BUILDING THE BRIDGE OVER TROUBLE WATER: The Role of Civil Society in Liberia
In his speech posted April 15, 2002, Cllr. Tiawan S. Gongloe, indicated the role of civil society in promoting peace and development in the MRU space, (http://www.theperspective.org/gongloemruspeech.html). The astute lawyer, who also was a civil society activist, reminded civil society groups that… “The only guide to getting involved in political activities is that the objectives of those activities should be lawful and the manner of achieving them must be lawful”. I should hasten to state that the lawyer was inclined to know that civil society groups as part of the body politics of the region cannot sit idle by and see political actors dividing the state and think it is none of their business, but cautiously advised that actions by these civil society groups should be lawful and objective.
I read the speech of the lawyer and started a deep reflection in questioning the role of the civil society groups in Liberia now. I then asked myself this question: When will civil society groups ever play a role of building a bridge over trouble water? To answer the said question, I had to first understand what do we mean by civil society in Liberia. A case study on civil society conducted by Search for Common Ground in April 2007, reviewed that there is a lack of capacity in areas such as leadership and organization development. Some key civil society leaders according to the study are now working in government and have left a space in civil society, which needs to be filled. Organizations are struggling to get access to funding, while at the same time businesses are accessing funding meant for civil society organizations to work on rehabilitation and reconstruction projects. With this in mind, I then decided to probe further in understanding the relationship between what the study had shown to that of the functions of civil society groups in Liberia today.
Today, most leaders of civil society groups in Liberia are either pro-government agents or anti-government government agents. I find a strong relationship between the lack of sufficient technical skills and the lack of access to funding for its operations as some of the causal variables that in effect lead to a weak and ineffective civil society group in Liberia. What is even more interesting is that these civil society groups are sponsored to either castigate the actions or inactions of government or to promote the pains that the government inflate on the larger citizenry. Civil society in Liberia today is no more people-centered but rather divided and individualistic in dealing with issues that confront the state.
When the nation is falling apart, it is the civil society groups that serve as a bridge over trouble water, (WAPNET, MARWOPNET, etc are few examples we can record playing key roles in the peace building process in Liberia). These categories of citizens are the people that hold together the state by lawfully engaging the government when it hurts its citizens as well as persuading the citizenry to promote positive efforts of the government. The only way such a bridge could be built is when both parties (the government and the people) perceived the civil society groups as objective and people-centered. For example, the leadership of the marketing association or the bike riders association cannot be seen by their members or the government as pledging support to a government agent or an opposition political leader in a political rally and later expect to be the neutral voice of reasoning when there is chaos in the state. No state actor or the larger citizenry would expect to be comfortable when professional bodies like the Press Union of Liberia or the Liberia National Bar Association are internally divided over the position to take on critical national issues that confront the state and is expected to be taken seriously.
I view future development in the state with some level of trepidation especially with the new wave of popular uprising by the use of social media which for me is an intervening variable to the series of dependent variables such as corruption, bad governance, and high level of youth unemployment-just to name a few. This is the time for that space to be created for a robust civil society group that could serve as a cushion between an apparently carefree government and a potentially angry citizen. In building that bridge over trouble water, the civil society group must endeavor to becoming technically skill, issue-oriented, people-centered, and they must be properly funded.
In my conclusion, I would like to shed light on financing mechanism for the civil society sector. Research has shown that even in most advance countries, their governments support civil society groups not by direct budgetary support, but by finding ways to make private money work for public good. In a research conducted by OSCE in December 2010, there were some key recommendations in funding civil society groups by government in complementary ways and means without perception of unwarranted influence by the government. From the many recommendations from the research, what I think could be applicable in the case of Liberia is the introduction of serious tax incentives to encourage the establishment of privately endowed public benefit foundations.  Civil society groups in Liberia are merely funded by taxpayer’s monies from developed nations and other international donor agencies, which are just, drop in the ocean for a crowded field of implementing partners, some of whom are the very government agencies, which are the issues they are contend with all of the time. If it is true that these civil society groups are paying taxes into the government’s consolidated funds directly or indirectly, then there is a need for government to create a kind of funding stream to support them. When civil society groups are financially supported adequately, capacities are built and technical skills acquired through training, they will be very effective and people-centered which shall help greatly in the stability of the state and the promotion of peace and development in the nations. This for me is the kind of civil society we need in Liberia that can clearly build the bridge over trouble water.