By Alvin Worzi and Gloria T. Tamba
Against rising public expectations of empowerment by the George M. Weah-led administration, some have cautioned that the public should not expect too much too soon but others disagree.
It can be recalled that Mr. Weah was elected based on a widespread belief, particularly among young people, that because he lifted himself from grinding poverty virtually by his own bootstraps, he was perhaps the best suited, among the many presidential candidates, to lift them out of poverty.
Throughout the campaign, Weah touted himself as the poor man’s candidate: one who has lived in and experienced poverty first-hand and who, by virtue of his upbringing in very lowly circumstances, was the right man for the job.
This point was driven home by President Weah during his inaugural address when he stated, among other things, his style of governance will be “pro-poor,” while sounding a caveat that the country is broke, its economy in a tailspin.
“I declare publicly today that transforming the lives of all Liberians is a singular mission and focus of my presidency,’’ he said.
But barely two months following his declaration, President Weah’s professed commitment to pro-poor governance was called into question when he announced plans to visit Senegal, Morocco and France and said that his state visit to the latter, his first since assuming office, was being entirely funded by the French government.
To the contrary, however, information filtered into social media disclosing that the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Nathaniel McGill, had submitted to the Finance Ministry a funding request of US$52,721, to underwrite the cost of the trip to France. The whistle-blower, an employee of the Central Bank, was arrested allegedly on the orders of Presidential Affairs Minister Nathaniel McGill.
But his disclosure immediately sent tongues wagging about the size of the 18-man delegation, too large in the eyes of the public, and the amount requested which was seen as unreasonable.
This was apparently because the visit was said to be at no cost to the public, especially since President Weah had publicly declared that the country was broke and its economy in a tailspin.
As the government struggled to deal with the fallout of the bomb-blast disclosure, calls mounted for the immediate and unconditional release of the whistle-blower. He was later released without charges.
Fast forward to March, public concern has been drawn to the national budget. Just last week, the House of Representatives passed the 2018-2019 budget totaling US$536, 200, 130 of which US$9.6 million was reserved for implementing President Weah’s pro-poor agenda for the remaining four months of the 2017-2018 budget year.
In the wisdom of officials, the budget recast was necessary not only to assure continuity and avoid a shutdown of government activities but more importantly to afford President Weah the opportunity to focus on deliverables and tangibles with a strong pro-poor bent, with only four months left to the end of the 2017-2018 fiscal period.
Some details of the recast budget, out of which US$9.6m was set aside to implement President Weah’s pro-poor agenda, for instance include: US$1.9 million to pay West African Senior School Examination (WASSCE) fees for about 32,000 12th graders in public and private schools; US$600,000 to maintain traffic and street lights in Monrovia; US$300,000 to create digital registration and install Wi-Fi on key locations on UL campus; US$500,000 for equipment upgrade at John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital and US$1 million for a government-backed credit line to stimulate private sector economic activities.
Others include: US$500,000 for national identification card; US$400,000 to expand schools under the Partnership for Schools in Liberia; US$500,000 for humanitarian outreach programs to be implemented by First Lady Clar Weah; US$200,000 to conduct feasibility for a proposed military hospital; US$1 million for Loguatuo Road in Sanniquelle; US$200,000 to repair public buses; and US$2 million for road maintenance nationwide.
However, some Liberians have raised concerns that many of these projects will have little or no impact on the poor. The Daily Observer has been sampling views from the public as to what they expect to gain from the recast budget, which is supposed to have a strong pro-poor bent.
Gerald Dan Yeakula, Program Manager for Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL), describes the initiative by the Weah-led government as a real pro-poor agenda, especially looking at the payment of WASSCE fees and digitalizing of the state-owned university.
Mr. Yeakula at the same time frowned on the provision of US$500,000 to the first lady of Liberia, indicating there are no guidelines on how the money provided to the first lady will be spent, noting: “We even need to know if the money is subject to audit.”
“We need to have institutions taking these initiatives and not individuals, especially the first lady. We even need to direct some of the funds to the health centers, which will ensure that people have access to healthcare which will also speak pro-poor governance,” he said.
Yeakula also questioned giving the First Lady US$500,000 for humanitarian outreach over the next four months. The first thing the public wants to know is what kind of programs will be funded with this money?
The money, he said, could be used to strengthen the Liberian Red Cross and the Liberia National Fire Services, to provide relief services to less fortunate communities.
“We need to build institutions, not people, because after those people shall have left, Liberia will have nothing to celebrate,’’ he said. “President Weah is more interested in his family than the Liberian people,” he said.
He lauded the new government for outlining these areas or projects, which indicates high level of transparency. The government should be clear on explaining where the remaining funds will go.
Mr. Yeakula said, “We are against this US$400,000 being allocated to Partnership Schools in Liberia.We will need some explanation from the Ministry of Education regarding how they derived at supporting the partnership for schools in Liberia. We want to see Liberia return to its traditional school system,” he said.
He said there is a need for the government to have a one-school system that will incorporate and not separate schools, with some students benefiting while the rest of the public and private schools are undergoing some challenges.
Commenting on the allotment for the private sector development, Mr. Yeakula said there is a need to stop ministers and other officials who do not have businesses to benefit from the funds.
“This will separate the new government from the previous government. We need to have the real businesses benefiting from this money. At one point in time, people benefited from taxpayers’ money and today, many of those businesses do not exist,” he recalled.
He called on the new government, particularly the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP), to work closely with the Liberia Business Association (LIBA) and other relevant institutions, to ensure that real businesses are identified and given priorities.
Amin Modad, owner of Bella Cassa Hotel and the new factory that produces PUR water and fruit juices, said the government did not put a lot of thought in developing the pro-poor agenda. He questioned the plan to spend US$200,000 to conduct a feasibility study for a military hospital.
The government, he said, needs to focus on upgrading and improving the facilities and services at John F. Kennedy referral hospital in Monrovia, to serve all people including the military, not try to build a state-of-the-art health facility when the existing medical facilities are struggling.
The government, he said, could build a clinic for the military, but spending US$200,000 on a feasibility study for a military hospital is not the best use of scarce resources.
“The government needs to start with a clinic and give more support to the John F. Kennedy Medical Center,’’ Modad said. “They can also support some of the referral health-centers around the country, instead of jumping straight to hospital.’’
Defense Minister Daniel D. Ziankahn said the US$200,000 covers the feasibility study and the groundbreaking of the proposed hospital.
“The US$200,000, which was approved, is not meant for the building of the hospital but the money is there in order for us to know how the facility of the modern hospital would be and this is intended to provide better healthcare services to our soldiers,” Ziankahn said.
Minister Ziankahn told the Daily Observer newspaper that the feasibility study included the groundbreaking ceremony of the proposed military hospital near the Schiefflin military barracks.
In an exclusive interview with a number of soldiers at separate locations in Monrovia, several soldiers said they appreciate the idea of a military hospital, which they described as very significant to their well-being.
Some also pointed out that despite the fact that they welcome the idea of a military hospital, they are concerned about the deplorable housing conditions.
“The living condition of the soldiers so far is not in a good situation because soldiers are living in a one bedroom with their families, while others have two smaller bedrooms in accordance with ranks,” a soldier disclosed to our reporter.
The reporter observed that the lack of safe drinking water, electricity, poor healthcare delivery system and lack of better bathrooms, are also a major challenge.
“We also go out of electricity for days,” a soldier told the Observer.
He said the engineering company of the AFL, along with other international experts, will do the feasibility study while the engineering battalion will carry out the construction of the military hospital.
Housing is a priority because “right now we don’t have good place to lay our heads,’’ said one soldier, who did not want to be identified.
About nine soldiers interviewed Wednesday said they were afraid to use their names for fear of losing their jobs or getting in trouble with the new government.
Another soldier said: “We hope that the President will quickly look into constructing or renovating our housing facilities, so as to enable us to live better lives and continue to defend our nation.’’
Samuel Dean, chairperson of the Disabled of Like Mind For Good Governance, said the First Lady’s humanitarian outreach should include renovating government buildings to provide shelters for people with physical and mental disabilities. Many of them are homeless and spend most of their lives on the streets.
“We need a psychiatric home that will take care of our brothers and sisters in terms of treatment and other needs,’’ Dean said. “This home or place should help to monitor them and provide some level of care, including cutting their hair and providing clothes for them, among others.
“Some of the funds should also be used to build a kitchen that will serve hot meals to people with physical and mental disabilities.
“We need to ensure that mentally ill people do not eat from the garbage, but eat nutritional food, and get regular medical checkup,’’ he said. “I strongly believe that some of them just need care to recover from their conditions.”
John Stephens, a resident of Du-port Road 37, who lost his right leg during the civil war, is hoping some of the pro-poor money reaches people like him. .
“I want to hear about free education for the disabled and physically challenged people across Liberia,’’ Stephen said. “I also want to see homes built in the various counties for us. This will shelter some of our brothers and sisters who don’t have a place to stay.’’
Felecia Kortu, a junior student of the Seventh-day Adventist on the Somalia Drive, is happy that her parents will not worry about her national exam fees.
“If the West African Senior School Certificate Examinations (WASSCE) fees were not taken care of by the government, many parents will not be able to afford paying such money,’’ she said. “The government did well to remove such payment from our parents’ shoulders.’’
Kortu welcomes the humanitarian outreach fund reserved for the First Lady’s projects because it has the potential to improve the lives of children.
“We have people who are really suffering and need such money to help improve their lives,’’ she said. “I hope that some of the children who are selling in the streets will benefit from it,” she said.
Sam Mitchell, owner of the Corina Hotel and former president of the Liberian Business Association (LIBA), said the $1 million earmarked to boost private sector development should include petty traders and small-medium enterprises, not people like him with well-established businesses.
The government, he said, needs to empower and relocate the petty traders, a move that will build their capacity to begin generating revenue for the government.
“Government needs to locate areas or places for these petty traders to go, because they are all in the streets and don’t have anywhere to go,’’ he said.
Other countries such as Ghana have designated areas for petty traders.
In the past, government-backed private sector initiatives did not have an impact because of the lack of proper planning and implementation.
Grace Bryant, who sells socks, underwear, t-shirts, juices, biscuits, candy, among others, at ELWA Junction, said the rise in the U.S. dollar rate is a major problem for petty traders.
“I want the government to focus on dropping the exchange rate that will help small business people, including me,” she said.
Sarah Flomo, a mother of two who sells slippers at Waterside, said the $1 million for private sector development should target existing businesses, not launch new businesses.
“I want the government to think about us who are under the sun selling,’’ she said. ‘’I also want them to build a place that everyone can go instead of sitting in the sun from morning to night.’’
Sam Mannah, presidential press secretary, said the First Lady’s humanitarian outreach will focus on orphanages and disadvantaged youth. The First Lady will provide details of her plan later, he added.
“Most of the First Lady’s initiatives have been directed towards orphanage homes,’’ he said. “She visited several orphanages recently and donated to help them.’’