for County Service Centers
The Ambassador of Sweden to Liberia and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative here have called on the Government of Liberia to go beyond reaffirming the importance of decentralization and make adequate budgetary allocations for County Service Centers, stressing that 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”, they advised.
In an Op-ed that they co-authored, both Sweden Ambassador Ingrid Wetterqvist and UNDP Resident Representative Stephen Rodriques note that experience from across the world shows that decentralization, when implemented properly, 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.
They describe Government of Liberia county service centers across the country as one-stop shops that enable citizens to access a variety of public services under one roof without having to travel to Monrovia.
“Studies of decentralization programs on the continent and elsewhere (Tanzania, Uganda, Indonesia, India, etc.)” they said, “have highlighted the impact that decentralized administrations can have on unlocking the potential of regions, improving services to people, and stimulating citizen participation in decision-making.”
The County Service Center is a program introduced by the Government of Liberia during the administration of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as part of a government decentralization policy to take services to citizens in all 15 counties of the country.
The two foreign envoys explain that as part of an effort to bring services closer to the people, the Government of Liberia, in 2012, initiated a national decentralization program aimed at enhancing citizen participation in governance, reducing inequality, improving service delivery, and deepening social cohesion in order to spur local economic growth.
Amb. Wetterqvist and Country Rep. Rodriques say faced with slow adoption of the necessary laws, the government instituted a strategy to innovatively decentralize the provision of services to citizens through the County Service Centers (CSCs).
“The vision behind the program 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”, they explained, adding that 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, according to both diplomats, noting that they also are an important vehicle for ensuring that no one is left behind, a key principle for attaining the Sustainable Development Goals.
According to them, 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, which they describe as 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.”
Amb. Wetterqvist and Country Rep. Rodriques: 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 traveling to Monrovia. Citizens are also having various meetings with local officials in the CSCs, a sign of deepening engagement and participation.”
Prior to the introduction of the policy, government services had been centralized in Monrovia, constraining citizens in the counties to come to the capital for nearly all services, including marriage and birth certificates, land deeds processing, obtaining driver’s license and business registration, among others.
They say 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, saying, “Our collective efforts have also included training CSC staff to provide quality services to citizens, and developing policies and legal frameworks to sustain decentralization.”
However, the foreign diplomats note that despite the progress made, more work remains to be done to strengthening decentralization, increasing citizen participation, and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery in the counties.
Both authors recommend that to start with, the successes recorded to date must be anchored in firmer legal and regulatory frameworks, citing that 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, they 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.”
They also call on the Liberian Legislature to see this as an opportunity to debate and pass the necessary laws that can help to ensure that the needs of the citizens are met where they live.