Lessons learned five years down the road of implementing the Local Government Act- progress, challenges, and recommendations

By Louis Kuukpen-UNDP Liberia Deputy Resident Representative/Programme

Monrovia, Liberia; 30 May 2023: Liberia’s decentralization journey took a momentous leap in 2018 when President George M. Weah signed into law the Local Government Act (LGA). This happened after years of engagement with the Liberian Legislature to pass a law that would serve as a legal foundation for decentralization in Liberia. The enactment of the LGA reemphasized the government’s commitment to decentralization and established a clearer pathway for sustained social-economic development premised on service delivery, enhancing citizens’ participation and local government strengthening.

In 2012, a National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance was launched as a means of establishing a framework for effective and efficient service delivery at the sub-national level. The Policy also sought to enhance participatory decision-making to engender peace-building and national reconciliation as well as strengthen local planning, monitoring, and management capacity. This process was further enhanced by the setting up of County Service Centers (CSCs), “one-stop shops” that would enable citizens to access a variety of government services under one roof across the 15 political subdivisions. The CSC model, if sustained, has proven to be an effective means that could help citizens to receive services no matter where they are without traveling to Monrovia.

The CSCs have also presented a platform for social cohesion through the direct interactions of citizens, public institutions, and local government authorities. This has given the much-needed voice to citizens in decision-making processes while serving as a medium for social accountability which incentivizes improvements in the performance of local government officials and has strengthened the social contract between the state and its citizens. CSCs have also been a source for domestic resource mobilization which is vital for social economic development. Between 2016 to 2020, over 3.76 million United States Dollars were generated from service provision at the CSCs.

In 2022, about US$ 148,711.78 United States Dollars and L$12,645, 209.02 Liberian Dollars were generated from 11 of the 15 County Service Centers. With the launch of driver’s license services in Margibi and the anticipated launch in Nimba, Bong, Bassa, and Grand Gedeh counties, revenue is expected to grow further.

Despite the inflows of domestic revenues from service delivery at the subnational levels, CSCs have been faced with resource constraints that have occasionally impeded their operational efficiency. This has been further exacerbated by the very limited and untimely disbursement of resources from the central government through budgetary transfers which have hindered service delivery and lowered public confidence in the CSCs. Electricity remains a challenge in a few of the CSCs, operating equipment is absolute with most of them ageing between eight to nine years, thereby making them ineffective. 

In July 2022, the Liberian government enacted a Revenue Sharing Act (RSA) consistent with Chapter 4 of the Local Government Act of 2018. This law seeks to empower subnational structures by enabling them to receive revenues generated at the local levels through a revenue-sharing framework.

The RSA is a landmark achievement for decentralization in Liberia as it seeks to sustain the gains that have been made while enhancing service delivery and promoting local economic development. The law specifically addresses the issue of CSC’s sustainability which is vital for improved service delivery at the subnational.

Chapter 7.2 of the RSA states that 40% of all revenue generated from CSCs must be retained by local governments for its operationalization. This is extremely meaningful given the compelling need for resources to cater to the much-needed operational and miscellaneous costs associated with the functionality of CSCs.

In a similar endeavor, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and its partners are currently supporting the government to develop the Revenue Sharing Act Regulation. This is in response to section 10.1 of the RSA which mandates the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning to issue a regulation on the schedules and methods of transfers of revenues to local governments and sub-local governments.

It also calls for adherence to transparency and accountability around the utilization of funds transferred to local governments. The need for fiscal prudence and accountability in the management of resources at the subnational level is one that cannot be overemphasized. Lessons must be learned from the story of the County Social Development Fund (CSDF) implementation which has been characterized by controversies and mixed reviews.

In April of this year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Governance Commission embarked on the establishment of County Councils (CCs) across the 15 political subdivisions, with support from UNDP and partners. Chapter 2.2 of the LGA calls for the establishment of CCs in each county with the powers to promulgate County ordinances, impose local taxes, authorize the issuance of certain licenses, approve development plans and annual budgets, etc. These responsibilities are extremely vital in the implementation of the RSA and must therefore be harnessed by strengthening the capacities of CC members to effectively discharge their functions by law.

Accordingly, the task of building local government capacities, especially CC members in preparation for implementing the RSA is crucial. Strong institutions and strengthened capacities at the subnational level will play a significant role in effectuating devolved responsibilities from central to local governments. This has been a looming challenge for Liberia’s progress towards decentralized local governance which is why we must now begin planning. Appropriate capacities must be enhanced and sustained to avert centralization.

One way to go about this is to leverage the expertise of Ministries Agencies and Commissions (MACs) with specialized responsibilities by mentoring and building capacities of local structures with similar responsibilities. For example, the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) can support local governments on issues related to revenue administration while the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) handles budget and development planning as well as other fiscal-related issues.

The LRA is currently working with Margibi and Grand Bassa counties on a real estate revenue-sharing scheme that could be expanded to other counties. These are areas of low-hanging fruits that could have meaningful impacts on capacity building and knowledge transfer for local governments.

Approvals and signing authorities at CSCs remain a challenge to service delivery at the subnational level. Most MACs at the CSCs do not have the authority to sign or approve documents at their respective centers. This continues to hamper service delivery and increase the transactional cost for citizens as they usually bear the cost to get the documents in Monrovia for signatories. Experiencing such a challenge eight years after the CSCs were established undermines the concept of the de-concentration platform. We must address these concerns to avoid centralization and the relapse of the gains that have been made since the CSCs were launched in 2016.

There already exists a mechanism to address the challenges and impediments mentioned throughout this article. The Inter-ministerial Committee on Decentralization (IMCD) is a unique platform to address the fundamental challenges impeding service delivery and other decentralization-related constraints. It is the highest authority – chaired by the President with membership comprising heads of all decentralization MACs- under the institutional governance and management of the Liberia Decentralization Support Programme (LDSP) intended to address core policy issues inhabiting progress around decentralization.

Given the mandate of the IMCD, it would be wise to elevate the current decentralization challenges to this body for immediate redress. Having a functional and robust, IMCD that convenes frequently to redress these challenges will send a strong message of the government’s commitment to decentralization and serve as an impetus for others to follow. It is also an accountability mechanism that we must utilize to correct the wrong and demonstrate political commitment.

The last five years (2018-2023) have recounted some gains in the decentralization reform. These gains have largely been in the areas of legal and regulatory reforms. The passage of the Local Government and Revenue Sharing Acts are all testaments of the progress documented so far. While we relish these milestones, we are also cognizant of the ineffectiveness of some of the CSCs which has greatly affected service delivery at the grassroots and reduced citizens’ expectations of the benefits decentralization brings in an inclusive and participatory governance system.

We cannot afford to drop the ball by giving less attention to the CSCs. Government commitment to decentralization must be clearly exemplified by the resources allocated to the CSCs for their operations and the willingness to implement the Revenue Sharing Act. We need concerted efforts for a holistic implementation of the various laws; we must be systematic and deliberate to sustain the gains made.  UNDP and its partners remain committed to supporting the government to achieve its decentralization goals and call on other development partners to follow suit. Let us all challenge ourselves by committing to accelerate the decentralization agenda more than it was five years ago.

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