County Service Centers in Liberia: Challenges and Prospects.
A county Service Center is a one-stop shop where documentation services relating to permits, licenses and certifications are offered at same quality and cost in Monrovia.
From the warp and woof of this republic to its independence in 1847, one of the major challenges the government of the state has faced is a centralized governance system which has impaired popular participation and local development drive, specifically in the provision of public goods and services. From the launch of the National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance in 2012 to the subsequent signing into law of the Local Government Act in 2018 by President George M. Weah with the aims of taking governance closer to the people in rural parts of the country and ensuring greater participation of the people in their own development process as well as an equitable distribution of the country’s resources, which aligns with the first pillar of the Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD) “POWER TO THE PEOPLE “ intended “To reduce developmental inequalities so the people can prosper “; the state of governance has never been the same as time passed and whether it will be better or not depend on the kind of support we place in making county Service Centers functional.
By: Mohammed M. Bamba, Jr.
The governance process has taken many turns in our country’s history. From political exclusion, marginalization to tribal conflict that led to the civil unrest. All of which has led to the backwardness of the republic in terms of proper governance system and development. Over the past decades, we have witnessed the Lift Liberia Poverty Reduction Strategy and somehow its impact in raising Liberia from a post-conflict emergency reconstruction to a path of future growth to the emergence of the “Agenda for Transformation (AFT)”, which goal was to put the country on a path of sustainable and equitable growth and to create the right environment as Liberia transforms toward its long-term vision of becoming a more equal, just, secure and prosperous society. The progress report of the performance of those two governance instruments is not 100% but they place the governance of this country on a path for sustainable peace, development, and reconciliation among others. If we must achieve the legacy of the aforementioned development agenda and the PAPD pillar one “Power to the people” then we have to constantly evaluate the status and impact of county service centers on the governance of the country. In this write –up , I present a look at the challenges and prospects of the County Service Centers (CSC) since its inception in 2015.
For the past decade, one of the major governance issues has been around the decentralization of the country. Five years after the signing into law the Local Government Act and ten years after the launch of the National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance, we are still faced with mammoth challenges with one of the key pace sitters of the success of national decentralization in Liberia, the county Service center.
According to the UNDP Release in 2016 (entitled Liberia’s First County Service Center Relieves Citizens’ stress ), highlighted that the government of Liberia through the European Union Grant contribution is facilitating the actualization of County Service Centers in eight counties with the vision to extend to other part of the country.
This initiative was borne out of the national decentralization plan to take services closer to the people after many years of difficulties faced by rural dwellers in accessing services related to obtaining work permits, marriage and birth certificates, land deeds, business permits and registration, among others. It has become embarrassing and extremely constraint for people living out of Monrovia to frequently be in Monrovia to obtain licenses, permits, Birth and Death certificates, and other basic services which continue to inconvenience them looking at their financial potency to be in Monrovia all of the time for services that can be provided to them in their various counties.
Over the years, County Service Centers have been challenged with factors responsible for hindering the effectiveness of the centers. Some of these factors are:
This has been one of the underlying factors that continue to impede the operation of the service centers. Corruption has been deeply rooted in almost every facet of our society and at various county service centers it remains pervasive. Corruption comes about at the CSC when there is an inability of the center to provide services of a suitable quality as demanded by the Center to the people. It’s either people at the center demanding a bribe or attaching astronomical fees to various services for their own benefit. This is so common in our setting that people working at various places request for a bribe from people to do their services and because those people fear spending more to come to the Monrovia will do as requested in providing what we erroneously call ‘tip’. That’s not a tip and there is nowhere in public service one have to provide you compensation before you do your job. You are being paid by taxpayers’ money to provide service and it’s only unpatriotic to request bribes from the same citizens before you do a job for them. On the flip side, one may want to ask why Service Centers workers are engaged in bribery before providing services. Corruption at the national level has the proclivity to undermine the disposable income of a government agent in Bassa that’s working at a service center and can’t have a decent take-home pay because someone at the national level is robbing them of the financial strength to do their jobs or provide basic services that will avoid the embarrassment of people moving from around the country to come to the nation’s capital Monrovia.
