Last week, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf met with ranking members of the Liberian Council of Churches. The meetingwhich focused on the foundation of the Republic on Christian principles proved to be enlightening for all concerned. Hours later, through various media reports, the government became aware of an ecumenical letter from the Liberian Council of Churches over the signature of its President, Most Reverend Jonathan B.B. Hart, drawing attention to issues of corruption, education, health and poverty – issues that are inextricably linked and with which the government is seriously concerned and endeavoring to comprehensively address.
The Liberian Government views the Liberian Council of Churches as constructive partners in the ongoing process of transformation, and accordingly, treats its positions with due respect and seriousness. However, we do not believe its recent public posture tells the whole story or accounts for the progress we have achieved together.
Corruption remains public enemy number one. Describing corruption as a “vampire” is, once again, a reminder of the seriousness of this societal ill as well as the duty Liberians share to fight it everywhere – in the government, in the church, in various communities, in schools, and in our homes. Making the fight as inclusive as possible is how we will continue to be successful. There is no doubt that the Church is an enduring pillar of the Liberian State. This enviable position imposes a duty, perhaps more than on many other institutions of the Liberian society, to be joined with the government in ensuring the total health of the nation whose lifeblood corruption, the “vampire”, is desperate to suck away. And so we continue to believe we can both do more.
But the need to do more in the fight against corruption ought not to translate into an understanding by the Council that nothing has been done to fight corruption. In 2007, Liberia was included in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (CPI) Ranking. The CPI ranks countries of the world from least corrupt to most corrupt by objective measures of various independent organizations. In 2007, Liberia wallowed at the bottom ranking 150 out of 180 countries. In 2008, the country ranked 138 out of 180 countries. In 2009, Liberia advanced 41 places and ranked 97 out of 180 countries.
In 2010, the country ranked 87. In 2011, apparently distracted by the conduct of free and fair elections, Liberia ranked 91. In 2012, Liberia achieved its highest ranking and highest place of 75 out of 176 countries. In 2013, the country dropped eight places to rank 83 out of 177 countries and outperformed many of its neighbors and countries on the continent. According to the latest report for 2014, the difficult year of the Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak, Liberia ranked 94 out of 175 countries. This is the objective proof of the measure of progress in the fight against corruption.
Additionally, as has been widely reported, early next month, the country is poised to enter into Compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) from which the country is expected to benefit from a grant of US$256.7M to be largely invested in electricity and road maintenance, binding constraints to the growth of the Liberian economy, and by extension, major impediments in the efforts to improve the living conditions of our people. Under this Program of the United States Government to which Liberia has been engaged for at least three years, similarly-situated countries compete among themselves principally in areas of democratic governance and control of corruption to qualify for the much-needed grant. Liberia’s continued success over the last three years is due in no small measure to its ability to consistently pass the scorecard on control of corruption which measures the country’s efforts in fighting corruption against other countries similarly situated to Liberia.
Certainly the Council will agree that corruption is endemic – historically rendering all institutions of the society vulnerable to its cancerous embrace. This settled truth has therefore compelled two unavoidable consequences in the ongoing fight against the scourge: Firstly, that there is bound to be a perennial struggle between objective reality and popular perception about corruption. And secondly, that if we are to continue to succeed as we believe we can, then we must continue to fight corruption collectively,systemically and sustainably.
As to the struggle between objective reality and popular perception, the government continues to seek a useful balance by improving public awareness and exposing the stubborn facts of our collective progress always aware that public perception will not simply go away. Sadly, then, public posturing on this grave issue by venerated organizations such as the Liberian Council of Churches, in obvious disregard to the available objective evidence, can only fuel the inherited negative public perception about the ability of the society to wage a successful war against the “vampire”. Worst still, it leaves the unfortunate impression that corruption exists only in the government, and that only the government has a duty to fight it. On either of these counts, the resultant effect is to publicly undermine the ongoing fight against corruption.
As to fighting the public menace sustainably, the approach of the government has been to begin by deliberately and continuously addressing individual and institutional vulnerabilities including improving civil servants’ salaries and capacities within available means as well as creating and reforming public institutions. Today, there are more integrity institutions than ever, and although we are still limited by the lack of capacities and resources to do all that we wish to, yet, in public procurement, for example, we have incorporated best international practices to ensure transparency, accountability and value for money. These individual and institutional safeguards are showing signs of bearing fruits across the public bureaucracy.
The truth also is that continuous audits are now a main feature of the management of public resources – an obvious departure from the past. Through the Public Accounts Committee of the Legislature or the Courts, as deemed necessary, we continue to hold public officials duly accountable for proved abuse of the public trust. As promised, and after much-needed reforms including to the jury law, the courts have begun to produce a number of indictments and convictions of public officials for corruption-related offenses.This has brought a sustainable whole-of-government approach to fighting corruption. Also, where it has been necessary to take immediate administrative actions, pending final resolution by the Legislature or the Courts, the Executive domain has consistently done so without fear or favor.
Another important measure of proven success in the ongoing fight against corruption is the growing sense of public awareness which has now been generated against corruption, and upon which both the State and the Church must continue to build. We celebrate this significant gain even though, in the interim, it makes for many unsubstantiated claims in the public space. But we believe this is a reasonable, albeit annoying, small price to pay in this important endeavor.
Make no mistake: The fight against corruption is far from over. Throughout the ongoing efforts, we continue to remind ourselves that we are not where we know we can be. However, it is wrong for the Council to have ignored the changing reality of our circumstances, and to suggest, as it has, that nothing has been done to fight corruption.
Finally on this subject, we know the church to be a community dedicated to the spiritual and moral nurturing of its members. Today, many public officials are members of various churches in the country. Some are even serving in high positions of trust in the church. Either prior to entry into the government or while they are in the government, many of these public officials regularly fall under the moral and spiritual guidance of their clerics. To therefore suggest that the government has failed in the fight against corruption – that these same officials are somehow irredeemably corrupt –even if this were true and supported by available evidence, is to correspondingly admit the moral failing of the church for which the Council must also accept responsibility.
Regrettably, we find the Council’s position on the educational system to be wanting, and we refuse to believe that it is largely informed by the expressed need of the government to subject subsidies to private schools to increased levels of accountability. At 5,181 schools, there are more school buildings constructed across the country than ‘before the war’, and at 1.1 million students, enrolments, especially of girls, exceed the pre-war periods. Obviously, here again, we do need to renovate and construct more buildings. But as the Council will agree, schools are more than buildings.
They include teachers, over a third of which are not qualified, with for instance, up to 70% of teachers in Sinoe being untrained. As the Council knows, war drains a nation of its brains, and in the case of Liberia, effectively removed the capacity to produce possible replacements. Especially as a result of this, we are seeing our children underperform in public examinations including the West African Examinations.
The government is equally concerned that many of our schools, including private schools, are failing our children. In fact, the evidence is that the public schools are outperforming the private which are largely faith-based. As the Council knows, it takes courage in leadership to call a problem for what it truly is. And so we did. However, we have not only called a problem, we are employing resources and capacities to faithfully address the problem.
The government therefore encourages the Council’s cooperation in achieving the announced reforms in the educational system so as to provide the best quality of education to our children. The time-bound objectives of the comprehensive plan of the government includes putting in place the foundations for a Liberian educational system that improves all students’ learning by 2017, and seeing a significant improvement in children’s learning outcomes and national literacy rates by 2020. This is why the recent action by a number of private institutions, some of which are members of the Council, to enroll their students in the WAEC Exams against the directive of the Ministry of Education is unhelpful.
