Watching the Watchdogs

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 12, 2006


A few months ago, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf uttered more than rhetorical question when she asked: “Who watches the watchdog?” The question was directed at the media, an institution that the President had grown impatient with at the time. In a fragile democracy, the media is the most trusted institution to look after public welfare. Reactions to the statement by the President were diverse. For some Liberians, it as a welcome sign and they thought it was about time someone faced off with an institution that had grown out of proportion and credibility since the elections. Others saw in it the beginning of a possible confrontation between the government and the media, a resurgence of Liberia’s ugly past. In the end, the President and Media practitioners reached a tacit pact: they will continue to watch each other and work together.

In the past few weeks, there was another such confrontation. Some writers of took issues with the human rights community. George Nubo and Theodore Hodge questioned the work of some rights organizations. There was much sympathy for the human rights community. As the press and the political opposition who dared to voice a contrary opinion under Taylor, the rights groups suffered abuses. They helped to shine light on many facets of the brutality of the Taylor era.

Rights groups and the media work in tandem, to inform the public and protect its rights. That is their objectives. But how they operate is a different issue.

The press or the media in general has means that are of public knowledge. They sell newspapers, air times, advertisement and sponsorships. They make money by providing merchandise that the public is well aware of. Forty-percent of the pages in a typical Liberian newspaper are advertisement. They also write editorials and stories sponsored by “special interests.” This may not be ethical but there is nothing illegal about the practice.

The rights groups make their money in a totally different way. Raising social and political consciousness from time to time does not buy rice. The Liberian government does not provide financial support to these groups and they don’t have access to amenities as “charitable giving” where business entities or individuals donate money to those who take up on public duties to serve as “watchdogs.”

Most rights groups make their money from “grants”. Since the end of the Cold War and the beginning of this new culture of “watch groups” that saw the proliferation of institutions specialized in telling Third World countries how to do things right, NGOs have become an integral part of governance in Africa. These organizations “watch” everything in the “developing countries.” They receive money from either donor countries or from big corporations. Their actions are directed to the poor nations. As long as they watch “developing nations” for corruption, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation and so on, they do not look at their own governments and countries. For example, while US NGOs have spent millions of American taxpayer’s money in “developing countries” to certify the validity of elections, it took the fiasco of the 2000 US presidential elections for some of them to start looking at elections in America...

Just two weeks ago, an NGO sent out an email that was circulated amongst Liberian professionals in the US. The NGO was looking for an advocacy group in Liberia capable of pushing a certain agenda in the Liberian parliament. According to the group’s literature, the advocacy group in Liberia would have to demonstrate what kinds of issues they could push forward. The international NGO offered not only to provide training and mentoring to the Liberian group but also to help them design legislative programs.

One can imagine the following scenario. A “right” organization in Liberia, who decides to apply for the subgrant, would make an inventory of every possible issue that could interest the “international community” in Liberia, from women issue and children rights to diamonds and corruption. Once the NGO in London accepts the project, it sends it up for funding to an agency with “aid” money. When the project gets financing, the group in Monrovia receives $25,000 - $30,000 a year (which represents between 5 -10 percent of the grant). When the time comes for the report, the sub-grantee hires one of two persons. At the end of the project, someone from the London office would fly in and spend a week in Monrovia, take a few pictures, edit the document and return to London. The “job well done” guarantees a renewal of the process for another year. The NGO in London might have received about US$300,000. If the money came from the British government aid fund, it would be marked as “given to Liberia.” If it came from a charitable organization, they will deduct the same amount as “charity to Liberia” from their tax. On the books, Liberia would have received US $300,000 from Britain when in effect, just a local Liberian NGO would have gotten US30,000!

Accountability from the rights organizations is important because they have a great impact on how “development programs” are funded in Africa. Donor agencies depend on them to focus on development issues. It is also important because the money they receive from donors is actually deducted from “aid” money destined to developing countries. In essence, they are spending money that should have gone directly into the Liberian Government coffers for development purpose. Donor countries no longer give direct aid to African governments – because they are supposedly corrupt, something that works well for NGOs - , the money is channeled through international NGOs who hire or “subgrant” local NGOs to do the work. This explains why Chairman Bryant could not understand how donors claimed to have spent US$520 million with nobody knowing where the money went.

Advocacy is not a new thing in Liberia. Many of us remember Albert Porte, the old man and the mat, the bag and his tooth brush. There was never an issue about whose interest he was fighting for or where he was getting his money. He had no car and walked everywhere everyday. As head of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church, Koffi Woods had an institution with financial means to back him. Counselor Tiawan Gongloe, the “poor man lawyer” had a law practice that paid his bills. But where does the multitude of current right groups receive their money? Who set their agenda? Who do they report to? What is more important to them: a Liberian agenda or the support they receive from the international community? With all the condemnation and hoopla that followed the articles by Nubo and Hodge, nobody denied the fact that the human rights group in question was heavily funded by the Concern International.

The rights groups can play an important role to affect Liberian life. In doing so, they must tell Liberians how they make a living and where they get the money from to build homes, buy cars and pay staff. They must do so in the name of transparency and for their own credibility. This, of course, in no way, diminishes the importance of their work.

Just as rights groups can question government, the public has the right to know who the right groups are working for and who pay their bills. Transparency must not be a one-way street. Those asking for transparency must also be transparent. Yes, indeed Liberia is moving into a new era and claiming to be a watchdog is not a testimony of transparency.

© 2006 by The Perspective

To Submit article for publication, go to the following URL: