International Non Governmental Organisations-Agents of Social & Economic change in post- war Liberia or Agents of ‘Sustainable Dependency”? - Part 2


By Jimmy Shilue

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 9, 2007


Although the reconstruction process of Liberia has generated significant ‘good way’ from the international community, the stark reality is the international community does not have defined framework for reform and reconstruction. The involvement of numerous international NGOs in post war reconstruction in countries emerging from war, examples ( Mozambique, Eritrea, Rwanda, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, etc ) shows that these organisations do not have ‘magic bullet’ but many of them are in the business of duplicating unrealistic plans to attract funds from almost the same donors. During the Cold war period, superpowers provided resources to African governments without regard to domestic economic or political performances in return for diplomatic and Cold war alliances. For example, in the 1980s Liberia received half billion dollars of economic and military aid from the United States government.

In return, Liberia hosted a US satellite tracking station and a submarine listening post. But the end of Cold war rivalry brought a drastic shift in aid distribution. The impact of this development in the 1990s has led to foreign aid intended for Liberia been disbursed through (I)NGOs, thus leaving the Liberian government with no option but to quickly seek support from World Bank and other Western financial institutions. Unlike the Cold war period, when aid were given to allies without much conditionalities, the World Bank & IMF imposed economic conditions. As a consequence, Liberia and host of other African countries that sought financial miracle from global financial institution in post Cold war period were obliged to accept and implement ‘Structural Adjustment Policy’. Clearly, SAP was not intended to develop recipient countries but an exit strategy by former Cold war powers that saw no need to give unconditional aid to former allies after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Structural Adjustment Policy was a prudent financial strategy designed by leaning institutions to ensure that their monies are repaid by recipients’ countries.

The presence of thousands of overseas relief and development expatriates disbursed by their respective governments to oversee and manage their denotations to Liberia’s reconstruction process is reminiscence of SAP period in Liberia. The ‘Paris club’ made the acceptance of their nationals, who came as expatriates and were paid from loans obtained by Liberians government as pre-requisite for fund disbursement. Similarly, like the present GEMAP arrangement in Liberia, which is basically Overseas experts club, in the late 80 and early 90s Liberia accepted foreign expatriates to implement Structural Adjustment Policy. Despite the presence of so-called expatriates, Liberia did not experience economic boom but tragic decline in the 1990s thereby repudiating the purported ‘magic bullets’ of Western experts. Anecdote evidence abound that humanitarian assistance provided by many international aid agencies do not often enhance local capacity but perpetuate social & economic dependency.

Dr. Tipoteh, a famous Liberian economist, referred to SAP as ‘ill-conceived policy that takes African economics to their early grave’. What we continue to see in contemporary Liberia are merely replica of failed formula developed for other war torn countries by thousands of expatriates who cruise around Liberia in 4 wheels drive air- conditioned jeeps and at the end of the month receive huge paid checks. Within the framework of ‘New Policy Agenda’ international NGOs and donors deploy their own citizens to serve as expatriates in countries where their donations are made. With this strategy, significant portion of the funds intended for reconstruction purpose goes back to the donors countries.
Unmasking the epistemological origin of GEMAP, Cllr.Warner said ‘We must acknowledge the fact that there are not much success stories of international engagements in domestic affairs”, He questioned the transparency and accountability of GEMAP dwelling particularly on GEMAP anti-Liberianisation nature, a design which in his words ‘ consists of placing mostly non-Liberians in critical positions of governmental authority based on the conclusion that Liberians are either not available or insufficiently available to completely and or honourably occupy the positions sought to be occupied by internationally recruited persons (The Analyst, Wednesday, April 4, 2007]