Of course, we wish the Council had joined us in the meeting with the students and the administration of the University of Liberia. Perhaps its position on this serious matter would have been less cynical. Suffice to say that all stakeholders in quality education at the University of Liberia need to do more. We admit that the government needs to source the means to allocate more than the current USD15M to the University. The same is true that the administration needs to do more to improve the services and quality as well as to attract additional support, and the students need to do more to purchase the quality of education that is lacking. Not only is the cost of education at the University of Liberia the cheapest in the world, at LD175 per credit hour, compared to all other tertiary institutions which are dominantly church-owned, it is by far the cheapest in the country.
Finally on this subject, we can only encourage the Council to join us in these efforts, rather than assume an unenviable seat on the sidelines.
It has been well-documented that in 2006, the country’s health care system was anything but that with, for example, only 41% of the population accessing basic health care within 5km distance or one-hour walk, with 354 health facilities serving more than three million people and accounting for a population to health facility ratio of 1:10,500 persons. The country had 3,966 health workers of which 60% were unskilled staff while 46% of health facilities were managed by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Average salary for nurses was approximately LD800 or USD15 while medical doctors received USD30 or its equivalent in Liberian Dollars.
Malaria prevalence rate was 66% as the country frequently experienced outbreaks of infectious diseases such as diarrhea, cholera and measles all of which are on the decline with malaria being reduced to 28% by 2012. In 2006, three counties had no functional hospitals and eight counties including River Gee, Grand Cape Mount, Grand Gedeh, Rivercess, Gbarpolu, Sinoe, Grand Kru and Maryland had no Liberian medical doctor to provide quality and comprehensive health services.
Prior to the EVD Outbreak, according to the WHO statistics, Liberia ranked among eight countries on the Continent to achieve under-5 mortality (MDG 4), from 194 in 2000 to 114 in 2009, recording the fastest rate of annual reduction on the Continent of 5.4%. These were achieved through a robust Public Health Care (PHC) Approach adopted by the government integrating immunization campaigns with deworming, Vitamin A supplementation as well as increasing the number of fully immunized children.
By 2009, according to the MDG 2011 Report on Assessing Progress in Africa, seven African countries, including Liberia, were classified as “best-performing in reducing Infant Mortality Rate by at least 50% between 1990 and 2009”. On account of these serious and sustained interventions, even while hosting refugees, since 2006, remarkably, Liberia has not experienced acute watery diarrhea and or cholera outbreaks anywhere in the country.
Interestingly also, since 2009, physicians have increased by 30%, while the other three core health professionals have all increased by 50-60%. Each county now has at least one medical doctor with increase in salaries for nurses from USD15 to USD275, and for doctors from USD30 to USD1575. Functional health facilities have increased by 86% from 354 in 2006 to 657 in 2015, similarly increasing access from 41% to 71% in 2013. In 2006, the per capita health expenditure was USD3.3 per person compared to USD17.2 in 2013/14, excluding donors’ funds. Importantly, since 2011, public health care services have been mandated to be free-at-point-of-use ensuring equitable access to health care by all Liberians.
There were many other notable and recorded improvements in the health sector since 2006 including the completion of two regional TB Laboratories at Phebe Hospital, in Bong County and the Liberia Government Hospital in Grand Bassa County as well as the provision of 61 clinics with solar panels in 2013. From budgetary allocation of USD10.9M in 2006, budgetary allocations to the Ministry of Health have been increased year-on-year including up to USD67.3M in 2012/13, and USD76.7M in 2014/15.
Ranging from deliveries assisted by skilled provider and antenatal fourth visits for pregnant women to receipt of all basic vaccinations for children under the age of one as well as counseling and testing for HIV, the health sector, prior to the EVD outbreak, showed appreciable levels of improvements in service delivery to our people.
