The story of UNMIL [Book]: Basic services arrive in the countryside
Liberia has been a unitary state, in which all Government officials including those who ran its 15 counties were appointed by the President. The concentration of power in Monrovia underlay peoples’ distrust and ignorance of government.
The Constitution of 1986 had called for local elections of paramount chiefs, clan and town chiefs. However there was never any money, at least at the county level, to hold elections, and some counties had more than 30 towns.
Upon her election in 2005, President Sirleaf was challenged to implement the Constitution on local elections. But the Supreme Court weighed in and ruled that for the time being, she could continue to appoint the chiefs. The Local Government Act that has been before the Legislature should change that.
In the early days of the Mission, UNMIL Civil Affairs officers were engaged in both establishing and restoring state authority to the countryside. Field officers worked with chiefs and elders, women’s groups, and where necessary with ex-warlords, faction commanders and ex-combatants. The objective was to get communities re-engaged and local government working to deliver basic services such as health care and education, as well as water, sanitation and even shelter.
With the help of UNMIL, the President saw ways to address the lack of services at the county level. A development fund of US$200,000 for each county was set up, as well as a social development fund, tied to resource exploitation in that area. Three counties, for example, shared a US$3 million grant from Mittal Steel which extracts iron ore-- US$1.5 million to Nimba country where the mine sits; US$1 million to Bong where the freight trains pass through; and US$400,000 to Grand Bassa which has the port. This grant was to be annual, but a slump in global prices has meant diminished returns recently.
As a national officer in UNMIL’s Peace Consolidation service, James Giahyue helped organize the counties to access the development fund held by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. His office also monitored use of the funds by the counties. Things were going smoothly, he said, “until corruption set in.”
Some national legislators had set up bogus companies to do jobs approved by the counties. Eventually a minister was even dismissed. There were also disputes between county representatives and legislators over who should get contracts. In addition, the Government in Monrovia, facing budget shortfalls, would dip into the social development fund to pay other bills.
The Local Government bill would “de-concentrate, delegate and devolve” power—and presumably money--to the counties.
But to help people access services in the meantime, UNMIL assisted the “de-concentration” of services from Monrovia. That started with the "County-in-a-box," comprised of a vehicle, motorbikes, computers, office furniture and stationery. In some counties, UNMIL constructed the office building and supplied solar panels to power it. Eventually UNMIL helped to establish service centres across the country in partnership with UNDP, Sweden, the EU and USAID.
“All 15 counties now provide 25 different services to the public,” Mr. Giahyue said: “That was our baby and that is our pride.”