opinionBy Stephen B. Lavalah
Before, during and after the installation of an electronic billboard ideally placed in front of the Ministry of Finance facing Board Street - Liberia's bustling street and epicenter of attraction - as an integral component for implementing the Open Budget Initiative; there have been far-reaching commendations and condemnations.
This new imported ideology has ensued into far-flung intellectual discourses and famous media talk shows in some parts of the country with diverging views being expressed in different forms and manners. In Monrovia, the discussion has taken center stage and in the limelight of almost every scholarly exchange and resourceful conversation. Around street corners and university campuses and perhaps in offices, where people from the citadel of intellectualism and cradle of intelligentsia congregate to flex intellectual muscle - this electronic billboard forms the pedestal and rudiment of the dissertation, especially among scores of young people who are so much desirous of a radical and revolutionary approach to transform and reform the country.
To take care of damage control, within a very short span of time, the Government's propagandists, high-ranking officials, and other astute members of the ruling establishment started a robust and vigorous attention-getting information dissemination to influence and ensure that all segments of the population succumb to the purported transparency and accountability strategy through the use of an electronic billboard and citizens' guide to the budget initiatives. Indeed, the Government employed all sorts of strategies to get hold of the public trust and confidence. The architects of this initiative expounded that Liberia signed the international Open Government Partnership in November 2011, which obligates the country to increase the availability of information about governmental activities, support civic participation, establish the highest standards of professional integrity, and increase access to new technologies for openness and accountability. Besides, the Ministry of Finance, which supervises Liberia's Open Budget Initiative further elucidated that the program would ensure financial commitments, enhance understanding of how taxes and grant monies are being spent, enlighten citizens of where budget money is located, track revenue flows, visualize government projects and track their actual implementation against plans as well as enable people to vision how Liberia is faring over time, compared to other West African and African countries, in developmental and demographic indices.
Howbeit, with all the promising expectations of success; many people have got gloomy hope and trust in the implementation of this initiative. Some have doubted the possibility of information such as specificity in the revenue and expenditure portion of the budget being displayed on the illuminated billboard. While a certain number of people have propounded that the entire initiative is a complete waste of donor funded resources. In the same vein, many have strongly detested that Monrovia is not Liberia and the electronic billboard was done primarily for only a few privileged Liberians and foreigners alike who probably live in the capital and have got the chance to wander Broad Street. Yet again, several individuals have debunked the essence of the well-publicized Open Budget Initiative when public officials' salaries and accompanying benefits have not been disclosed for public consumption, but rather being filed in cabinets to become stockpile without any substantive actions. Besides, some members of the ruling order and high-level officials of government are exempted from disclosure of assets due to a provision of the Freedom of Information law. So, where is the transparency and accountability when certain higher-ups in the government are being protected? Still, there are some people who questioned the authenticity of information being displayed on the billboards, because of the government consistent and persistent tendency to most often disseminate fallacious information like in the case of the much talk about 20,000 jobs per annum. As a matter of fact, considerable number of proclaimed youth leaders, zealous activists, and emerging political gurus held up placards with different inscriptions to protest against the electronic billboard on the day of the unveiling ceremony, which they claimed would in no way boost transparency, increase the fight against corruption and as well ensure the government becomes accountable to the people they serve.
Above and beyond, this initiative has become eye-catching and kick-started on a very wrong footing as claimed by some social activists and fiscal professionals. It comes at a time when bulk of the population is illiterate and cannot easily comprehend what is being shown, yet the educational system is deplorable and worsening on a daily basis. Although, the government professes that it would expand the initiative to the various counties, but one thing for sure is that majority of the people would definitely be left out due to extremely unacceptable road conditions across the country. It comes at a time when unemployment has hit the highest ceiling ever in the history of the country and many Monrovians who make their way to Board and Mechlin Streets intersection are busy looking for daily meal and have got no time to watch the giant size screen. Moreover, it comes at a time when lots of people including Senator Sumo Kupee of Lofa are complaining that approved National Budget for 2012/2013 fiscal year is up till now not in the public domain and the Senator asserted that Ministry of Finance was "micro-managing" the budget. Though, the Senator who Chairs the Senate Committee on Ways, Means and Finance was debunked, however, the hard and/or soft copy of the budget has not been made available to institutions of learning or public libraries as it was in the past. Regardless of the fact that the approved National Budget is on an official website, many people don't even have access to internet facility to obtain such vital information.
Another lost of interest for people who oppose the electronic billboard initiative is that the billboard in no way provides comprehensive duties of projects and programs to be undertaken by the government. It does not display specificity in revenue generation whether it is generated from large tax or medium tax or small tax or real estate tax or income tax or custom fees. Furthermore, loans borrowed from financial institutions and friendly nations as well as direct donor support to the budget are not put on view for the public. All the more so, opponents to the program have publicly stressed that the initiative cannot expose corruption in government, promote transparency, enhance accountability or even have a trickle-down effect on ordinary Liberians. Notwithstanding, many people are of the strongest conviction that the Open Budget Initiative in Liberia could be an additional prerequisite to obtain more loans from foreign partners so as to most likely fill the pockets and bank accounts of a few people at the detriment of the already indigent Liberians. Thus, one can mull over the actual purpose of the initiative.
Exploring the Global Concept
According to the International Budget Partnership (IBP), Open Budget Initiative is a global research and advocacy program to promote public access to budget information and the adoption of accountable budget systems. IBP launched the Initiative with the Open Budget Survey - a comprehensive analysis and survey that evaluates whether governments give the public access to budget information and opportunities to participate in the budget process at the national level. The IBP works with civil society partners in 100 countries to collect the data for the Survey. To easily measure the overall commitment of the countries surveyed to transparency and to allow for comparisons among countries, IBP created the Open Budget Index (OBI) from the Survey. The OBI assigns a score to each country based on the information it makes available to the public throughout the budget process.
Additionally, in the words of IBP: The budget is a government's plan for how it is going to use the public resources to meet the public needs. Transparency means all of a country's people can access information on how much is allocated to different types of spending, what revenues are collected, and how international donor assistance and other public resources are used. The IBP believes that open budgets are empowering; they allow people to be the judge of whether or not their government officials are good stewards of public funds. While providing the public with comprehensive and timely information on the government's budget and financial activities and opportunities to participate in decision making can strengthen oversight and improve policy choices, keeping the process closed can have the opposite effect. Restricting access to information creates opportunities for governments to hide unpopular, wasteful, and corrupt spending, ultimately reducing the resources available to fight poverty.
The IBP receives funding for the Open Budget Initiative from Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Flora and William Hewlett Foundation, and the U.K. Department for International Development. Although, the IBP does not receive funding from the United States Government; however, in Liberia the Initiative is being funded and technical assisted by the country's historic and long-term partner, the United States of America through the United States Agency for International Development project known as Governance and Economic Management Support (USAID-GEMS); and the African Development Bank through support to the Medium Term Expenditure Framework to support capacity needs.
Covering the Loopholes
The entire concept of the Open Budget Initiative as being proposed by the International Budget Partnership might seems to be a great idea, but the approach and methodology employed in its integration in Liberia has been entangled with a lot of difficulties. First and foremost, the Government must strive to regain public trust and work toward ensuring a more open government in all aspects of revenue generation, expenditure, awarding of contracts and allotment of scholarship to deserving young Liberians. Government officials must begin to fully comprehend that open budget means open government and in a democratic nation like Liberia where the Government is of the people, by the people and for the people; therefore, anyone who has got the power to dispense taxpayers' resources must be made to account for every penny. Hence, no amount display on any electronic billboard for a few people can account for any degree of transparency and accountability in this 21 Century, unless the people are empowered and equipped with the fundamental tools necessary to understand the budget process about how revenue is generated and resources being expended.
