Making Lemons into Lemonade in Liberia

The Accountability Lab recently conducted Phase I of a civil society accountability assessment in Liberia to provide the basis for support to more innovative and sustainable demand-side accountability approaches going forwards. Many of the relevant tools for accountability exist, but creating the necessary environment for their use and managing the implications of their effects is proving difficult. “Making lemons into lemonade”, as one civil society actor put it, is therefore difficult. Some thoughts include:

i) A Sense of Civil Society Fatigue. There is a deeply-felt tiredness among Liberian civil society groups with what are perceived as donor-driven capacity-building efforts that are cost-ineffective, unsustainable and can draw staff away from critical tasks for days at a time. Civil society is also proving unsustainable in many cases because funding flows are unpredictable and other opportunities present themselves in the government, donor and private sectors, which can pull Liberians away from domestic organizations. As a result, while civil society groups dealing with accountability issues in Liberia are robust and active, their number is shrinking, and competition for funding is fierce. This creates an environment in which some information sharing takes place, but cooperation among these groups does not lead to concerted, collective and consistent movement towards mutual goals, despite the existence of some ad-hoc coalitions. Unlike other countries in the region- such as Ghana- traction of civil society initiatives in Liberia seems to be limited in many cases because of these issues, and there is a distinct sense that civil society is less than the sum of its parts as a result.

Thinking through accountability in Liberia. Credit: Kate Cummings

ii) A Misalignment of Accountability. A key issue in Liberia is that citizens often do not fully understand- or misunderstand- the role that public, private and non-governmental organizations can and should play in their lives. It is difficult to measure the social accountability of the government for example, when the population may be used to very little interaction with the state and often misattribute functions and responsibilities to public bodies. As a result, expectations are often not matched with realities. At the same time, a number of groups are using social accountability methods- such a social audits and citizen scorecards- to try and gather useful information. The question that seems to be being asked, however, is: “what next?” For many Liberians who have critical daily concerns to deal with and are being asked to participate in a number different governance activities (ranging from local planning to the national Vision 2030 process) accountability remains an abstract concept divorced from their everyday lives.

iii) A Data Deficit. Evidence-based accountability interventions are difficult in Liberia because data does not get collected, archived, managed and shared properly as a result of topographical, technical and capacity issues. Civil society reports that rightly tackle issues related to poor-service delivery or lack of transparency can be undermined by lack of rigorous analysis and data reliability. Moreover, data collection techniques are often unsustainable because the relevant follow-up, validation and feedback loops are not in place to ensure that citizens facilitate information flows over the medium to long-term, or one-off funding windows only support static data sets. Equally, the government may at times be unwilling to release information related to the Freedom of Information Act, but in others may be unable to find this information. Without reliable and well-managed information, it is very difficult for accountability-oriented groups to understand fully where and how to target their important efforts.

iv) Ongoing Technological Hurdles. New technologies are rapidly expanding the ability of organizations to interact with citizens, but only to a certain extent. Some civil society groups have been using a variety of tools to engage Liberians as part of social accountability efforts- including free text messages and call-backs to discuss information collected- in an attempt to build feedback loops. But it has still been very difficult to encourage the population to truly engage in participatory accountability exercises. In addition, software has to some degree outpaced hardware and information flows in Liberia. Ushahidi, for example, is a superb mapping platform for governance and the Ushahidi Liberia office in Monrovia is doing great work. Without the relevant hardware, information and commitment from citizens, however, it is difficult to make it a sustainable tool for civil society organizations in the near-term.

v) Emerging Platforms for Progress. Too much progress in accountability terms still remains overly dependent on a core group of key and committed individuals. Encouragingly, however, the relationship between government and civil society, which has traditionally been adversarial, seems to be softening somewhat- with more effort on both sides to understand and respond to concerns and ideas. The National Integrity Forum, for example- a joint body of governmental agencies and civil society groups working on governance issues which meets on a monthly basis- in now in place. While progress has been slow, the NIF seems unique within West Africa in terms of bringing together these stakeholders to discuss relevant issues. The Forum does not yet have a full-time technical staff and resources but could provide a framework for joint government-civil society progress on accountability.

All of this suggests that what is needed is a set of interventions that support civil society groups in Liberia to develop new ideas on accountability issues; emphasize and support civic understanding and engagement; gather useful and comprehensive data for programming; match tools to tasks and target key groups of positive “influencers”; and work together on collective, collaborative approaches to the problems. This is easier said than done, of course, but is something the Accountability Lab will be thinking about and working on over the coming months in partnership with forward-looking groups in Liberia.

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