By Stephen Rodriques,
UNDP Resident Representative
The observance of International Democracy Day on September 15, 2021, presents an occasion for all to pause and reflect on how to strengthen the gains made by post-conflict Liberia and further consolidate democracy and good governance. At the core of Liberia’s governance architecture is a strategic vision, the Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development, which seeks to propel the nation towards attaining the SDGs. For Liberia to achieve the common vision laid out in the PAPD, citizens will need to be active participants rather than passive passengers in the journey towards that future.
The challenge of engaging citizens comes against the backdrop of Liberia’s difficult past of conflict, high unemployment rates (especially among the youth population), debilitating Ebola pandemic and economic decline, as well as the gaps in infrastructure and connectivity which affects vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities and most of the rural population. In addition, the current COVID-19 pandemic continues to prolong Liberia’s fragility and impose constraints on efforts to engage people.
Nonetheless, there are strong foundations to build on. Since the end of the civil war in 2003, Liberia has transitioned into a peaceful and stable nation that has set out to rebuild State institutions. The country has held three relatively free and fair national elections resulting in the first transfer of power from one elected president to another in more than 70 years. There is social cohesion; the media is, to a large extent, free (though there are areas for improvement); and a vibrant civil society exists. As such, there are opportunities to consolidate these gains and reap greater dividends from the country’s hard-won peace. Deepening citizen participation and engagement can help improve accountability, responsiveness and legitimacy of State institutions, policies and programmes and contribute to better development outcomes.
Global experiences indicate that to make this shift to deepen citizen engagement, it is essential that citizens have trust in the systems of governance. There are three key enabling elements to build this trust and deepen civic engagement. These include: (i) the establishment or opening up of spaces for citizen participation; (ii) buttressing accountability mechanisms to oversee government action, service provision, and adherence to the rule of law and human rights, and; (iii) strengthening competence within government to respond timely and effectively to the requests of citizens and to involve citizens in decision-making. I will briefly expand on these three key elements below.
First, citizen participation. Yes, the legitimacy of governments in democratic societies require people to have a choice in selecting those who will be entrusted with power and authority to make decisions on their behalf. The existence of political parties with manifestoes containing alternative visions of the future provides citizens with information and options, and free and fair elections enable citizens to participate and exercise their rights. This is key to the formation of a social contract between citizens and elected governments.
Yet democratic governance demands more than just regular direct elections of representatives by the population. It requires broader participation of citizens in the development of the policies that govern them, to bring both legitimacy and local ownership to decisions. Decentralization processes represent one way to achieve this, taking government closer to the people and giving space and opportunity for the voices of remote dwellers and vulnerable groups to be heard. UNDP Liberia works with many partners in Government, Civil Society, and the Development Community to support Liberia’s decentralization efforts, including the establishment of County Service Centers as well as the Citizens’ Feedback Mechanisms. Both measures have created platforms that give voice to local people, and the latter facilitates greater participation in governance.
Furthermore, civil society, such as the media, women’s groups, and religious groups, are important channels through which the voices of people can be heard. These actors can form part of a network of knowledge, ideas and resources that governments can leverage to help shape the content of national and local laws, policies, programmes and budgets. Civil society actors also foster public demand for accountability and institutional responsiveness through their awareness-raising and advocacy work; features that are crucial for public trust in government.
Critically, democracy requires an enabling environment where opinions and expressions flourish without fear of reprisals. Such freedoms are guaranteed through the rule of law and respect for human rights. Consequently, strong justice and human rights institutions and mechanisms are also core to functional democracies.
This point leads me to the second important element for engaging citizens in democratic processes: the availability of accountability mechanisms. When citizens feel that everyone is subject to the same laws, that no one or group of persons is above the law, and that political leaders and public servants are held accountable for their actions, they are more likely to participate in governance processes. Without strong systems of accountability, elitism, cliquism, favoritism and political patronage flourish, leaving citizens disenchanted, disillusioned and apathetic.
UNDP Liberia works with many of the institutions which serve to strengthen oversight and accountability in Liberia, including the courts, the press, CSOs, and others. We have also supported the establishment of performance management and monitoring systems in the public sector, including in the Cabinet Office. Undoubtedly, more work is needed in these areas to sharpen the focus on performance and accountability.
Citizens’ participation and accountability mechanisms help achieve the third element – responsive governance. Public voices and advocacy create the demand, while accountability bodies help ensure that demand does not go unanswered. Ultimately, governments must be responsive to the needs and aspirations of citizens, providing infrastructure, goods, and services that enable citizens to have choices and to live long, healthy, meaningful, and fulfilling lives. But responsive governance also requires capacity within the State to facilitate citizens’ demands and to provide effective solutions in the form of policies, programmes, and projects. Here again, there is scope for further strengthening of capacity within the State.
Strengthening these three elements in Liberia will build a more dynamic and robust system of democratic governance in the country, creating resilience against future shocks, and ensuring that all Liberians enjoy not only democracy, but the benefits of democracy as well – sustained and inclusive development and prosperity.