If Liberia is to benefit from donors funds and show some results for the millions of dollars currently being spent for reconstruction purpose, Liberia should take the rightful ‘seat’ and insist for mutual respect. Unfortunately there has always been an uneven relationship between Western donors and African aid recipient government. “When donors take the driver’s seat, Africans move to the back seat. But, when donors try to do the same thing in Vietnam, Vietnamese get out of the car” (anonymous). Perhaps a good way for the Liberian government to reverse prevailing trend is to review contractual arrangement with many international NGOs and adopt policies that enhance mutual partnership, effective accountability and full participation of qualified Liberians. Without the involvement of qualified local & overseas Liberians in the implementation of socio-economic programs, it would be hard to achieve sustainable development. The current initiative undertaking by the Ministry of Labour aimed at building data bank of Liberians professional with the intend of fostering Liberian participation in INGO programs in Liberia is a step in the right direction. In terms of tapping the Liberian Diaspora resources, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has multi-sectoral strategic plans, which encourages highly skilled African Nationals living abroad and committed to contributing to the developmental goals of their country of origin to return through a special arrangement. The Migration for Development Program in Africa (MIDA) is geared towards assisting and strengthening the institutional capacities of African governments to manage and realise their development goals through the transfer of relevant skills, financial and other resources of Africans in the Diaspora for use in development programmes in Africa. Hitherto, more than 16 African countries, including, neighbour Sierra Leone and Guinea are benefiting from this international initiative. Liberia is definitely eligible for this program. However, getting on this programme requires intensive lobby and sustained effort by our leadership. The Liberian Diaspora, particularly in Europe, could benefit from MIDA programme once on going arrangements are finalised.

In many African countries, international NGOs are limited in terms of the number of foreign personnel that they are allowed to bring in a country. There are qualified Liberians locally and internationally who are competent to assume managerial roles in programs implementation. Regrettably, I am not sure whether there are laws in Liberia to streamline the influx of foreign expatriates & consultants. The World Bank, in May 2007 admitted for the first time that consultants were taking $20 billion from global aid budgets i.e, 40 per cent of the total amount given by the industrialised world for overseas development. Last year, the Inquiry (27th Dec. 2006 Edition ) reported that the American talk show host, Oprah Winfrey-an African American whose DNA test result shows that her ancestral originated from Liberia, will shortly embark on a million-dollar educational program for Liberian youths with girls as the major target.

Instead of dispatching only American expatriates/consultants who do not have understanding of the socio-economic dynamic in Liberia to commence ground work, Oprah’s educational project is allegedly been pioneered by group of Liberians women based in the United States. This is a clear example of ‘indigenous humanitarian initiative’, which is a sin qua non for ‘sustainable development’. Are other International, European NGOs ready to emulate such approach or would that affect embedded donor’s policy, which gives preference to their own nationals than national of the recipient country. An African friend of mine who is pursuing graduate studies in the USA told me that while discussing development ethics in one of their classes an American classmate who happens to be white opposed the idea of National of developing countries receiving the same salary as Northern expatriates. Her argument was based on the fact that paying high salaries to people in country with low standard of living creates social and economic inequality. In other word, even though she pays exactly the same amount of $45.000 U S dollars to study at masters’ level just like her African counterpart, after graduation, if her African counterpart decides to return to his country of origin, he should not enjoy similar benefits as his Western colleagues. This partly explains the underlying philosophy within the Aid industry. Implicit in this line of thinking is a xenophobic notion that only Western aid workers deserve high remunerations because they are the Messiah of our problems.

The most damaging revelation of the hypocrisy within relief and aid organisations was written by the former East Africa correspondent of the prestigious ‘Economist magazine. According to Graham Hancock's Lords of Poverty, virtually all government-sponsored aid to underdeveloped nations has been disastrous. Although I do not agree with his criticism, yet conventional practices with in aid industry requires critical thinkers to not up rightly dismiss his claims. Quite often, substantial portion of aid provided by international donors through international organizations help to entrench dependency in recipient countries rather than eradicate poverty. When too many INGOs rely on their respective governments to fund their programs, it is obvious that they tend to be more concerned with winning their next government contract rather than endorsing into long time poverty alleviation and sustainable development activities.

In Hancock's somewhat blunt but realistic description of the cynicism underlying the aid & relief industries, he said "[A)t every level in the structure of almost all aid-giving organisations,…the over-compensated aid bureaucrats demand -- and get -- a standard of living often far better than that which they could aspire to if they were working, for example, in industry or commerce in the home countries. At the same time, however, their achievements and performance are in no way subjected to the same exacting and competitive processes of evaluation that are considered normal in business. Why? Precisely because their professional field is 'humanitarianism' rather than, say, 'sales', or 'production' or 'engineering', they are rarely required to demonstrate and validate their worth in quantitative, measurable ways. Surrounding themselves with the mystifying jargon of their trade, these lords of poverty are the druids of the modern era wielding enormous power that is accountable to no one." [pp.32-33]

The validity of his critique was somewhat confirmed recently by a study conducted by Action Aid. The study concluded that consultants and western companies benefited to the tune of 60p for every £1 intended to go towards eradicating poverty. In the wake of rising crime rate in Liberia allegedly carried out by abandoned ex-combatants and one wonders whether these ‘Lords of poverty’ are actually committed to helping the poor. For instance, when the Asian Tsunami happened, the international community pledged about US$ 3 Billion for Disaster relief programme. However, it was later discovered that donor’s countries take back huge percentage of their donations. Out of the $31 Million Australian aid money, there was a serious allegation that 50% of the $31 Million actually returned to Australia in what is known as “Boomerang Aid.” Similarly, a poll conducted by a Dutch development organization (NCDO) in 2002 found that 1 out every 4 Dutch supports an increment in development assistance to 3rd world country. In terms of the use of foreign experts in recipient countries, about 37 percent of Dutch citizens want their financial support to be accompanied by their own folks (Trouw, 27 April 2002). Surface to say that about 1.7 million Dutch are directly or indirectly involved with international development activities.

Indeed, poverty alleviation and post war reconstruction have become a worldwide business from which INGOs derive a profitable living. While donor countries make financial contribution with one hand for Liberia reconstruction process, they withdraw huge portions of their money with the other hand leaving Liberia’s reconstruction and rehabilitation problems in shambles. By November 2006, it was reported that about 39,000 ex-combatants had not yet been absorbed into reintegration programmes despite millions of dollars been challenged through INGOs to post war Liberia reconstruction purpose. Why such huge vulnerable group has not been attended to? Are foreign INGOs returning 50% of money denoted by their respective government through ‘Boomer Aid’? Today, Liberia is saturated with thousands of foreign expatriates who are brought in to manage local projects while thousands of Liberians professional seek jobs. Parallel to this is the deliberate marginalisation of Local contractors and entities when it comes to awarding contracts. The Defence Minister, Samukai, on several occasions raised issues with the American company responsible for training the new army. The delay in completing some urgently needed infrastructures is attributed to the monopolisation of contract by overseas firms to the detriment of local firms. Recently, to the bewilderment of many Liberians the entire Ethiopian troops departed, even before the official UN terms ended. It was only by stretch of sympathy that UN voted to extend the mission for another 6 months, which should be ending in September 2007. The fecundity of unresolved challenges confronting Liberia prompted an official of government to express fear of Liberia repeating the East Timor experience. In the New Democrat ( 3rd April 2007 edition), Defence Minister Samukai averred that Liberia does not have the capability at this point in time to handle its post war problems and thinks a premature departure by the UN without building local capacity would throw the country back in chaos.

Surely, without a parading shift in the current arrangements with various International NGOs and foreign entities involved with Liberia’s reconstruction process, there will be no tangible evidence of money and resources said to be given by international donors for post-war reconstruction. The Government should assert its muscle, prioritise the wellbeing of its citizen and start insisting for equal partnership. If qualified Liberians are awarded contracts and employed by internationals NGOs, the huge revenues/salaries associated with these engagements would be used to improve the living standard of Liberians whether through investment in private sectors or traditional social net. In the latter case, by virtue of traditional external family ties, income earned from better paid jobs could be of direct benefit to larger group of people and sometimes the whole community thus creating breeding room for Government to focus in other essential areas. In contrast, an expatriate would remit his/her earnings-which normally constitutes a significant portion of donors’ funds. Urgent changes are indeed needed now otherwise come September 2007 as we usually say in Liberia ‘it will be history’. The consequences are not difficult to predict.
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