A functional county service center will require the best of minds and decent public servants to effectively deliver the needed service to the people. Political Patronage has led to the recruitment of friends, and relatives at various Service centers as a means of compensating them for political support during elections. This is mostly seen in rural parts of the country where lawmakers or political candidates are the ones recommending names in return for political support. Such action has the propensity to employ uneducated people at service centers that can’t provide the quality of services needed by the people or the system. As a result of the aforementioned, the CSCs lack workers with relevant qualifications and experience to discharge quality service in an honest, transparent, fair, and satisfactory manner.
Lack of skilled, technical, and professional staff
This year I had an experience when I was writing my graduate thesis with four county Service centers (Tubmanburg, Sanniquellie, Gbarnga and Buchannan). During my interaction with most of these coordinators of these various centers, many of them complain of the lack of technically skilled people to operate their various computers and systems for the printing of the various services. This is as a result of low salary and the refusal of most technical personnel to take jobs in rural Liberia. For instance, in Tubmanburg Bomi County there is no IT Specialist to operate the computer responsible to prepare various services in the system. This has undermined the effectiveness of these service centers around the country and made their purpose useless. Amid the huge investment in TVET by donors, it’s fair enough to wonder whether it’s a struggle for better income or it’s for nation building on the part of the hundreds of graduates from various technical and vocational institutions every year. There is still much emphasis that needs to be placed on the opportunity provided in the job market for those who are graduating from the various TVET institutions and how they can be absorbed to remedy some of these situations at various MACs.
Poor Work attitude
Most county Service center workers exhibit poor work habits which are detrimental to productivity. Poor work attitudes like absenteeism, lying, indiscipline, laziness, lack of work commitment, and lateness to work. We can all argue that some of this absenteeism is due to poor pay or a lack of equity but what is paramount is the cultivation of a nationalistic mentality to serve your country regardless. Like the saying goes, “ A lackadaisical approach will produce lackadaisical results” . There is a constant tendency of most people seeking government jobs in Liberia simply because of the free will and liberty they enjoy reporting to work. Either they are coming late, neglecting workloads or staying away from work and receiving their salary at the end of the month for a job they didn’t do. Many people working in government have failed to realize that corruption isn’t just stealing money or bribing but it also has to do with government time, properties or work. The level of lackadaisical attitudes public and civil servants display on a daily basis doesn’t commensurate with the value of the taxpayers money given them at the end of every month. The Civil Service Agency needs to double up and develop a mechanism for proper employees tracking at various MACs. The introduction of the biometric tracking system and constant monitoring supported by a strong HR and M&E system will yield a value for money and bring out the needed results for efficiency and effectiveness.
Poor Road Connectivity
Those who have traveled to rural Liberia will understand how difficult it’s to move from one county to another. This is due to the bad road connectivity around the country. According to the World Bank report, secondary and tertiary road networks, which constitute last-mile connectivity in rural areas, appear in particularly poor condition. The report further mentions that 60 percent of tertiary roads are in poor or very poor condition, figures which compare unfavorably with Liberia’s neighbors (Limi & Rao, 2018). The issue of roads has a huge impact on how the people get to these various County Service Centers around the country to transact. Imagine someone leaving from Foya to Voinjama or Travelling from ITI to Cestos City to obtain a birth certificate. The road conditions are deplorable thus making County Service Centers inaccessible to the people in rural parts of the country.
Other challenges include the lack of electricity, stationary and the unavailability of some MACs at the various County Service Centers.
For instance, on April 1, 2020 the Liberia Public Radio reported that “Nimba County Service Center is threatening to shut down if nothing is done by the Central Government. Mr. Kromah decried that for the past 15 months the center has been out of stationary, electricity, and basic materials for the up keeping of the office (LPR, 2020). The lack of logistical support, bad roads, and coordination among local and national authorities also continue to hamper effective service delivery of the county service center
The County Service Center as a preliminary phase to the implementation of the National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance has had some prospects amid the challenges.
Some of these prospects include but limited to:
Since the inauguration of the first county Service Center in 2015 in Buchannan, Grand Bassa County, there has been a great sign of revenue generation by the various county service centers.
The UNDP reported in 2015 that, “ the County Service Center in Buchannan generated a revenue intake of over 10,000 US Dollars over three months”.