Notwithstanding these accomplishments, experts are in agreement that the size and scale of the Ebola outbreak we faced would have similarly collapsed the health systems of many countries and shattered their economies. But our commitment is to rebuild a more resilient system, as has already begun, with the help and support of our partners. Again, we do not claim to have had a resilient health system but we certainly had one which was capable of responding to usual ailments, and it had increased access for more Liberians. We will continue to rebuild the health system and in that process account for the possibility of outbreaks such as Ebola, which even more developed countries have themselves admitted, the world was unprepared for.
Improving the welfare of our people is at the core of the purpose of this administration. This is why we continue to prioritize the infrastructure, especially electricity and roads, as the backbone to Liberia’s economic growth and development. The harsh truth is that of Liberia’s 10,000km of roads, only about 700km is paved. To pave the roads as we desire will cost USD2.2billion which the country does not have. However, within our means and with the support of our partners, we continue to open new access and pave more streets and highways in the country because the multiplying effect is to reduce the cost of living on our people. On Sunday, September 13, we dedicated one such project at the cost of more than USD8M to safely link the Township of Caldwell to Monrovia and as far as Kakata, in Margibi County.
The same is true about electricity and water. Although the government inherited zero operational public utility and social services in the country, all of which had broken down, been destroyed or looted, but for the disruptions caused by the EVD Outbreak, the country was on track to rehabilitate the Mount Coffee Hydro power Plant to complement other efforts at power generation and distribution across the country including in villages and towns which had never experienced such growing necessity to improvements in their living conditions since Independence. Access to safe drinking water by many Liberians has also been exponentially increased from zero when this administration came into office to at least 60 percent. Again, we are committed to doing more.
Of course the wage bill has increased due in large measure to adjustments in the income of civil servants and bringing others including healthcare workers previously paid by NGOs onto the payroll. Notwithstanding the adjustments, admittedly, there still are inherited disparities in incomes for example between doctors and politicians to which we have already objected and are currently addressing.
We do not apologize that salaries of civil servants – increased from a minimum of USD15 in 2006 to a minimum of USD125 today – must always have first claim on the budget. However, by creatively adopting the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) budgeting, we have ensured that much-needed investments in public sector improvement projects intended to significantly address poverty are included and protected in the new medium term expenditure cycle. We have also introduced the County and Social Development Funds not only to increase outlays to the counties for their development but also to increase Liberians’ participation in and ownership of the development of their villages, towns and counties.
The truth also is that under this administration, many of the inherited and challengingly high indices by which poverty is measured have been respectably, and in some cases, exponentially lowered. For instance, life expectancy in 2014 has improved to 60.6 years compared to 46 years in 1985. Each year since 2006, the country’s human development score has increased from 0.33 in 2006 to 0.41 in 2014.
According to the latest report on Liberia Food Security Assessment, food consumption has improved over the last years. An indicative trend shows that 50 percent of the population had either poor or borderline food consumption in 2006. By 2010, this rate reduced to 41 percent. In 2012, the poor food consumption households represented18 percent of the population. Today, the households characterized by poor food consumption constitute 5 percent of the population. Liberians engaged in business and with access to micro-credits and financing have also increased.
At 175 out of 187 countries, no doubt Liberia remains a poor country. But we did not become poor yesterday or last week! Our historic failures to invest in education, health, agriculture, roads, electricity, and human capacity – to pursue the collective benefits of inclusive growth – especially in the best of times inevitably contribute to the poverty of any nation. Compound that with the total implosion of the Liberian State and up to 90 percent collapse in the productive sector of the economy, the greatest by any nation since World War II – all of this just over a decade ago – as well as the complete overturn of the moral compass and it becomes easier to appreciate the remarkable resilience of the Liberian people and the achievements of their government.
Obviously, we are not overwhelmed by these accomplishments. We continue to strive to do more. But we believe that the ongoing efforts including increased public participation in national decision-making as well as programs of decentralization being diligently pursued will strengthen the foundations of change we have introduced – change in how we serve our people and provide them the tools they need to be lifted from the sinking pits of poverty. Again, we ask you to join us in these important undertakings and remain constructively involved.