Towards a Partnership Role for Liberian NGOs in National Development
By Geepu-Nah Tiepoh

There is an ongoing debate as to whether the world has already achieved or is in the process of fast achieving a truly globalized economy in which the state has lost all regulatory ability and should therefore allow international markets to decide domestic economic and social outcomes. For example, in "Globalization in Question" (1996), Hirst and Thompson argue that if economic globalization means an increased geographical coverage and a footloose' movement of foreign capital across nation-states, then the world economy is far from being globalized because, in the last half of this century, the cross-border flow and distribution of foreign capital has remained largely concentrated in North America, Europe and East Asia. For them the state in developing countries can and should still play an effective role in regulating international markets and providing domestic economic services. Others, however, see a truly globalized economy in which the nation-state is already powerless and irrelevant. In his many writings, such as "The Borderless World" (1990) and "Putting Global Logic First" (1995), Kenichi Ohmae has insisted on this omnipotent view of global markets and called on governments to withdraw from economic activities.

Whatever way one wishes to define the current trends toward economic globalization, the fact is that this concept has now developed into a definite political and corporate movement in which those who see a merit in globalized markets are working diligently to have globalization succeed. In this process, governments around the world, especially those in Africa and other developing areas, are demanded to play their parts in achieving the globalization agenda. The resulting pressures, aimed at reducing state economic regulations and public services, are helping to marginalize the poor in society. Moreover, the heavy burdens of debt crises and adjustment and the socioeconomic impacts of civil strife are compounding the plight of the disadvantaged. In these circumstances, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have a critical role to play in national development. This article looks at some of the ways and conditions in which NGOs and government can work together to promote economic and social development in Liberia.

The definition of "nongovernmental organizations" is quite fluid. However, in this article, we describe NGOs as groups which operate on a nonprofit basis in the public interest. They are usually volunteer-based relief and development agencies working internationally and/or locally to promote humanitarian assistance, socioeconomic development, poverty alleviation, and social justice. NGOs should not be confused with the bilateral, multilateral, and other international development agencies such as the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), US Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Nations and its specialized agencies, the World Bank, and regional development finance institutions, and so forth. These are largely funding agencies which channel development and relief aid to countries through governments and grassroots NGOs.

The outbreak of civil war in 1989 brought a proliferation of NGOs in Liberia. In 1991 the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) recognized, at the United Nations, no less than 20 major international NGOs operating in Liberia, namely the Action Internationale Contre La Faim, Medicines Sans Frontiers of France, Catholic Relief Services, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Church World Service, Community of Caring, Plan International, World Vision, Adventist Development Relief Association, Baptist Relief, Oxfam, Save the Children Fund, Concern, GOAL, German Emergency Doctors, International Committee of the Red Cross, Lutheran World Services, Medicines Sans Frontiers of Belgium, Medicines San Frontiers of Holland, and the Swedish Relief Corporation. In addition to these, Liberians themselves formed a number of new NGOs or revitalized existing ones, such the Christian Health Association of Liberia (CHAL); Liberian Committee for Relief, Resettlement, and Reconstruction (LICORE); Interfaith Refugee Organization of Liberia; SUSUKUU Inc; Catholic Justice and Peace Commission; Special Emergency Life Food (SELF); and the Center for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE). Throughout the 1990s, human rights and other NGOs have multiplied to a degree that there are now two major coalitions of domestic human rights groups in Liberia, namely the National Human Rights Center of Liberia with 12 member organizations; and the Liberia Federation of Human Rights Organizations with four member groups. Thanks to the sacrifices of these international and local NGOs, pangs of hunger and diseases were reduced during the war.

How should this "NGO revolution" be encouraged and channeled into a productive development partnership between government and non-governmental organizations in Liberia? There are at least two broad levels on which local Liberian NGOs can be encouraged to assist government in promoting economic and social development. The first is at the grassroots and civil society level. It is popular knowledge that no development process can succeed without broad participation of people. Liberian NGOs can help mobilize various elements of civil society to have a voice in economic and social policy debates and decision-making, and they can help explain the benefits and costs of various policy options so that people are well-informed to influence development in positive directions. However, for NGOs to effectively play such roles, there has to be a shift in the culture of how the Liberian state views NGOs. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently remarked in Berlin, "not all governments are eager to promote the involvement or even the existence of NGOs. After all, the raison d'être of many NGOs is to put pressure on governments and "hold their feet to the fire." For Liberian NGOs to play a crucial role in galvanizing civil society for development, government must see them not as enemies but as partners in development. Past and recent Liberian history is marked with instances of state confrontations with and attacks on NGOs. On the other hand, Liberian NGOs must view the evolution of conflicts in society from a holistic perspective, in that they must realize that certain conflicts may exist among various elements of civil society itself and not necessarily with government. Furthermore, local NGOs should strengthen their technical and resource capacities by forging productive ties with their counterparts in developed countries.

The second level on which Liberian NGOs can be encouraged to play a meaningful development partnership role is international. As noted earlier, the combined forces of globalization, debt crises and economic adjustment have weakened the economic role of governments, especially in developing countries. Liberian NGOs can assist government in influencing international trade, investment, and donor policy behavior towards Liberia by participating in international NGO forums, bilateral and multilateral policy debates involving Liberia's interests. They can articulate the country's socioeconomic position at international forums and help influence sustainable foreign aid, debt and adjustment policy attitude towards Liberia. However, for Liberian NGOs to perform such a crucial role, they must be involved and have a voice in national development policies and programs in order to be well-informed and capable of international participation. NGOs cannot blindly seek improvement in international economic policy for Liberia. Furthermore, in order for NGOs to be effective in influencing global economic policy, government will have to agree that NGOs' advocacy for democracy, human rights, and management accountability is critically essential for national economic advancement and, therefore, it will have to assist NGOs by abandoning non-democratic behavior and fiscal corruption. Efforts by NGOs to seek improved global economic environment for Liberia will not succeed while government tramples on basic human rights at home and indulges in economic mismanagement.

The current NGO upsurge in Liberia needs to be utilized fully. It should be channeled into a productive development partnership between government and the NGO sector. This requires that Liberian NGOs be encouraged by government to mobilize civil society to have a role in economic and social policy in order to influence national development in positive ways. It also means that government will have to shed its age-old culture of viewing NGOs as enemies and accept them as partners in development. Also, Liberian NGOs have to realize that not all conflicts in society have their roots in state behavior but that some conflicts and problems may evolve among various segments in civil society itself. Furthermore, as pressures of economic globalization, debt crisis, and adjustment weaken the economic role of nation-states, Liberian NGOs can assist in national economic development by joining other NGOs and playing an influential role in international trade, investment, and donor policy debates, thus advancing Liberia's socioeconomic interests. Such a role, however, requires that Liberian government involve NGOs in national development policies and programs and consider democracy and human rights as essential elements of the national development process. The challenge is ours.

Geepu-Nah Tiepoh is a development economist and consultant, ACLAD Development, Canada

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