In 2016, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that during the period from May -September, four County Service Centers recorded over thirteen million Liberian Dollars in revenue with a breakdown of Grand Bassa CSC recording the total amount of LD 6,802,310.00, Bong County CSC recorded LD 1,635,888.6 and Nimba CSC recorded LD 890,260 while Margibi CSC recorded LD 3,747,180.00 and 46,579.22 USD.
In early 2021, the DAI Global LLC through a joint research initiative of the Governance Commission, Ministry of Internal Affairs and USAID’s Local Empowerment for Government Inclusion and Transparency (LEGIT) project conducted a revenue assessment impact of County Service Center on the government of Liberia and reported that US$ 3.76 million was generated with an annual average of USD 751,217 covering September 2016 to December 2020.
One can see this is just less than 0.7% of the national budget at a time (US$563 Million FY 2017-2018) but the prospect is high that as time passes by it will increase and it will have a positive impact on revenue generation.
One of the major aims of the Service Centers is to provide services to the people in rural Liberia and there have been some prospects in providing the necessary services to the people. As of October 2016, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that the Grand Bassa CSC reported 6,775 service users from July 2015 to October 2016, Margibi CSC reported 8,382 service users from April 22, 2016 to October 30, 2016, Bong CSC reported 4,564 service users during the same period while Nimba CSC reported 2,642 service users. Among those services, Birth Certificates recorded the highest followed by Psychosocial Services.
Since the establishment of the County Service centers around the country, there has been a massive improvement in taking some important services to the people which has helped to reduce the burden of traveling from rural Liberia to the nation’s capital to receive services like Birth certificates, Traditional Marriage certificates, western Marriage certificates, Land deeds among others.
Imagine everyone around the country who wants to obtain a traditional marriage certificate assembling at the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Monrovia on a daily basis or jamming up at the National Archive every day to receive Western Marriage certificates. The extreme inconvenience that people will have to face on a daily basis is embarrassing; that’s why the County Service Centers are here to provide service to the people and curb the inconvenience.
In 2018, the UNDP as one of the key partners in achieving service delivery to the people reported that,” more than 30,000 people have accessed 21 services nationwide. The report further noted that 70% of those receiving birth certificates are women”.
This is a process by which the agents of central government control are relocated and geographically dispersed ( Sayer et al ). With a leap in the country’s role in achieving decentralization, there has been an elephantine improvement in delegating functionaries of government Ministries, agencies, and Commissions (MACs) around the country. The establishment of the county service center has helped in reducing the burden on MACs in the capital thereby alleviating the burden of concentration of services to a single place.
The County Service Centers have served as a shining example of the successful execution of total decentralization in Liberia. We all have seen how MACs have been visible around the country through the CSC and the huge prospect of the CSC has placed the country on a path to making our dream of decentralization a reality.
Amid the challenges, we all can’t soft-pedal the immense contribution that County Service Centers bring to the governance of the state and how it takes the government closer to the people. From the dedication of the first County Service Center in Grand Bassa County in 2015 to the establishment of other centers around the country, the CSCs have brought immediate impact to service delivery to people living out of the nation’s capital Monrovia, revenue generation and deconcentration among others. The value addition and advantage of a functional County Service Centers around the country is truly enormous and despite some challenges, some of the county service centers are really making life easy for the people in rural Liberia by helping to save citizens time and money they would spend to obtain those same services by traveling to Monrovia.
There is a greater need to sustain County Service Centers around the country and the government should continue to maintain from time to time the budgetary support for operations of these centers. We know this is possible because President Weah has shown on day one his commitment to achieving the implementation of the decentralization plan the moment he signed into law the Local Government Act in 2018. There is no secret that the establishment of County Service Centers has become one of the immediate steps in the implementation of the decentralization policy. The more the government does in supporting and strengthening these County Service Centers around the country by making sure Ministries, Agencies, and Commissions (MACs) are doing the needful, the lesser the gap of disconnect between the people and their government. This will help make the people feel a part of the governance of the state most especially when they remain in the various counties and transact with the government, thus defeating the notion that Monrovia is Liberia.
The writer is a graduate of the Cuttington University School of Graduate and Professional Studies with an MPA in Local Government and Rural Development Administration. He is an Administrator and a Politician. He can be reached at [email protected]