By Anderson D. Miamen
Roles Played by CSOs
Civil Society Organizations were actively involved with the fight against Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Liberia in 2014. There was strong partnership with government, which allowed them to meaningfully contribute, individually and collectively. A Civil Society Ebola Task Force was established and undertook key activities that meaningfully contributed to Liberia’s successful fight against Ebola. In August 2014, the Task Force launched its outreach and sensitization campaign in Monrovia. This was followed by distribution of essential supplies and sensitization campaigns in various counties, in close partnership with community-based organizations, community radio stations, community leaders, etc. The group also advocated for more resources, when government’s response capacity seemed overwhelmed by the Virus. A position statement, signed by forty-five (45) CSOs and partners was issued in September 2014, making a clarion call to the world for logistical, financial and technical support to deal with the outbreak. Besides, the Task Force monitored proceedings and called for accountability and transparency in how Ebola Resources were being managed, based on media reports and excesses observed.
At the end, there was one overarching result: a successful fight against Ebola through joint efforts of government, civil society, media, and other individuals and groups. An inclusive and well-coordinated fight that attracted inputs from diverse stakeholders. For example, the advocacy for support yielded results, as development partners provided much-needed resources that capacitated Liberia to robustly deal with the Epidemic. Sensitization efforts in the counties and communities, through the Task Force and individual civil society organizations and networks, increased citizens’ access to relevant information and empowered them to demand accountability and observe safety measures announced by authorities. Individual civil society organizations also monitored proceedings and independently reported on the response efforts, thereby increasing public access to pertinent information. Simply put, there was strong collaboration and partnership with government, which was essential for an inclusive, well-coordinated and successful fight.
Patterns of CSOs’ Exclusion in COVID-19 Fight
The strong partnership and inclusion that characterized national efforts against Ebola should be replicated to win the war against COVID-19. In part, the necessary enabling environment must be created and partnerships forged between government, civil society, media and communities. But at the moment, we are not seeing such level of inclusion and partnership. Independent Civil Society remains largely excluded by Government, although they remain engaged and contributing in many ways. While the nomination of civil society to the 20-member food support program committee is welcoming, it does not represent the leverage and space required to significantly influence critical decisions and processes. So far, Civil Society organizations are excluded from institutions and groups allowed to be in the streets and outdoor beyond 3PM, in the wake of the State of Emergency announced by President George Manneh Weah on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Also, a communication from the Liberian National Police and Joint Security Task Force Chairman, dated April 15, 2020, ignores civil society as part of sectors and institutions sanctioned to be outdoor during the State of Emergency, apart from the one hour given one member of each household to acquire food and other basic supplies. Additionally, there’s limited or no representation of independent civil society as mainstream decision-maker on national structures established to lead ongoing COVID-19 fight in Liberia.
While this does not entirely preclude CSOs from contributing, it poses immense challenges for their work. Access to relevant information and key facilities are limited, thus impeding monitoring and reporting on enforcement of the State of Emergency; compliance with safety measures announced by authorities; interventions of government and other partners; and utilization of COVID-19 resources. Also, the lack of representation on the Special Presidential Advisory Committee on COVID-19 (SPACOC) and the Executive Committee on Coronavirus (ECOC) means there’s limited opportunity to timely influence decisions made by structures coordinating national response efforts.
The Need for Greater Involvement and Partnership
While the fight against Ebola was successful, it was characterized by corruption and other excesses, which must be prevented, as the country fights against COVID-19. For example, after auditing only a fraction ($15m) of the funding available to the Government of Liberia for Ebola response, the General Auditing Commission (GAC) found that nearly $800,000.00, most of which passed through the Defence Ministry, could not be accounted for. “The conduct of the affairs of the National Ebola Trust Fund [NETF] were marred by financial irregularities and material control deficiencies for a number of transactions carried out by the Incident Management System and the eight implementing Partners of the NETF,” the General Auditing Commission said in its 2015 report on the Ebola Trust Fund.
Liberians do not want a repeat of the situation, which would undermine ongoing response efforts. Enormous resources have already begun pouring in from government and partners. The World Bank has announced approval of a $7.5 million International Development Association (IDA) financing to help Liberia respond to the threat posed by the Coronavirus outbreak. This complements ongoing support provided through the Second Regional Disease Surveillance Systems Enhancement (REDISSE II) project, which has made available up to $9.5 million for the response. Other partners have contributed resources, including but not limited to $50,000 USD from Orange Liberia, $20,000 USD from Eco-Bank Liberia, and assorted materials donated by the Liberia Bankers Association. Additionally, the Government of Liberia has announced a $25 million funding to provide food, electricity and other essential services to citizens during the outbreak.
While these donations are welcoming, the need for proper management and accountability cannot be overemphasized, given the country’s protracted history of corruption and mismanagement. Accountability mechanisms must be strengthened and timely updates provided to the public on the number of COVID-19 Cases and resources received and expended. And independent civil society must be allowed to actively participate in, monitor and influence key decisions around the fight. While the involvement of civil society does not guarantee zero corruption, it will help to keep things in check and increase stakeholders’ confidence in how key decisions reached are implemented, monitored and reported on to the public.
Avenues for Continuous Involvement, Likely Options:
In spite of the outcomes of any ongoing engagements and advocacy for full inclusion, civil society must remain steadfast and focused on delivering on their mandates. If the exclusion persists, it should serve as motivation for increased constructive engagement, adopting other feasible and permissible means. One such approach would be to increase collaboration and partnership with local networks and structures to gather information on enforcement of the State of Emergency and compliance with relevant safety measures announced by authorities. This applies to information gathering and other initiatives at national and sub-national levels, especially if prevailing circumstances do not entirely allow for travel to targeted counties, districts and communities. The second option would be fully utilizing the power of social and traditional media to regularly monitor and report on key happenings. Of course, information gathered must always be verified, in the wake of increased spreading of fake news by unscrupulous individuals, especially during emergencies. The third approach would be direct engagement with donor agencies and partners, since undue bureaucracy may prevent provision of timely and relevant information on resources received and how they are being expended. The fourth option is strong partnership with the media. This will ensure timely communication of key updates to the public. Also, live coverage and other reports by the media, sufficiently verified, can help to inform the work of civil society, if prevented from independently monitoring proceedings, especially beyond 3PM. Lastly, the activities of Civil society organizations and other groups engaging with communities, in part through distribution of essential materials and supplies, should be planned and executed within timeframes specified by authorities. Even though this might somehow be challenging, doing so will avoid coming in conflict with instructions from authorities, which is important for safety and continued engagement, moving forward.
About the Author:
Anderson D. Miamen is Executive Director of the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL) and National Coordinator of the Coalition for Transparency and Accountability in Education (COTAE). He has over ten (10) years of work as an anti-corruption advocate and promoter of democratic governance, rule of law, among others.