheeky and say “I have no idea”…which is probably closer to the truth). Of course there are two major problems in answering this fairly. The first is that governance reform and policy analysis are not subjects most people drop into conversation every day, which means I run the risk of looking like the guy who spent each high school party alone on the side of the pool making a beer last until his curfew time. The other problem is that I actually am passionate about it, which just exacerbates the first problem. Thankfully the crew at AGENDA are both smart and socially well-adjusted; and better still, they really do work on the front line. It’s the perfect solution where I can tell people about “who” I work with rather than “what”, and thus project a very human face onto an otherwise arcane topic. Ideal? I think so.
For example, I am specifically interested in something amazing that AGENDA work in called decentralization. I genuinely and humbly think this little thing could do
more to help Liberia than all the schools, hospitals, roads, power lines, and clean wells you could build for the rest of your life put together; as well as every capacity building initiative you could fund. Which is saying something, because if you’re the kind of person likely to be on this site, you probably have a fair idea of how important every one of those things can be.
You may know that from 1847 until 1980, a group of people representing less than 5% of the population ruled Liberia. Those people, who largely descended from freed African American slaves, arrived with some massive comparative advantages: higher education, higher technological knowledge and skills, access to the international shipping trade, and political ties to a highly developed country. Their arrival in Liberia, where they hoped to help civilise their indigenous brethren, made the same underlying assumption that has marred every colonization, well meaning or otherwise, through history: that their way was fundamentally superior because it was more advanced.
Over time, Liberia evolved into a two-tier society that increasingly favoured the 5%, and distorted many of the positive benefits they were able to offer. World War II led to a huge cash flow into Liberia (as covered in the seminal “Growth Without Development”) and with it the social disparities soared. Politics in Liberia degenerated into nepotism, food prices soared, and prompted Samuel Doe to overthrow the government, killing the president and twenty six ministers in a particularly bloody turn of events…and the next 23 years, as they say, was history. By the end of the civil war, the country had literally become anarchic; Somalia and Central African Republic are the only other places on earth that I can think of that compare to this.
Ten years on, political power in Liberia is incredibly messy as a result of this story. 95% of what happens in Liberia happens in Monrovia, where the president holds most of the control (jarring with her portrayal as a reformer); followed by the senators and the ministers. It is hugely nepotistic – most key power brokers use their positions and connections to generate money, which trickles down through society. Senators in particular have a habit of taking advantage of the development process so they can bestow major projects such as rural electrification or roads onto their most useful constituents in order to maintain personal power. It’s probably not surprising Liberia is one of the lowest-ranked countries on Transparency International’s global corruption index every year. Numerous political reforms have been long identified as key priorities for the government, but the legislature that is responsible for passing them into law is also the group that stands to lose the most by passing them.
Decentralization is all about reversing these trends, by helping reform the system and force it to leave Monrovia. It decreases the gap between those in power and those they serve by creating something we take for granted: local government bodies that are representative and accountable. You see, if a villager in backwater Gbarpolu can physically see that the local committee they elected is building the market road that they advocated for as a county development priority, it is more empowering than you or I can imagine. If they know they can openly debate a massive overspend of local public funds on talkback radio, and that the corresponding officials will have to provide a statement in response, it is even more empowering again. Decentralizing government power is a critical way of helping ensure important decisions are made according to the best interests of the people they are intended to benefit.
AGENDA seek to support this issue in two ways. Firstly, they have already assessed and responded to the government’s decentralization policy and identified key recommendations for improvement. They have also released these recommendations publically as part of wider lobbying by civil society. Secondly, they have worked on projects helping empower locals to engage with the government and hold it accountable, such as by teaching locals how to request information about public spending under the Freedom of Information laws, how to analyze the data, and how to confront public officials about the mismanagement of projects or spending discrepancies they identify. This decreases the power gap from below and makes it more and more difficult for the legislature to avoid devolving power downwards and outwards.
AGENDA works to ensure that the policies released by the Liberian government are well thought-out, transparent, and responsible. They present well-researched policy critiques and recommendations for the government, and they help the Liberian people hold those above them accountable through a variety of public awareness and capacity building means.
Over the last two years, AGENDA have developed a particularly strong reputation for their work on transparency and corruption; the National Budget; and civil society engagement with good governance practices. They have variously produced the first Open Budget Index (OBI); the first Civil Society Index; and the first Corruption Perception Index for Liberia – each a groundbreaking piece of national research in terms of qualifying exactly where the country stands. Their list of releases over the past two years is equally intimidating, as this sample of titles shows:
- “Follow the Money”: Grassroots Engagement for Change
- “Beyond Numbers”: An Assessment of the Liberian Civil Society
- National Decentralization and Local Governance Policy: An Essential Step Towards Participation
- Monitoring Report: Liberia’s Fiscal Policy Priorities & Practices
- Operational Budgeting in Schools: Budget Training Manual and Budget Monitoring Toolkit
Governance reform is not as sexy as feeding orphans, preventing disease, teaching school children, or curing cataracts. But it enables all of these things to happen properly and effectively, and without the same potential for abuse or neglect. Liberia has literally had to rebuild its country from scratch so it’s critical to make sure that its government works this time around, and works well. And that is why I am here, and why I am excited to be working with AGENDA.