Monday, January 20, 2014

Memo to the Legislature: Redistribute Power, Not Money

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

This piece is an initial contribution to the ongoing national discourse on the proposed 73 million dubbed as the Direct District Impact fund. According to the proposal now discussed in the Legislature, this amount will be set aside annually in the national budget for the 73 electoral districts. While the intention to have districts experience impacts of development is laudable, the mechanism of such transfer, the governance arrangement under which such development impact will be made possible, need to precede the disbursement of the fund. This is why progressive forces must critically assess this proposal and tease out workable policy options through debates before it is carried forward.

In revealing the plan the Speaker of the House of representative is quoted by FrontPageAfrica as saying “when one imagines that Gboe-pole Administrative District in lower Grand Gedeh County has never experienced a motor road, makes this proposal belated, but this is one of the ways or means we believe that the much needed development can reach and impact our people in rural Liberia.”

What the speaker and his colleagues need to know is that a place like the Gboe-pole Administrative District and many other places that symbolize chronic poverty and underdevelopment in Liberia are not so because of shortage of money. Liberia has never had a shortage of money or the resources needed to generate more money. What Liberia has lacked is progressive leadership. If one argues that we have had some form of leadership, then the current state of underdevelopment and deprivation in places like Gboe-pole and Bomi County, the home of Speaker Tyler and me, are consequences of tragic failure of said leadership. Speaker Tyler and colleagues must devise a strategy to serve the people good leadership from which his sample Gboe-pole and others will have sustainable development.

The solution again is not money. Mwalimu Nyerere and others wrote in the Arusha Declaration of 1967 that it is not money that develops a nation, it is the people. People must be led, educated, healthy and mobilized for local self-governance through which all other forms of development can be possible. Learning from people’s power as the source of development as evidenced from history renders the ‘money-brings-development’ theory faulty.

The next fault with the proposal is that the proposed amount is to fund projects in electoral districts (1 million per district), not statutory and administrative districts. This clearly validates popular assumptions that lawmakers are finding ways of increasing electoral chances in the future, because by allotting money to electoral districts that have no leadership structures, but representatives, makes the said representative the public face of the so-called development impact. This obviously increases the electoral chances of the incumbent lawmaker. This, is in my view is an electoral strategy carved by the current incumbents, which progressive forces must mobilize against by advocating alternative options for local development in Liberia.

The experiences with the problems of limited social impact, improper accounting and corrupt procurement practices in the implementation of the extant County Development Fund speak to the fact that dishing out money to sub-national units of government without adequate and rationalized governance arrangements cannot yield the intended outcome of social development. Therefore, the solution to Liberia’s development challenges begins with empowering the people for local self-governance. This means redistributing power between the overly centralized government and local governments in counties, districts and cities. With the creation of local government structures and the empowerment of local people and their local authorities with political fiscal and administrative powers, one can imagine how local development programs will be accelerated since government will be closer to the people. The fact that the underdevelopment and poverty of most of Liberia became a reality to the Speaker only after a single trip highlights the need for government to be closer to the people before it can appreciate the concerns and needs of the people.

Let me turn to other factors that bring development. Again, it is not money that brings development! It is the ‘space and structure’ given to people in a given society that bring development. Speaking about ‘space’ here, I mean the opportunity for the people to participate in political and economic decision-making processes through local representatives or directly. By structure, I mean rules and institutions created to foster the aspirations of the people in fair, equitable and transparent manners. One cannot understate the fact that the Liberian people have been deprived functional rules in the discourse of daily life activities. Theft of public resources, unethical and indiscipline attitudes in public places undermine the people’s aspirations for better lives. In short, there is a deficit of public integrity, not money, and because institutions are weak, the rules are not been enforced; therefore, money as abundant as it may be, has been stolen, abused or wasted with impunity. The proposed 73 million will as well be stolen, abused or wasted in the absence of functional rules and institutions at both national and local levels.

Finally, I make a case here for the legislature to consider three things that are indispensable to the advancement of any society: disciplined and active people, enforceable rules, and functional institutions. Development is a function of the three, and money is only a facilitator. It is therefore imperative for members of the Legislature to consider a governance arrangement that empowers the people with power for local self-governance, and support law enforcement through the strengthening of national and local institutions. With strong national institutions and enforceable laws, a 1 dollar can make meaningful impacts than a 73 million in an environment with dysfunctional institutions and weak laws. In short, the Legislature must support local development by making laws that redistribute power through decentralization and not laws that only share money! Sharing money among 73 electoral districts will facilitate decentralization of corruption and waste of public resources to the advantage of election-freak politicians.

In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry