Moving from a Top-Down to a Bottom-up Approach to "development" in Liberia

By Ms. Nyankor Matthew

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 14, 2007


After reading Mr. Rufus Darkortey's article titled "Liberia Needs A National Development Plan - Not A Presidential Plan", I got to thinking. Mr. Darkortey is right in saying we need a national development plan. A national development is a vision and a road map for where a nation is headed economically and developmentally. It is a plan that defines the nation's social, economic, and development agenda as well as in ensuring that all people participate in the definition and implementation of this plan.

To expand on Mr. Darkortey's article, Liberia needs a development plan that should empower local governments; what I call a "bottom up" approach to development. All current and future national plans would give greater autonomy – and by autonomy I don't mean simply electing or appointing figure heads - to local governments to make critical decisions affecting local people. We need to equip local governments to create and expand their tax base, thereby creating economic opportunities and more jobs for those outside of Monrovia; in other words a gradual decentralization of government operations.

Urban Centered Development and Centralization of government operations
Those of us who are history and public policy buffs know for a fact that the so called "development" on the continent is an urban centered development created by our former colonial oppressors, whose intentions was not to see Africa develop, but rather to create a home away from home. If an interior community saw a railway or paved road, it was due to the extraction of valued raw materials in that community. Agricultural and rural development was not of any importance to Europeans. They were only interested in rural development to the extent that it could add value to their bottom line. Investment in infrastructure in African urban centers was done to facilitate the creation of an environment that would make Africa's exploitation more accessible. If one scans the continent – or even look in our own back yard - for communities outside the capitals that are somewhat developed, you would see that all these communities with basic infrastructure had valued natural resources, or something of value Europeans wanted access to, so they created the necessary infrastructure.

In the case of Liberia, when the settlers arrived it became a clash of two cultures. Instead of embracing the natives of the land, the settlers who were hated, dehumanized, and subjugated by whites in America, looked down on the natives as inferior, unintelligent savages to be isolated, Christianized or "civilized" to fit into this new country (Monrovia) within a country. Now, we had a group of settlers - who knew nothing else but what they had been negatively programmed to believe about themselves, the inferiority of their brothers and sisters on the continent, and the so called superiority of the white man - immigrate to a country of people who looked like them, with an economically functioning society, (although not as sophisticated as what the settler's were used to seeing in America) and completely isolated these people by denying opportunities to them. One would assume that these individuals would have settled in Liberia and worked hand in hand with the Native Liberians. But instead they embraced the very system that led to them being in Liberia, as superior, while shunning and treating native Liberians with contempt and labeling them inferior "uncivilized savages". This lack of cooperation with the natives, and the distorted sense of privilege and superiority complex of the settlers drove them to fortify Monrovia, and from that moment of fortification, development and government operations have been centralized in Monrovia to the detriment of counties, cities, and villages in Liberia. This system not only isolated local people, it also denied them economic growth and other developmental opportunities.

Nationally imposed development plans and barriers to growth at the local level
Our national development plans – be it presidential or not – have never been inclusive. National development in Liberia has been exclusive to Monrovia, and even if some of the development trickled down to the local level, it's been piecemeal and one size fits all type of development. In Liberia, we have managed to create many departments and a ministry dedicated solely for creating not only economic opportunities for local inhabitants, but also ensuring that so called "development" is somewhat evenly distributed outside of Monrovia. Despite the creation of all these entities, our rural counties and villages have become charity cases.

The paternalistic attitude towards local government management and development has left our local governments and their administrators ineffective and inefficient and lacking in innovative strategies for the improvement of their communities because, they are all compel to wait for directives from the national government; specifically the Ministry of Internal Affairs before undertaking major projects. Local government administrators are oftentimes nothing more than pseudo leaders unable to make critical economic decisions or develop comprehensive plans for their counties without major involvement from the ministry of internal affairs.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs was created to oversee the affairs of local administration in all the political sub-divisions of the country. Some of the functions of the Ministry include designing and implementing development projects and the transformation of rural communities into viable towns and cities. It also provides supervision and manages tribal affairs. The creation of the this ministry and other government departments dedicated to local growth and development have not lead to a proliferation of economic growth or infrastructure development at the local level. Due to these national entities historical ineffectiveness and inefficiencies, they have become more of a barrier to economic growth and infrastructure development for local governments in Liberia.

Nationally imposed development plans for local governments have not worked, nor is it working for us. These plans are oftentimes less helpful then anticipated, and can easily infringe on local governments' autonomy and become a liability in the struggle for local economic growth. We have a situation in Liberia where local governments have very little control or authority in the planning and implementation of economic development plans and programs. Development plans should not be created in Monrovia by people who have not even traveled extensively in these counties. This process of national economic planning should involve generating and discussing lists of problems facing the local governments, prioritizing the problems, formulating specific goals in response to the problems, and establishing plans supportive of local efforts.

A national development or economic plan requires the involvement of local authorities. Local authorities can play a major role in this effort by ensuring more effective and accountable local infrastructure and social service delivery for the poor, and improving the dialogue among the national government, citizens, their communities, civil society and the private sector. Too often, however, sub-national levels of governments are not involved in consultations on poverty reduction strategies or economic and infrastructure development policies in Liberia. Nor are they given the mandate or institutional and financial capacity to plan and deliver local development interventions such as social services, local infrastructure, local economic development initiatives and natural resource management.

Decentralization and local government Capacity Building
I realize that our local governments are weak in terms of capacity, and local administrators lack the skills for capacity building. Be that as it may, the national government needs to begin a gradual process of decentralization and capacity building.

By transferring a range of powers, responsibilities and functions to local Governments which include decision-making, raising and allocating resources, providing a range of services to the population, and planning and budgeting for improved service delivery, would enhance local administrators' ability to create economic opportunities for Liberia's rural poor.

In response to the fact that many local governments do not have the capacity, both at the political and technical levels to effectively execute decentralization if it happens, the Ministry of Internal Affairs in conjunction with local administrators, civil society groups, and other relevant government agencies should:

• Establish a capacity building committee composed of mayors, superintendents, and local chiefs from all counties, who will be responsible for coordinating and formulating strategies that will coherently address capacity building issues in a holistic and coordinated manner

• Develop a capacity building policy for Local Governments.

• Establish a local government public service training policy to include training for local officials on functions such as: budgeting, planning, financial management, procurement, resource mobilization, human resource management, etc.

By promoting institutional reform and policy changes, building local capacity for local governments to plan, budget, implement and monitor local development activities, local authorities can be capacitated to fulfill what has not been fulfilled in over 150 years in Liberia. Participatory planning, economic development plans and budgeting systems need to be introduced and supported at the local level. These systems need to ensure a voice for local people in national and local public decision-making and accountability of local governments to their citizens.

Ms. Matthew currently works as a housing Bond Analyst, and has an MPA in Public/Government Finance. She can be reached at

© 2007 by The Perspective

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