FrontPageAfrica (Monrovia)

22 July 2014

Liberia: Open Budget National Awareness Campaign Launched in Buchanan

Buchanan — The Center for Media Studies and Peace-building, (CEMESP) has in concert with the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning hosted a successful launch of the Open Budget national awareness campaign in the Port City of Buchanan, Grand Bassa County.

The program attracted officials of the Ministry of Finance including the outgoing Deputy Minister, Sebastian Muah. The designated Deputy for Budget Madam Tanneh Brunson, who delivered the keynote address on behalf of the substantive Minister Amara Konneh said President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had at the launch of the OBI Electronic billboard supported by USAID, expressed her belief in transparency and accountability in all fiscal matters.

Deputy Minister designate Tanneh Brunson disclosed that Liberia has vast needs with a small resource envelope in the excesses of 500 million dollars. She said under the current budget regime the government takes the hard decision in reducing waste by, for instance, cutting down cost on fuel.

She described the Open Budget Initiative as a rallying call by development partners in ensuring sustainable development in a fragile democracy as Liberia transitions from war to peace. She said giving out budgetary information empowers CSOs to use it as a monitoring tool. She added that a few years back the government of Liberia introduced the Medium Term Expenditure framework with multiple year targets aligned to development priorities under the Agenda for Transformation that feeds into the Vision 2030.

She disclosed that in the first year of implementation of the Medium Term Expenditure Framework the government of Liberia has recorded successes, especially in the acceleration of investment, while cutting down recurrent spending.

She said the country had huge external debts, but under President Sirleaf waivers were granted based on impressive fiscal and structural improvements. She suggested that this policy direction within which context the OBI is conceived helps Liberia to grow, reduces fraud on payroll and improve service delivery in health, education and other sectors in the public sectors. She said with the imminent UNMIL drawdown the government is targeting the financing of the security sector to ensure the peace attained cannot be reversed. In this regard, she said, the government of Liberia has set targets for the army, Police and other security units grow annually.

The Deputy Finance Minister inheriting the Open Budget Initiative, said that the government under the existing budget is making strides in the prioritization of road construction and energy with huge allocation made to the revamping of the Mount Coffee Hydro that enhances the business environment. She used the occasion to thank the array of development partners that continue to support Liberia in recovering from the shattering effects of the war to transform the country in a middle income country by 2030.

Madam Tanneh Brunson said, bringing the OBI down to the people is intended to consult with them, as it were in the formulation of the Agenda for Transformation and urged all Liberians to be interested in promoting budget transparency by accessing the available information in monitoring various development projects in their counties and communities.

Earlier, the outgoing Deputy Minister of Finance Sebastian Muah, who had presided over the Open Budget from conception said this will be his last assignment under the portfolio has been transferred to the Liberia Telecommunication Corporation. He gave an overview of the process, defining the national budget as a list of priority spending areas of government. He averred that in spite of all the challenges, there are tangible impact not that the budget from the end of the war was in the region of eighty plus million dollars to the over half a million.

He said if that is divided among the citizenry, it will be very minimal. He argued resources untapped cannot be considered as money. Displaying the citizens guide to the people of Buchanan, he remarked that the bulky nature of the national budget is not reader friendly, hence their effort in have a distilled version with illustrations that could be easily grasped by the people, who are to use it in holding their authorities accountability.

He said before now the budget was for the elites, but the OBI is changing by providing access to the people see what allocations are made by the government. He spoke to some NGO billboards showing no evidence of work done, as the same situation happening with government spending to education, health and other public service delivery area and infrastructural investments, but the people are saying there is nothing to show for it. He said first the people were sleeping, but need now wake up and grab the opportunity provide by the OBI to monitor projects funded by the national budget. He revealed that after reading their prepared Citizen Guide to the Budget, the Supt. of Grand Bassa told him that most of the monies itemized for the county did not reach them.

He expressed hope that the decentralization regime will change all that. He said Liberia joined some two hundred plus countries that have signed onto the Open Governance Partnership, under which the open budget is subsumed, noting that the country is making progress in transparency indices, beating countries in the sub region.

Grand Bassa Supt. Madam Etweda Cooper confirmed the claim adding that even as they have control over Social Development Funds, "we get approval from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, before funds are released." She disclosed that Chevron for instance refused to disburse their money because people were grumbling. Whilst welcoming the OBI team, including staff of CEMESP, she admonished her citizens to always come to the appointed Information Officer and seek clarification on budgetary issues.

She disclosed that the budget shortfall affected them resulting to delay implementation of projects. She urged her people to pay their taxes and expect services from them, saying put your mouth were your money is. She said it bothers them that the people don't understand the issues, appealing to CEMESP to in future organize similar budget related forum, where the people will better appreciate and use the budget information to influence positive development outcomes.

CEMESP Executive Director Malcolm W. Joseph whilst introducing the program reminded the people about their participatory space under the budget as a cardinal requirement of the OBI. He said what unfolded signals the countrywide mass education of the citizenry on what OBI represents for positive transformation in Liberia.

There was a question and answer session whereby the people of Grand Bassa asked a range of pertinent questions such as: what happens to those who eat government allocated money, the issue of dual currency in Liberia, how participatory is the conceptualization of priorities, why more money is spent on administration than service delivery, who and how much Liberia is owing in foreign debts, among other things. CEMESP Program Assistant Tennen B. Dalieh, who was master of ceremony came in handy to interpret some of the statements that came from the high table.

Speakers after speakers provided answers to these questions as a source of enlightenment and inspiration for better understanding. Beside the question and answer session, remarks were made by resident Grand Bassa youths, CSO and women representatives-all pledging to work towards budget transparency and accountability.

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