Openness is not a mere display of high monetary figure on a bright, view-friendly and towering screen in the heart of the political capital; it is the impact of the budget on the lives of every Liberian irrespective of status or creed or background. It is the prudent use of revenue accommodated, donor received and loans borrowed to build the country's infrastructural facilities to connect farm to market roads so as to enable local farmers' commodities reach market on time with less cost; ensure effective, efficient, and affordable health care delivery system; and provide quality education for all at the primary, secondary, tertiary, vocational and technical levels. Openness is not a silver-tongued and grandiloquent presentations and utterances; it is exhibition of integrity and shared commitment to account for public spending and ensure incomes and assets of every public official are monitored. Open budget should and must enable people to know what is embedded in the budget no matter the distance from Monrovia. It should provide reliable, credible and balanced information about the budget.
In so doing, the government must begin to practice transparency and accountability to the highest degree and avoid concealing financial information as being confidential. The Government must take appropriate and lawful steps to ensure Liberia's budding oil and gas sector is transparent and accountable. The double standards have got to stop and a paradigm shape must be introduced to make sure the financial transactions and operations of the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) are available to the Liberian people. More to the point, revenue collected from the sale of the oil blocks, Technical Cooperation Agreement and Production Sharing Contract must firstly be made accessible to the public so that the people can take the Open Budget Initiative serious. NOCAL should desist from intimidating investor, who intends to remain open and honest to the Liberian people. For instance, Australian oil giant African Petroleum started on Tuesday, 15th January 2013 that it has started tapping into oil deposits situated off the coast of Liberia, which estimates recoverable resources at more than 840 million barrels of oil triggered a fiery and abrupt response from NOCAL insinuating that the pronouncement for African Petroleum was a projection and not actuality. This situation leads one to wonder as to who is speaking the truth. Liberians should not be restricted from being in the know of certain financial transactions and benevolent donations. Henceforth, the detail of all revenue accumulated from all concession companies, royalties and state-owned shares in any institution must be made public if the Government intends sustain and maintain the Open Budget Initiative. In addition, germane efforts have got to be applied to ensure that the one million textbooks to children including desks and seating for ten thousand students as promised by President Bush must be accounted for and brought to full conclusion.
The Government has got to rethink and renew its quest to ensuring open budget. The people deserve to know how much is being generated in all public enterprises, ministries, agencies and corporations and not only revenue collected at the Ministry of Finance. For typical example, Liberians should be aware as to the government income that is accrued from Liberia Airport Authority, which is increasingly being caught in the web of financial malpractices because it seems not to be accountable to the Liberian people, but instead to members of the ruling order.
In this fast-moving and competitive world, where governments are becoming more open and transparent in ways that affect their people's lives, Liberia cannot adapt a framework that would keep most of its people incommunicado from the budget process, revenue generation and expenditure. There must be an approach to effectively and efficiently disseminate financial information through the participation of every Liberian. The Government has got to set precedent and prosecute corrupt officials who fail to account for the people's resources. Instead of the Government concentrating on the suspension and dismissal of officials involve in fraudulent practices, it should take further actions to ensure that the justice system is up to the task to render fair judgment without fear or favor. When the government is practical about the open budget, it should and must develop a robust mechanism to fast-track corrupt deeds not only at the lowest level, but also among higher-ups. The Government should begin to be open and reexamine its fiscal policies to better the living standards of each and every Liberian without subverting to nepotism, favoritism and sectionalism.
The government must not be the sole emperor of administering the Open Budget Initiative, but rather it should be collective endeavors from grassroots civil society organizations or international nongovernmental institutions. The civil society organizations in Liberia should wakeup, shakeup and standup to ensure that the budget is people oriented and driven. Civil society should work assiduously to inform the people about what is in the budget and exert every effort to the monitoring of the 2012/2013 fiscal budget at the national, county, district and community levels to ensure projects are being implemented in accordance with indicated plans and as well assure substantial reductions in corruption associated with public services. Together, all Liberians and civil society groups have got to make sure that Open Budget Initiative is achievable and not just another pseudo undertaking.