Poverty reduction policies in Liberia over the years have usually recorded lackluster performance. The Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) (2014) reports the following abysmal statistics: 54.1% of the population lives below the poverty line, informal employment rate at 67.9% and vulnerable employment at 74.1%.
The two latter indicators pinpoint the number of Liberians involved in unsteady and insecure types of employment. Hence, this sheds light on the fact that those referred to as vulnerably or informally employed barely subsist in seasonal employment where they receive earnings which cannot procure meaningful living.
Worse, this makes the national unemployment rate of 2.8% reported by the HIES trivial. In its wake, recent development discourse in Liberia has focused on the concept of pro-poor development policy.
Yet, the Weah administration has not elaborated on what it considers as pro-poor policy.
However, there are many schools of thought on pro-poor policy, and this article attempts to situate these ideas within the Liberian context.
The battle against poverty using pro-poor policies are often waged on two mutually reinforcing fronts. On one side, it involves interventions aimed at improving the integration of socioeconomically deprived populations into the production process.
On the other, it involves consumption side interventions to improve access to basic necessities for members of poor households.
Pro-poor policies also seek to simultaneously reduce the incidence of income poverty and improve well-being as well as the functional capabilities of the poor.
Pro-poor growth increases average income and ensures that incomes are distributed to close livelihood disparities.
It provides opportunities for the poor to acquire marketable and entrepreneurial skills, education, healthcare, access to nutritious meals, housing, land, water and sanitation.
Essentially, pro-poor policies involve deliberate and purposeful actions by government to enable the destitute segments of the population: women, youth, persons with disabilities, and others to avert shocks that can reverse gains made in stabilizing their quality of life.
Additionally, pro-poor policies address such social problems as the high incidence of teenage pregnancy, out-of-wedlock births, single parent households, and dependence on begging or street peddling, high crime rates, burgeoning drug trafficking, use, and/or abuse, and homelessness, which are often widespread in the communities where the poor live.
Based on the foregoing, I will attempt to outline a collection of anti-poverty initiatives that the Weah administration could undertake to realize its stated pro-poor policy objectives.
- Using Geographical Information System (GIS), the government should use data from the latest HEIS and Population Census to conduct qualitative studies (purpose-built household surveys, focus groups, and key informant interviews) on both the income and non-income indicators of people’s welfare and well-being. The following indicators should be used: family size, dependency ratio (young, old, and total), population density, literacy, formal education, work status, occupation, access to credit, region (urban/rural), asset ownership, housing quality, and access to facilities like water, electricity, and sanitation to get a multi-dimensional understanding of poverty throughout the country. By conducting a qualitative poverty mapping, government will not only answer the question who the poor are, where they are located, but also explain the interrelationships among the influencing factors to know the reasons why they are poor. Such a study will not only allow policy makers to have data on the incidence of poverty, but also get better understanding of predictors of poverty.
- Improve water supply, sanitation, and hygiene: This effort would affect all Liberians, and would be important to every sector of the economy, but particularly relevant to the poor. Making sure that safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, and basic hygiene are provided for all Liberians will improve people’s health, lower mortality rates, and increase work and educational achievements. As a nation which formerly faced a lethal Ebola outbreak, during which transmission of the disease was traced to poor sanitation and handwashing facilities, the initiative would serve as the most effective means of reducing morbidity and mortality from diarrheal diseases, which affect the poor the most.
- Other pro-poor initiatives could include a national health and pension scheme for the working poor in the informal or vulnerable economic sectors administered by the Social Security and Welfare Corporation in collaboration with the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection. Other alternatives could involve subsidies on basic commodities, principally Liberian staple – rice. This will strictly target the poorest strata of the society. No doubt, food programs targeting k-12 schools where students are provided breakfast and lunch would possibly increase student achievement and close educational disparities between rich and poor students.
- Engage in agrarian reforms that are aimed at strengthening the rural economies. This initiative will only become effective if it involves development of rural infrastructure and economy, and ensuring market security for agricultural produce. It is important to note that agrarian reform should not be conceived as a means to produce cheap labor for rich commercial farmers. Landless or near landless households (agricultural populations) have to be placed at the center of any policy that intends to achieve agrarian reforms. But for any policy intervention like this to become effective, there has to be a systematic means of knowing exactly how many households belong to such a category. It is probable that many rural households, especially those in hard-to-reach remote areas often do not make it into official census counts because they reside in isolated upland areas inaccessible to government census takers. The absence of clear and systematic land titling and administration in the country has in fact significantly contributed to the problematic process of pro-poor agrarian reforms.
- A pro-poor business enabling environment is just as or even more critical as any of the other interventions mentioned above. This means that government must develop a set of policies, institutions, regulations, support services, and other conditions including anti-corruption interventions that together will improve or create business environment where wealth Can be created and the private sector can thrive. Job creation must go hand-in-hand with workforce development programs that give people the skills to be absorbed by the market. Moreover, large numbers of Liberians work in small and micro businesses, many in blue collar jobs. Therefore, it would be important for the Weah administration to consider the conditions and interventions that will support those pursuing blue collar careers to become more successful. Pro-poor reforms will first address the bias in our cultural fabric which holds the view that those who pursue vocational trades are less intelligent. Government must value blue collar careers and support their development, which would in turn contribute to the growth of the middle class. In addition, government should remove the bottlenecks that the poor suffer in starting and maintaining their businesses including difficulties in accessing credit, which leads them to seek loans from sharks that charge unreasonably high interest rates.
As the Liberian society is presently constructed, there are structural, institutional, and psychological obstacles to developing and implementing pro-poor policies.
Principally, the interests of the dominant classes, especially rich and politically-connected males have often guided policy development and implementation in Liberia.
Social forces created by the policy elites tend to perpetuate poverty traps which often ensnare women, young people, and rural/slum inhabitants. To overcome these structural, institutional and psychosocial obstacles, pro-poor policy development must not utilize top-down approaches, but rather a bottom-up methods.
The poor must be a major part of the decision making regarding defining their specific needs and how to address them. The most promising pro-poor policy approaches are those that focus on improving poor people’s skills, sense of self-worth, and ultimately their aspiration and stake in society.
Policy makers must therefore recast conventional development approaches and ensure that distributive reforms occur in favor of the poor. In this case, the poor cannot be passive actors in development, but rather active participants.
Importantly, for pro-poor policy to gain stronger roots in Liberia, the agricultural and industrial sectors will need to be improved and expanded considerably. The phenomenal expansion that we have witnessed in the service sector will need to be tempered by regulations that improve the wages and work conditions of their work forces.
If Liberia is to prosper sustainably, we will have to follow the lodestars of private sector development, wealth creation, inclusion, and equity, which have guided many other nations that have made durable improvements in the well-being of the poor.
Resorting to xenophobic nationalism, excluding Diaspora Liberians with foreign citizenships who can contribute immensely to creating opportunities in the society threatens prosperity and the future of our emerging democracy.
Emmanuel Dolo, Contributing Writer