Liberia’s Social Security Program: Is It Solvent?

By J. Yanqui Zaza


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 14, 2005

The debate concerning the solvency of the U.S. Social Security Program raises a concern about the Liberian Social Security System. The concern is beyond allegations such, as whether the government hasn't pay benefits to retirees and that whether it is using the worker’s payroll deductions as petty cash. Our country, since 1847, hasn’t invested in its skilled workforce and infrastructure, incentives that entice good-paying corporations in investing in a country. At the same time, even though governments contributed to the shortage of housing, officials have continued to allow real estate owners in driving up the cost of housing. So what good is a social security program, if retirees, widows, orphans, grandparents, etc. can’t finance the cost of living?

In 1976 the Liberian Government enacted into law the Social Security Act, which was intended to replace the traditional social safety-network. That Act requires employees and employers to contribute a percentage of employees' paycheck to a trust fund, which would be used in providing benefits to retirees and their families. Our government rightly reasoned then, as it is now, and embraced a program that European countries began many years ago, and adopted by the U.S. in the 1930's. The policy makers reasoned then that the traditional social safety-network (i.e., siblings and communities financing the costs of living for grandparents, widows, orphans, and people with disabilities) had become impractical. In the past, factors such as economic activities, cultural ties, or family responsibilities created the necessities for siblings and communities to care for those in need.

Let us distinguish the 1976 Social Security Act from that of the 1981 Act “Saving Bond,” another failed promised policy. The 1980 Military Government, faced with huge budget deficits and shunned by donors and international moneylenders, announced the “Saving Bond” Program. Many nations use the proceeds of I.O.U notes (bonds) to finance a broad spectrum of public initiatives such as bridges and roads and collect users fees, which official remit to buyers of bonds as repayments of loans. However, unlike other countries where administrators seek volunteered lenders, the 1980 Military government involuntarily withheld, through payroll deduction, a one-year salary from every private and public employee. The Liberian government hasn’t kept its promise in paying back the loans received from involuntary moneylenders.

The conditions of mismanagement and corruption that made the April 12, 1980 coup inevitable also effectuated the demise of any program including the “Saving Bond.” Those conditions did create an environment in which both private and public administrators found it convenient to shrink from fulfilling their duties. Even private banks, the supposedly safe house for keeping money, precious jewelry, permanent documents, etc., have yet to gain confidence of Liberian depositors. Many Liberians, aware that rebel leaders and bank managers did seize their deposits at banks without any recourse, are skeptical in removing their deposits from under the mattresses into the volts of banks. Is it a farfetched scenario in thinking that the Social Security Agency, an arm of the government, that is itself bankrupt, is insolvent?

It is because of such thinking that the Workers Union of Firestone Plantation Corporation asked the Corporation to end the pension deduction from their paid-checks (Perspective, 2004). In the article, the Union complained that the Liberian Government has not fulfilled its sides of the agreement. Subsequently, the current head of the Agency, in a different article (Perspective, 2004), denied the allegations. One would hope that besides the Agency’s denial, it would now demonstrate that it has and continues to pay benefits to retirees or siblings of former employees.

However, instead of focusing on the issues of past and present benefits, the country should revisit the ideas of the Social Security Program. This is imperative because if its origin (U.S. Social Security System) is faulty as declared by President George Bush, then the copycat might be faulty also. Designers of the social security program envisioned then that the number of skilled workforce of a country would at least remain constant and that there would be an upward mobility of salary paid per hour. But this theory hasn't come through in Liberia, or even in America because of the impact of internal as well as external policies. In the case of Liberia, the number of skilled workforce has significantly declined because of inadequate investment in education and the consequences of the civil war. As for the U.S., employees continue to see significant decline in their salary because good-paying corporations are outsourcing their businesses to China, India, etc.

Good-paying salary corporations might not find Liberia attractive for investment, if even the government were to provide additional tax incentives. This is true because the few local engineers, accountants, masons, carpenters, plumbers, machinists, doctors, computer-operators, etc. are living outside of the country. And regrettably, there is little evidence indicating that the country is envisioning any programs to address the shortage of skilled workforce. In fact, the government lacks basic educational program. Recently, honorable Jacques P. Klien, the U.N. representative to Liberia alluded to the issue of high rate of illiteracy in Liberia. He said that, "the high rate of illiteracy is engulfing Liberia…the youths are illiterate at the highest rate more than the parents."

Reforming the Liberian Social Security Program should be more than just investing in education and enticing good-paying employers. A commission to review the program should consider the high cost of living in Monrovia (for example, rent for real estate). The cost of living can make good-paying corporations as well as professionals to remain or flee to other countries. If the cost of living were high, good-paying corporations would relocate, thereby reducing the intake of a social security program. At the same time a high cost of living would not only bring in less receipt, but also officials would have to pay more to cover astronomical increases in the cost of housing, health care, education, etc. Those two factors-less receipts for the Program and additional funds to cover an increase in the cost of living- are part of the reasons why the American Social Security has become insolvent. The inadequate investment in education and the high cost of housing pose threats to the well being of our retirees, widows, orphans, grandparents, etc.