By R. Joyclyn Wea
The 54th Legislature has approved five amendments to the 2018/2019 Budget Law that seeks to improve accountability and give citizens greater say in the management of the County and Social Development Fund (CSDF).
The changes to Section 9 of the Budget Law governing the CSDF were among 17 proposed by the Natural Resource Management (NRM), a coalition of eight civil society organizations that has been working for over a year on CSDF and budget reforms. The coalition is supported by USAID/LAVI (Liberia Accountability Voice Initiative).
Under the new law, withdrawals from the CSDF account must be done in accordance with the Public Financial Management (PFM) law and all general accounting principles. Previously, withdrawals required two principal signatories or their representatives in accordance with guidelines set by the legislature and executive branches. President George M. Weah signed the new budget law July 14, 2018.
Under the previous law, the Minister of Finance Development and Planning (MFDP) was authorized to issue allotment based on the resolution of each county council against the amount appropriated in the budget for CSDF for each county.
Now, the money will be issued after a full accounting of previous amounts have been made consistent with the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission and PFM law. This means, the county will not receive new funds, if it cannot provide a report of how it spent previous funds.
The MFDP Minister ‘shall not make the payment to a county unless previous disbursements have been fully accounted for and financial reports duly made and certified by the County Legislative Caucus.’’
The change creates a system of check and balance that discourages unilateral actions by the minister and enhances the swift disbursement of funds in accordance with the PFM law, according to the coalition’s document on the changes.
Mahamed Boakai, senior partnership advisor for USAID LAVI, said the Legislature’s approval of the five amendments is a step in the right direction because it will improve the management of the CSDF.
The coalition, he said, was pushing for a standalone CSDF law that would take the Legislature out of the management of the CSDF and turn it over to citizens, but the Legislature rejected that proposal. The coalition, he said, will continue to work on CSDF reforms in collaboration with civil society and the media.
The five changes, he said, will mean a lot to citizens because they now have a greater role to play in deciding on projects at the county council sitting instead of leaving it up to legislators.
“Our partners are working on crafting a stand along bill that would be introduced at the Legislature,’’ Boakai said. “If you are passing a law to include citizens in the management of the CSDF, a key aspect of that law should include the chair of the agenda setting for development of the county. If the chair is presided over by a county superintendent or local official that shows that the development agenda is on its way of being control by the people at the local level, not legislators.’’
The new law requires the election of a 5-member Project Management Committee (PMC), once every three years. The members must comprise a treasurer and a comptroller. The council must decide the criteria for qualifications based on professional training and work experience in accounting.
The project chair must have a minimum of three years’ experience in project management and must have resided in the county before taking the position or be willing to relocate to the county. This is intended to guard against having the PMC members living in Monrovia or somewhere else, making them unable to provide oversight.
The previous law required the election of a three-member PMC team once every three years. The new law would create more checks and balance on the three PMC leaders and promote competence in terms of electing a chair rather appointing someone with political influence. Previously, PMC members were appointed based on political interest.
Under the new law, only 10 percent of the CSDF allocation is spent on PMC’s operations. The idea is to spend more on projects that will benefit the community instead of on administration.
In addition, the removal of PMC members requires two-third of the county council. The previous law stated that the PMC members shall be removed for cause to be determined by the Legislative Caucus. Under the new law, the PMC members are more independent in the discharge of their duties.
The processing of budgetary allocations and all documents to citizens and other relevant entities must follow the PPCC and PFM regulations, under the new law.
The Project Management Team which serves as the project monitoring and evaluation team of the target area must report to the citizens of their respective areas and to the PMC progress of the project, a process that will result in timely payment for contractors.
Previously, there was no accountability and citizens did not have any information about CSDF implementation.
The new law also changes the rules regarding county council sitting where decisions of CSDF projects are determined. Previously, there was no publicity about the county sitting.
Project decisions were made by the County Legislative Caucus, the superintendent and other district, traditional and municipal delegates handpicked by politicians.
Under the new law, the superintendent must ensure that ‘extensive publicity, through all media platforms—radio and TV; print and social media—is given to the sitting to encourage maximum participation. The attendance at county sitting must include equal number of officials and opinion leaders from each of the traditional communities, statutory districts, and administrative districts.
The law also gives civil society organizations the right to monitor county council sitting.
Boakai said superintendents and district commissioners now have greater role to play in the management of CSDF.
“The law has also mandated that the county siting be public,’’ he said. “The law now say that the county sitting should be announced on the radio and through a town-crier in very town, disseminating the information including the date, time, place and agenda of the county sitting.”
Gerald Yeakula, program manager for CENTAL (Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia, said the law will only be effective if citizens monitor the implementation of CSDF to ensure that county officials are following the law.
The lack of monitoring is one of the major problems affecting the management of the CSDF, he said.
“We see this commitment as an empowering tool for citizens because it would include citizen voices on how development funds are used,’’ he said. “It will address the issue of participation of delegates at the level of the county sitting,’’ and ensure that project implementation will be effective.
Citizens must be more engaged because they now have a greater role to play in the implementation of CSDF projects. Journalists, Yeakula said, must be proactive in following up on CSDF projects to ensure that officials follow the law.
Historically, the government allocated $200,000 to each of the 15 counties for development. In the 2018-2019 budget, the government allocated $175,000 for each of the 15 counties.
In addition, several counties receive additional funds based on the concessions operating in their areas. Some of those counties include Bong, Nimba, Grand Bassa, Sinoe and Margibi receive extra money because of the operations of Arcellor Mittal, Golden Veroleum and Firestone, respectively.
The CSOs that formed the coalition are: Institute for Research and Democratic Development (IREDD), Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), Citizens United to Promote Peace & Democracy in Liberia (CUPPADL), Platform for Dialogue and Peace (P4DP), Liberia Media Center (LMC), Development Education Network-Liberia (DEN-L), Rural Human Rights Activists Program (RHRAP), and NAYMOTE-Partners for Democratic Development.