Since 2003, the international community has poured billions of dollars of aid into the country. In 2011 alone, OECD data indicates that Liberia received $765 million in official development assistance, 73 percent of its gross national income. Hundreds of international NGOs have set up offices and deployed staff to manage projects. The United Nations spends over $500 million a year on its peacekeeping force, which a decade after the peace agreement still totals 7,500 troops.
In spite of all this, Liberia is still one of the poorest countries on earth.
How can we square the amount of attention, resources and effort put into rebuilding Liberia with these conditions on the ground? At its heart, this is an accountability problem through which the Liberian government has become oriented not toward its citizens, but toward a well-meaning, generous but ineffective international community. While there are many truly excellent development workers in Liberia, they are operating within an outdated aid system that breeds dependency, undermines capacity and ignores sustainability.
Well-qualified Liberians are drawn away from government or civil society positions by higher wages in donor organizations. Each of these entities has their own agenda, procedures, obligations, reporting methods, funding streams and target beneficiaries. The result in many cases is overlapping authorities, duplication of efforts and significant space for corruption.
There is no doubt that Liberia is an extremely difficult place to work, and there are certainly elements of the international system that are creating positive change. The Africa Governance Initiative, for example, is providing critical support and skills-transfer for government planning and implementation. Community-focused NGOs such as Last Mile Health are saving lives in very remote parts of the country, and a nascent technology community is emerging with the support of organizations like iLab Liberia.
Changes in approach
However, to give Liberia a better chance at overcoming its past and moving towards a more prosperous future, the international community must escape from its self-perpetuating cycle of underachievement.
This might involve three core changes in approach.
2. More honesty and creativity are required in delivery. Expensive project launch events and photos of smiling children are excellent public relations exercises, but they are not reducing poverty or corruption. Equally, it does not take long to discover that most Liberians are either tired of or uninterested in donor workshops, trainings and conferences — especially if they do not include a free lunch. This means we must bolster programs that use engaging, context-specific ways to bring citizens into the development process through education, culture, religion and the media.
3. There must be a very clear emphasis on sustainability. The aid system has become a competitive struggle between NGOs for donor contracts, which means development is supply-driven and generally based on 1-3 year funding cycles. As a result, there is often a rush to show short-term results, collaboration between organizations is rare and staff turnover is high. This means changing incentives and benchmarks to reward cooperation, and moving away from government aid towards long-term change through alternative approaches such as social enterprise and efforts to boost domestic philanthrophy.
In Liberia, an externally-facing government has become accountable to taxpayers in the West rather than to its own people. Impressive progress has been made in the last ten years, but largely despite — rather than because of — international aid organizations.
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Blair Glencorse is founder and executive director of the Accountability Lab. Previously, he worked on issues of state and market-building across Africa, Asia the Middle-East and Latin America at the Institute for State Effectiveness and the Aspen Institute, and on post-conflict and fragile states at the World Bank. Glencorse is a frequent commentator on development issues for media outlets including CNN, The Independent, and WABC Radio, among others. In 2011 during the Arab Awakenings, Blair was honored as a UN Fellow for the Middle East and North Africa, and in 2012 he won the Johns Hopkins Outstanding Recent Graduate Award for his work on accountability.