Liberia: New Budget Law Seeks to Keep Concession Fees in Local Communities

The Natural Resources Management (NRM) coalition, supported by USAID Liberia Accountability Voice Initiative (LAVI), brought superintendents, civil society organizations and project coordinators from Liberia's 15 counties for a two-day workshop in Buchanan to educate them about the new budget law governing the County and Social Development Fund (CSDF).

The training, according to a press release from LAVI, was held from Oct. 18 and 19, 2019 in partnership with USAID Local Empowerment for Government Inclusion and Transparency (LEGIT).

About 80 people gathered at the Buchanan City Hall to learn about Section 10 of the 2019-2020 Budget Law, standard operating procedures for the County Sitting, how to monitor the County Sitting where CSDF projects are identified and the progress being made to pass the stand-alone CSDF bill.

The 2019-2020 Budget law includes many of the propositions in the CSDF bill such as the creation of an escrow account at local banks, so that the communities can have more control over the fees paid by concession companies for operating in the county; the three-member Project Management Committee (PMC) must be elected every three years; women must make up 25 percent of delegates to the County Sitting; Civil Society Organizations must monitor the County Sitting; Removal of the PMC requires a simple majority of County Sitting delegates; counties must submit financial report on how they spent previous funds; and legislators will preside over County Sitting, but not have voting rights.

The NRM, a coalition of eight civil society organizations, has been working on CSDF reform since 2016. In the last three years, the coalition engaged legislators and citizens in Liberia's 15 counties on the impact and challenges of the CSDF. The NRM Coalition members include: Liberia Media Center (LMC), Partner for Democratic Platform (P4DP), Institute for Research & Democratic Development (IREDD), Partnership for Sustainable Development (PaSD) Development Education Network Liberia (DEN-L), Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), Rural Human Rights Activists Program (RHRAP) and NAYMOTE.

During the engagements, citizens pushed for greater participation on the development of projects and more transparency and accountability.

In response to the citizens' concerns, the Legislature amended the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 National Budget Law and promised to continue working on the proposed stand-alone CSDF bill.

Four Legislators in the persons of: Deputy Speaker Prince Moye, District 2, of Bong County; Representative Larry Younquoi, of District 8, Nimba County; Francis Dopoh, District 3, River Gee County; and Rep. Thomas Gosha, chair of the Grand Bassa Legislative Caucus -- attended the event. All expressed optimism that the stand-alone bill will be passed.

Deputy Speaker Moye thanked USAID LAVI and the NRM coalition for leading the CSDF reform effort and pledged his support for the stand-alone bill."When the CSDF is properly utilized, it benefits us because our citizens will receive the social benefit," Moye said.

Rep. Younquoi, the bill's sponsor, said the amendments to the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 Budget laws are a strong indication that there is political will to pass the stand-alone CSDF bill.

The creation of an escrow account will ensure that fees paid by concession companies stay in the counties, instead of in the coffers of the central government, he said.

"We are developing political will," Rep. Younquoi added, informing the gathering that ArcelorMittal recently told the Executive Branch that, starting January, it will pay the 20 percent social development fees to the counties it operates in, not the central government.

Younquoi said the Legislative caucuses of Bong, Nimba and Grand Bassa counties endorsed ArcelorMittal's plan.

He said the company's decision is partly the result of the NRM's engagement with legislators and citizens around the country on CSDF reform.

"The different talk shows and other engagements enlightened citizens about what they are entitled to, so they are putting pressure on these companies," Younquoi said. "ArcelorMittal has been paying the fees to government, but most of the money don't reach the communities."

Rep. Dopoh said the training provided an opportunity to educate local officials and CSOs about the new budget law and the efforts being made to pass the stand-alone bill.

"This has been an eyeopener," he said. "When laws are being made, it's a give and take. This process showed that there is a need for coordination across the board."

The participants said the workshop increased their understanding of the CSDF reform. They said they were glad to hear the legislators commit to passing a stand-alone CSDF bill.

Samuel Outland, Rivercess County coordinator of the National Union of the Disabled, said he supports the creation of the escrow account and CSOs monitoring of the County Sitting.

"We will be better prepared for the next County Sitting," he said. "In the past, citizens were not involved, that's why so many CSDF projects failed or didn't really benefit the people."

Bong County Superintendent Esther Walker said local officials now have a better understanding of the budget law and how they should use it to plan for the County Sitting. County Sitting are required to be held during the Legislative break.

"We need transparency with the CSDF, so that it can benefit citizens," she said.

USAID's Mission Director Sara Walter said she is pleased with Liberia's progress in reforming the CSDF process.

She told the participants that their presence at the workshop was an indication of their commitment to improving the management of the CSDF, so that development projects can impact citizens.

"Passage of the stand-alone CSDF bill will serve the interest of all Liberians," Walter said. "USAID is proud that this intervention supports the government of Liberia's overall decentralization agenda."

USAID LAVI's Chief of Party Milica Panic reechoed Walter's sentiments about gains that have been made in reforming the CSDF process and underscored the need for the Legislature to pass the stand-alone CSDF bill.

She thanked the Legislature for listening to the voice of the Liberian people by passing amendments to Section 10 of the 2019-2020.

"In order to institutionalize these important changes, I would like to urge the Liberia Legislature to pass the stand-alone bill in the next sitting," Panic said. "The recent amendments, particularly ones related to delegate selection and county escrow accounts, are strengthening transparency of county sittings and building on the amendments to Budget law 2018-2019."

Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Momolu Johnson thanked USAID LAVI for supporting the CSDF reform process. The new amendment to the budget law and the stand-alone bill will ensure that the CSDF process is transparent, and citizens are more involved, he said.

The two-day event ended with participants signing a communique representing their inputs to the draft stand-alone CSDF bill that is currently in the House of Representatives. The communique highlights issues ranging from the structure and management of the CSDF, the Escrow Account, CSO participation in the County Sitting among others.

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