ISS Today: Liberia’s journey to national ownership

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    ISS Today

    In October 2017, Liberia will hold what is expected
    to be a hotly contested election. The leaders of 22 political
    parties will be vying to replace President Ellen Johnson
    Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected woman
    leader.

    As Liberia gears up for the election, much debate
    has been generated around the successes of her administration
    and the delivery of promises made. During her two terms at the
    helm, Sirleaf has made substantial efforts to ensure
    sustainable peace. However, for these efforts to continue
    enjoying a chance of success, they need to be country-owned:
    not just by the national government, but also by an inclusive
    social compact between the government and its
    society.

    One way to achieve this is through a reinvigorated
    process of decentralisation. Liberia has a number of policies,
    reforms and agendas in place to ensure this happens. Why is
    decentralisation important, and how can it be
    achieved?

    Decentralisation
    involves transferring power to local government structures to
    allow for more context-specific governance, as well as
    transparency and accountability
    . In
    this way, it also enables more representative ownership in
    decision-making structures.

    Inclusive national ownership is widely acknowledged
    to be vital in peacebuilding processes. As noted by the 2015

    UN Peacebuilding Review
    , inclusive national ownership means
    that peace cannot be imposed, but must be built by domestic
    stakeholders. This goes beyond the strategies and priorities of
    national government to being broadly shared across all social
    divides. A wide spectrum of political opinions and domestic
    actors must be heard – particularly from women and youth. True
    national ownership is about people owning the solutions and
    national processes.

    The 2003 Comprehensive Peace Deal ended a
    14-year-long protracted civil war in Liberia and paved the way
    for the 2005 presidential elections. Post-conflict
    reconstruction and peacebuilding efforts in Liberia hinged on
    addressing the root causes of the unrest.

    In 2005, the country established the Truth and
    Reconciliation Commission to confront the complex and brutal
    legacies of the past. The subsequent
    report
    , released in 2009, attributed the causes of the
    conflict to poverty, corruption, broad inequalities, land
    tenure and violations of economic, social and cultural rights.
    It made strong recommendations for the decentralisation of
    political and economic power.

    As noted by the report, Liberia harbours a history
    of exclusion, which stems from the official settling of freed
    slaves from the United States in Liberia as early as 1822.
    These former slaves became the elite and fostered a culture
    that excluded native Liberians. This also caused a disconnect
    between the decision-making processes led at the national
    level, and the community-level, traditional processes on the
    ground. Monrovia holds all core functions of the government
    institutions, and there is no real cohesion with the greater
    part of Liberia in the 15 counties.

    There have been attempts to decentralise government
    services and institutions in order to increase national
    ownership. However, these efforts have, at times, focused
    more
    on deconcentration (which means localising services,
    while decision-making remains at national level), rather than a
    true process of decentralisation, which allows a broader
    decision-making process through localised
    policies.

    To facilitate the process, Liberia has established
    several County Service Centres –
    a
    one-stop shop where documentation-related services including
    permits, licences and certifications are offered at the same
    value and cost as in Monrovia.


    The four County Service Centres
    that are currently
    operating have reportedly provided services to some 22,363
    people over a period of seven months.

    Yet limited resources have once again hindered full
    implementation. Furthermore, these centres do not allow greater
    participation in localised government structures. As such,
    these efforts demonstrate attempts at deconcentration, rather
    than decentralisation.

    The Liberian government has recognised the need for
    decentralisation as a means to achieving real ownership of the
    country’s peacebuilding process. This is encapsulated in the

    Agenda for Transformation
    2012-2017; a five-year,
    consensus-driven and country-specific development plan. Here,
    the agenda specifically
    states:
    The Government will recast its
    relationship with citizens, and all government functions will
    be geared to provide services to the population.”

    In 2010, the government of Liberia approved the
    National Policy on Decentralisation and Local Governance, a
    10-year road map that calls for political, fiscal and
    administrative powers to be decentralised and transferred to
    local governments. This was followed by

    the Decentralisation Implementation Plan.
    Despite these policies, the process of decentralisation has
    been

    hindered
    by a lack of
    political will, limited human and financial resources, and most
    important, the need for constitutional reform and a local
    government act.

    To finance the rolling out of the decentralisation
    agenda, revenue collection and expenditure must be managed
    efficiently. In this regard, however, the political will to
    divert resources to local government remains a challenge. Human
    resources and institutional capacity are needed to enhance the
    implementation and efficiency of services. Further, the exact
    roles of subnational and national levels of government should
    be clarified.

    If Liberia is to achieve truly inclusive national
    ownership, the government must make decentralisation a
    priority. In this regard, it needs to expedite the legal
    reforms initiated through the constitution review process and
    the draft local government legislation. It is the
    government’s responsibility to ensure that adequate resources
    have been catered for in the national budget.

    There is more to decentralisation than providing
    resources through basic services: it speaks to developing a
    social compact between the government and its society to ensure
    ownership of all solutions in moving the country forward. This
    will necessarily involve dialogues with communities to
    formulate shared visions of local governance. Decentralisation
    is vital for Liberia, and if sustainable peace is to be
    achieved, it must be given priority.
    DM

    Tafadzwa Munjoma, is intern, and Amanda Lucey, a
    Senior Researcher in Peace Operations and Peacebuilding
    Division, ISS Pretoria.

    Photo: A man sells coconuts in a
    wheel barrow at a street market in Monrovia, Liberia, 29
    December 2016. EPA/AHMED
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