Whatever Happened to the Watchdogs of Government

By Ezekiel Pajibo

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 5, 2003


Two recent announcements have got me thinking about the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the current Liberia transitional process and the re-creation of the new Liberian state. (In this piece, NGO is in reference to local Liberian non-governmental organizations.) The first has to do with the November 30, 2003 announcement by the Ministry of Finance of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation that is visiting Liberia from December 1-14, 2003. Among the list of names, i.e. stakeholders that the delegation is to meet, not one Liberian NGO was mentioned. I have yet to hear any protest from the Liberian NGO sector on this totally unacceptable practice. It is as if our NGO leaders could care less what the IMF economic policy prescription would do to the country. The second event is the publication of the Strategy and Implementation Framework of the Liberian Disarmament, Demobilisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration Programme. The report was prepared by an outfit called the Draft Interim Secretariat which comprised of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the World Bank, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Office for Coordinating Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), and World Vision. Not a single Liberian NGO was included in this list. Is this an over sight or what?

According to the Foreword in the UN document “key stakeholders” were solicited to offer comments. In the absence of a list of those consulted, I would take this statement with a “grain of salt.” Why do I have problems with these two events?

About the IMF visit to Liberia: The international financial institutions (IFI), the IMF and the World Bank (WB) have been globally challenged to reform the economic orthodoxy they have tried to foist on developing countries. Some in the anti-globalization movement have called for the outright dissolution of these entities because they seem to care more for the rich than they do for the poor. The Ministry of Finance press statement announcing the arrival into the country of the IMF team indicates engagement with these institutions is godsend. You can feel the joy and excitement in the way the press statement reads. There is no critical thinking about the nature and the policy platform and briefs the IMF has been globally condemned for. It has been amply documented that IMF/WB policies throughout Africa and the world have not resulted in poverty amelioration. In fact, the much vaunted Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) that the two institutions imposed on African countries during the last twenty or more years have exacerbated poverty. In other words the people of those countries were worse off after the IMF/WB advised their governments to pursue SAP – fewer people had access to education, health and other basic social services. Zimbabwe comes to mind and so do Rwanda, Ghana, Malawi and several others. Essentially the IMF believes that the free market is the solution to Africa’s economic difficulties, never mind the fact that given African economic backwardness, they cannot effectively compete with the developed world economies. The recent Word Trade Organization meeting in Cancum, Mexico, demonstrated this fact.

The IFI’s advise to government usually result in deepening poverty. Ask the IMF/WB team where in Africa have they succeeded in reducing poverty. Their policy prescription, which is referred to as the Washington Consensus or the neo-liberal economy paradigm, puts market forces above human needs. They promote the private sector, which in the case of Liberia is almost certain to be foreign interests and argue for the roll back of the state. These institutions usually require devaluation of the national currency, reduce spending by government (austerity measures), in which case the social sectors such as education, health and other basic needs including safe drinking water and electricity are undermined or at least access to them by poor people is rendered impossible. South Africa is a good example in this regard.

I am sure Liberians would like to know what is wrong with less government, given our bloated bureaucracy and the fact that government in the recent past has done more harm than good to its people. Government and the citizens are bound by a social contract in which the government is given power, the citizens pay taxes and pledge allegiance to the government. The Government is responsible to create a social system that responds to the needs of the majority while accommodating the needs of the minority. Simply put, it is the responsibility for the government to ensure that the material conditions of its citizens are enhanced and dignified. Put another way, the government should be in the business of ensuring a decent quality of life for its citizens. In order words, the government should invest in the social sector which include housing, education, health, transportation and communication infrastructure to enable the citizens to function at their optimal level and contribute to economic prosperity, the basis for durable peace. The free market cannot meet these needs. Liberia has to have a government, which intervenes in the economy to ensure that the basic needs of Liberians are met and the majority of our people are lifted out of poverty. We cannot leave this important task to the market forces and by the way, the market forces could care less about reducing poverty. Its driving force is profit for the investors. We know what OTC have done of late or what LAMCO did in Nimba County or what Firestone is doing in Harbel and elsewhere – raking in lots of profit and leaving local people ever more exploited and impoverished. Indeed the Liberian government needs to be streamlined and consolidated but its role in creating social welfare for its people should be uncompromisable. That is why Liberian NGOs should be wary of the IMF visit or in the least try to engage them in order to ensure that their policy advises to this transitional government must necessarily contribute to poverty reduction by making appreciable investment in the social sector. One thing this delegation can do along these lines is to drop Liberia’s $3 billion debt. What is more, the Liberian people need to know what exactly their officials will be telling the IMF delegation. We have a right to inform that process, especially since these officials do not enjoy public confidence. Liberian NGOs need to initiate an economic justice platform that advocates for the rights of Liberian to be the primary beneficiary of any economic policy the country embraces.

In a move to pander to the IMF delegation, the Minister of Finance is reported to have informed the delegation that Liberia would start paying US$50,000 a month to the IFI’s. This policy statement does not take into account the needs of the Liberian people. If indeed the Finance Ministry can cough up such huge amount of money, monthly then why doesn’t the Minister see it fit to provide sufficient resources to the Monrovia City Corporation to at least clean up Monrovia? The sanitary condition in Monrovia is tantamount to a death sentence for its residents. The streets are filthy, garbage is uncollected and the sewage system is not only obsolete but also over burdened by the greater number of people in the City. I wonder whether the Finance Minister takes pride in seeing how filthy the surroundings of his Ministry is. He is in a position to tell the IMF delegation that coming out of a war situation, Liberia needs all the help it can get and cannot afford to pay its debt. What is more those who acquired the debt in question did not use the money for any sustainable economic development in the country. As such the Liberian people cannot be burdened by these ill-advised loans that were granted to previous governments, which were not only fiscally irresponsible but criminals as well. The other important question the Finance Minister may wish to answer is whether the pledge to pay US$50,000 a month to the IFI’s part of a national budget process and if so, did the Transitional Legislative Assembly approve this measure?

About the UN document, I am miffed to say the least. How on earth can such a document get written and not a single Liberian NGO is listed as part of the group that drafted it. The drafting work was carried out in September and October. Could it be that our NGO leaders were so engulfed in getting government jobs that they relinquished the task of re-creating the Liberian state to non-Liberians? No pun intended here. I am very sure that the draft committee is well intentioned and perhaps good willed but I cannot help but repeat the phrase that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The failures of the United Nations in Somalia and Rwanda are too recent to believe that somehow they will certainly get it right in Liberia. While the document talks about local ownership, the cover page certainly tells the real story. Liberians have to be part and parcel of every and all efforts to re-create the Liberia state. Liberians must be front and center in this endeavour. We cannot afford to leave this to others when we should be doing it for ourselves. It is about time that the NGO sector in this country try to get its house in order and make principled and value driven demands on the government and the international community to ensure that the Liberian people become the architect of the new Liberia. Liberia and Liberians should be first, second and last in any and all processes to build a lasting and durable peace. After all, this is the only place on earth we are entitled to call home.

About the Author: Ezekiel Pajibo is a freelance political commentator.