25 January 2013

Liberia: Wasted Money - Public Describes Open Budget Billboard

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Wednesday night (Jan 23) inaugurated an electronic billboard that will display how allocated public funds are used, but the initiative has come under mass criticism from the public who have described the efforts as a "waste of tax payers' and donors' monies".

The critics said an electronic billboard constructed at the value of at least quarter of a million United States dollars was of no use to a country that has huge illiteracy rate, that lacked good health and educational facilities and systems, and that lacked functional electricity and pipe borne water, and roads.

"This is a complete mismatched priority and a total abuse and waste of public resources," said Anderson Kimba who backed those protesting with placards during events leading to the launching of the technology.

The Government had hoped that Liberians would be proud of what their government is doing by being open on how public monies are expended, said a junior government official who felt disappointed when he saw protesters. "Look, let me tell you, those of you in the media," he stated, "this kind of development has never happened in this country, and seeing it happening should make us Liberians proud."

Preferring to remain anonymous, he quizzed: "From Joseph Jenkins Roberts [Liberia's first President, 1847] time to the brutal days of [Samuel Kayon] Doe and Charles Taylor, did the Liberian people know their own budget. Was budget ever discussed in the public? I think we should all appreciate this clear show of transparency and not condemn it."

The Ministry of Finance, under whose auspices the billboard was constructed, said board will display an updated profile of Liberia's public finances in a manner that the ordinary man and woman on the street will understand.

The US Government, via the USAID-funded Governance and Economic Management Support (USAID-GEMS) project, provided funding and technical assistance for the billboard, while the African Development Bank, through support to the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF), also provided support.

The electronic billboard facing the street in front of the Ministry of Finance - served by dynamic information systems linked into the MOF financial data - will allow the Ministry to describe and track the budget, and its execution, a statement from the Ministry's communication division noted.

"The target audience for the OBI electronic billboard is the ordinary man and woman on the street - the person who is not necessarily serviced by the internet or newspaper. The Ministry of Finance and USAID-GEMS team designed the content and layout of the billboard display specifically for this audience," the statement said.

However critics said Liberia's development needs at present were far greater than displaying information about government's spending on billboard. "What kind of concrete development is that?" Tugbeh Kayepo wondered. "Yes, this work in develop countries where people are highly educated, not here where our school are poorly financed."

Keyepo said though he has been told the money is not from government's coffer government should have told it partners to commit that huge sum of money to health and education, to building roads or to paying poor suffering teachers."

Josephine Mayango, calling herself a government employee, said "Instead of them increasing our salaries, they are here bluffing with billboard that will do nothing for us. They not serious to build this country; any information they put there is what we will believe--whether it is true or not. So, even if they chop our money our money and give us peanut that's it."

US Ambassador to Liberia Deborah Malac, whose country is said to have provided the fund for the billboard project, said the assistance was part of the US Government's support to the open government partnership which is part of global efforts to make governments around the world to be open, effective and accountable to their citizens.

The open government partnership is a multilateral initiative that is aimed at securing concrete commitment from governments to promote transparency, fight corruption and invent new technology to strengthen government, she said.

"We accept responsibility for seizing this moment to strengthen our commitment to promote transparency, fight corruption, and empower Citizens to make government more effective and accountable," she stated, commending the Liberian Government in its effort to uphold these principles to make the government more accountable.

Finance Minister Amara Konneh said the billboard was just the beginning, it was a symbol of government's commitment to openness."

Konneh said if Liberia is to grow and developed government as the keeper of the public finance, needs to have the trust of the public to know that government will deliver, but critics said construction of a billboard on which the government would put its own information does not show transparency. "Who's going to put the information? Who's controlling the resource? Will they put corruption information there to make themselves look ugly? I say big no, capital no!" blasted Morris Zinnah, a book seller on Broad Street.

As the news spread Wednesday night to Thursday morning, the public received the information with more condemnation than commendation.

Joel Ama Hansford who was among protesters told journalists in an interview that the construction of the US$250,000 billboard was "broad day robbery". "The fact that our government will construct a billboard worth 250,000 just to display what they call open budget, we think it is unfortunate. It is a complete waste of our nature resources.... They don't have access to roads and yet our government is spending all that money to erect a bill board that is far from addressing the needs of the ordinary people."

Abubakar Bah, another protester quoted by FrontPage Africa, said the billboard was a complete mockery. "It is a PR for the government; they want to use this medium to extort more money from international partners. This is to show to the partners that the government is transparent. The government is not transparent."

Bah continued that "After the budget was approved a copy was supposed to be printed into hand bills and placed in the public so that we can create the citizen regulatory role; so that we can know as wither the government is implementing what they placed in the budget. Unfortunately there are transactions going on and the budget is not in the public."

"There is a panel of experts coming to Liberia in few days that is a strategy to show the experts that President led government is transparent which is far different. This is a scheme that we are aware off."

"The government can be described as a corrupt minority rule. Why will you prefer US$250,000 billboard to civil servants and police salaries increment? "

"Today," Bah lamented, "the JFK is at the verge of being a private hospital. Today the government -own Redemption is the hospitals the produce huge deaths than they using all that money like that. That is not important for us Liberians right now. We are suffering in this country; some people don't even have food."

Continued Bah: "While children are going to school seating on the ground they are here using all that money. We in Monrovia don't even have pipe borne water like other cities, and electricity it is an irony that they are bringing an electronic bill board."

Meanwhile, it is not all Liberians who are protesting the construction of the billboard. "I think this is a wonderful achievement," Peter Bondo stated. "It means we are getting somewhere and that our government is becoming more open."

Bondo said he is quite aware that corruption will not be defeated by the Sirleaf administration because it is entrenched in society, but with this kind of openness, people can have knowledge about their paid taxes and hold them accountable. "In my mind, we are fighting corruption."

Like Bondo, Musulyne Cooper said construction of billboard to display information was universal and Liberian should learn to embrace these modern technologies, especially when it is in the best interest of the public. "We travel out of this country and see these developments and praise them, but when government and partners bring them here we complain."

"This is part of building the new Liberia we want--an open government that will not do things in the dark, one that will face the whips of the public if they hide things from us," she continued. "For me I am happy for this and I will regularly go there to see it and be informed."

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