Parker Essick, class of 2020, spent the summer in Liberia working for a contractor on the USAID-funded Local Empowerment for Government Inclusion and Transparency (LEGIT) project, which supports Liberia’s decentralization agenda.
As the beaches of Monrovia receded into the thick forests of the upcountry, my car mates turned to pepper me with facts and rumors about our destinations in the former “hinterlands” of Liberia. For a portion of the four-hour drive, we talked about garbage collection in the rural cities, derelict local government buildings and “ghost” employees, rural road quality in the upcoming rainy season, and my colleagues’ roles in navigating all of it. One got the sense that the partner cities we were visiting—Gbarnga, the capital of Bong County, and Gompa, the economic hub of Nimba County—were something far removed from the national capital of Liberia.
This summer I am working for a contractor on the USAID-funded Local Empowerment for Government Inclusion and Transparency (LEGIT) project, which supports Liberia’s decentralization agenda. Since its founding, Liberia’s administrative, political, and financial decision-making power has been centralized in Monrovia. Because of this, the nearly four million Liberians living outside of the capital have had limited opportunity to influence local policymaking, design public projects and services based on local priorities, or hold financial decisionmakers accountable over the use of public monies. The country’s decentralization agenda began with the mild deconcentration of some administrative and service-related functions in 2015. The recently passed Local Government Act provides opportunities for sub-national governments to generate revenue and more effectively manage local administration.
The LEGIT project works across four objectives that encapsulate the implementation of decentralization.
First, the project assists government agencies in charge of decentralization to develop policy and internal capacity to implement the Local Government Act.
Second, the project works with three counties (which are like states) to implement and develop standard operational procedures and to manage the administration and oversight of central government activities across sectors.
Third, the project works with three cities—including Gbarnga, Gompa, and another city, Zwedru—to improve their capacity to manage revenue and provide public services.
Fourth, the project increases citizens’ ability to participate in local government decision-making and budgeting, often through the work of local civil society organizations (CSOs).
Each of these objectives includes both policy and implementation advice to partners at each of the four objective levels as well as grant-making to partners based on identified gaps in the implementation of decentralization.
The majority of my work has centered around evaluating the project’s most recent grants to CSOs to conduct social audits on public services. Social audits are when grantees conduct public surveys, focus groups, and town hall meetings with citizens and local decision-makers in the project’s three target counties in order to assess citizens’ knowledge, usage, and perceived quality of services available at county service centers. Given the low capacity of many local CSOs to conduct such activities, many used dissimilar methodologies for the audits but found that the majority of Liberians do not know about—much less use—deconcentrated public services.
My work has been to compile these results and develop a report that outlines lessons learned, details best practices for future social audits, and considers the quality of data collection and analysis by partner CSOs. The report is being used to fuel a number of other project activities, including the development of performance scorecards for counties and trainings for CSOs on best practices for future social audits. Recently, the report has fed into support I have provided to the project’s Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning team responding to and implementing lessons learned from a recent data quality assessment from USAID.
So far, the Chief of Party, USAID’s term for a contracted project leader, has been kind enough to expose me to all the aspects of implementing a USAID project on the ground: grants management, monitoring and evaluation, procurement, logistics, and (most constant) interfacing with the client and other stakeholders. The intrigue of working on a decentralization project is engaging with a multiplicity of clients at many different levels, with competing and varying priorities, needs, and capacities. Navigating these relationships is at the center of this type of project, and these differences in location and authority are what complicate the work.
As I recently made my second trip up to Gompa to support a training for city partners, I’ve found that the different locations where LEGIT works and the people it works with are not that different from one another. In each location, people go about their daily work: running shops, holding down market stalls, driving motorcycles, going to the doctor, getting their kids to school. To go about this work in each location, people need access to services like business registrations, driver’s licenses, and birth certificates. Everyone is—knowingly or not—pushing his or her priorities against the priorities of the community and the nation and seeing where they might align. This project, and the work I am engaging in, is about making those priorities more known and providing opportunities for both citizens and government officials to dialogue and work towards a more sustainable, accountable, and effective solution.