12 July 2021; Monrovia, Liberia: Experience from across the world shows that decentralization, when properly implemented, is one of the most powerful and effective tools to reduce poverty and inequality, accelerate rural development, and enhance the participation of citizens in their own development. Studies of decentralization programmes on the continent and elsewhere (Tanzania, Uganda, Indonesia, India, etc.) have highlighted the impact that decentralised administrations can have on unlocking the potential of regions, improving services to people, and stimulating citizen participation in decision-making.
As part of an effort to bring services closer to the people, the Government of Liberia, in 2012, initiated a national decentralization programme. The programme was also aimed at enhancing citizen participation in governance, reducing inequality, improving service delivery, and deepening social cohesion in order to spur local economic growth.
Faced with slow adoption of the necessary laws, the government instituted a strategy to innovatively decentralize provision of services to citizens through the County Service Centers (CSCs). The CSCs are one-stop shops that enable citizens to access a variety of government services under one roof without having to travel to ministry headquarters in Monrovia. The vision behind the programme was that any resident should be able to walk into a CSC and access basic services such as obtain a birth certificate, pay property taxes, get a motor vehicle driver’s license, acquire a deed for their land, and so forth. Some of these services, like obtaining a birth certificate can further enable citizens to acquire a legal identity which, in turn, can facilitate their access to other rights and services.
The CSCs are also meant to improve citizens’ interaction with government institutions, help increase public awareness of government policies and regulations, and strengthen citizens’ oversight of the use of public resources. They also are an important vehicle for ensuring that no one is left behind, a key principle for attaining the Sustainable Development Goals.
After President George Weah took office in 2017, one of his early actions in support of decentralization was to sign the Local Government Act in 2018, providing the legal framework for decentralized service delivery. This was an important milestone for giving ordinary citizens voice and space to participate in the country’s governance. It was also a step in the direction of solidifying local accountability and discouraging corruption and misuse of resources.
From our respective visits around the country, there are clear signs that the model works. Some CSCs that we have seen are delivering much needed services locally, and are saving citizens the considerable time and money they would normally expend to obtain those same services by travelling to Monrovia. Citizens are also having various meetings with local officials in the CSCs, a sign of deepening engagement and participation.
The CSCs are the product of a fruitful partnership between the Government of Liberia and a number of international development partners, namely the Government of Sweden, UNDP, USAID and the EU, all of which have provided technical and financial support in establishing CSCs in all 15 counties. Our collective efforts have also included training CSC staff to provide quality services to citizens, and developing policies and legal frameworks to sustain decentralization.
Despite the progress made, more work remains to be done to strengthen decentralization, increase citizen participation, and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery in the counties. To start with, the successes recorded to date must be anchored in firmer legal and regulatory frameworks. For example, the current draft Revenue Sharing Bill would give counties the authority to collect and retain a greater share of revenues, better meet their operating costs, and make critical investments in improving services and accelerating development at the local level. The Governance Commission and the Ministry of Internal Affairs are leading the work on this Bill which, we believe, could be a potential game changer in terms of improving services to people and facilitating growth in rural and under-developed regions of the country.
This process will require all hands to be on deck to ensure that the envisioned law is developed in consultation with, and participation of all stakeholders, both at the national and county levels. Citizens and civil society organizations should use the avenues provided to give their views and be ready to advocate for the adoption of the Bill when it is presented for vote in the Legislature. For its part, the Legislature should see this as an opportunity to debate and pass the necessary laws that can help to ensure that the needs of the citizens can be met where they live.
The national government, on its part, should go a step beyond reaffirming the importance of decentralization, and make adequate budgetary allocations for County Service Centers. This would reassure citizens and development partners alike, that the train has left the station and is well on its way to its destination.
When administrative decentralization is matched with fiscal decentralization, Liberia will be able to achieve something that no short term donor-funded projects can do – the country will find a path to accelerated and sustained local development, bringing long-term benefits to all its people in all its counties. And that is the best way to ensure that No One is Left Behind.
By Ingrid Wetterqvist, Ambassador of Sweden to Liberia & Stephen Rodriques, UNDP Resident Representative