What Role the National Legislature Can Play in PRSP Implementation and Policy in Liberia – by Seltue Karweaye

Last updated 01/01/2012
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In the last two decades, Liberia has moved from violent armed conflict to adaptation of a more democratic form of government. As democracy continues to spread in Liberia, the electorates should become more important in economic policymaking. These changes, coupled with new technologies making communication cheaper and more widely available, have spawned an array of grassroots movements, and civil society organizations (CSOs) in Liberia. The International Financial Institutions (IFIs) continued to adapt their policies and operations to take into account the changing global environment. They have had increasingly active dialogues with CSOs, including labor groups, faith-based organizations, and legislators. Both institutions have been working with Liberian authorities to encourage broader and deeper stakeholder participation in the formulation and implementation of poverty reduction strategies (PRS).

A distinguishing feature of the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) is that it is country-driven and promotes national ownership of policies based on broad-based participation. Democratically elected legislators in Liberia have a critical role to play in this process, by articulating the aspirations of their constituents in national policy, and by providing oversight of the implementation of the poverty reduction strategy. While there are several stakeholders whose views are important in the formulation and implementation of the PRSP, this article focuses on what role parliamentarians can play in the PRS implementation and policy in Liberia.

Why Involve Liberia National Legislature?

Good governance and effective public sector performance were central to Liberia’s PRSP planning, implementation and oversight. Both aim to (i) improve transparency and accountability in the delivery of services to the poor, and (ii) promote the establishment of stable environment for investment and growth in Liberia. In this context, the national legislature oversight of the PRS can ensure long-term Liberia ownership of the strategies and generate the cross-party support necessary to sustain reforms. As a representative institution, the national legislature can ensure the integrity of the participatory process and give poor people a stronger voice. The Parliament, through their constitutional mandates can fulfill four (4) key functions designed to improve governance and effectiveness of the poverty reduction strategy process in Liberia:

1. Through their legislative function, the House of Representatives and the House of Senate are responsible for reviewing bills and enacting legislation, amendments and regulations which are needed to support reforms and national development programs in Liberia.

2. The national legislature is an institution through which the voices and preferences of the public, and particularly of poor people, suppose be heard. Parliamentarians’ jobs also entail that they outreach to their constituents on issues of national policy which is particularly relevant in this context. Liberia’s PRSP mentioned the importance of governance improvements and meaningful participatory processes for poverty reduction. If we ensure that legislature role is institutionalized in this process in my opinion it will be key to PRSP design and evaluation. Liberia needs to undertake the reform of their legislative system to institutionalize the participation of parliament in PRS oversight and evaluation.

3. The national legislature holds the ‘power of the purse’ with respect to the review and passing of annual national budget. Given the need to link PRS objectives with revenues, expenditures, and increasingly, results, the legislature understanding of PRS linkages to the national budget process is relevant as Liberia progress from design to implementation of their national strategies. Legislature in Liberia that they have constitutional right to oversee national budget – reviewing whether the government’s allocation of resources is consistent with their constituents’ demands as well as with the Liberia’s developmental objectives; scrutinizing government expenditures and revenues (including loans and credits from the international institutions); ensuring that money is allocated to programs with legislative approval, and identifying instances of financial dishonesty and irregularity.

4. Lastly, and perhaps most important for PRS implementation, our national legislature should be the key institution of accountability and transparency. Through their oversight function, our legislatures, and particularly legislative committees, can investigate poverty-related issues, and can also engage actively in the monitoring and evaluation of national development program in Liberia. A recent UNDP-National Democratic Institute publication notes that efforts by parliamentary committees to “gather information regarding public policy can also double as a mechanism by which the committee can demonstrate its active engagement in policy issues.” Against this background, it is very imperative for the national legislature to be involved in the formulation and oversight on the implementation of the PRSP in Liberia.

Meaningful country ownership requires: (i) adequate space for broad participatory mechanisms, which in turn provides the scope for legislatures to represent their constituencies; and (ii) the possibility for member of the legislature to garner broad cross-partisan support. Ownership also implies the use of national institutions which are grounded in indigenous governance systems rather than those imported from the outside. As a national institution, parliament can play an important role in raising citizens’ awareness on key national issues. Furthermore, legislative outreach by individual member of the legislature and legislative staff can assist in strengthening the governance process, building trust in the representative process, and support for reform processes.

Legislators have a constitutional mandate to oversee the planning, enactment, implementation, and monitoring of the national budget.

According to a 2005 report commissioned by the Federal German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Parliament has considerable authority in the context of the budget cycle. Given that poverty reduction funding to Liberia from international financial institutions (IFS) flows through the national budget, these should be additional reasons to build legislative capacity, to link the oversight of national budget and PRSP process in Liberia. Openness and transparency provide for more meaningful debate and discourse, and give greater opportunity for legislators in particular, and stakeholders more generally, to be involved in the formulation and monitoring of the implementation process and the utilization of funds. The national legislature participation in the scrutiny of public accounts is likely to be more effective if our legislators are involved in the budget process from the planning stage. This will better prepare them to monitor the allocation of funds for poverty reduction, and the implementation of a poverty reduction strategy in Liberia.

As the elected representatives of the people, legislators should play an important role in ensuring that the electorate’s priorities are reflected in Liberia’s poverty reduction strategy. Successful implementation of development policies is increasingly linked to participatory approaches in terms of effectiveness and sustainability. A broad-based consultative process in the formulation of the poverty reduction strategy that cuts across all spectrum of the society in Liberia is likely to survive and really assist in reducing poverty. A review of the Liberian PRS indicated that participation initiatives were contributing to the realization of three critical objectives: (1) Enhancement of accountability and transparency, (2) Capacity Building, and (3) Improvement of public legitimacy and enforcement of new policies. We need our Legislature input. Legislative debates can thus provide a platform for building consensus and facilitating decisions about policy trade-offs – which is crucial in Liberia where the demand for funds typically exceeds available resources, and difficult choices are to be made.

Several studies have highlighted the need for greater parliamentary involvement in the PRS. The Joint IMF/ World Bank review in 2002 indicated that the role of parliaments was growing, but was still limited. At around the same time, ActionAid noted “insufficient space for discussion and approval by parliament and endorsement by interest groups on the content of the final PRSPs.” The European Commission recommended a more central role for parliaments in the PRS process, especially in the monitoring and implementation phases.

The ability of legislators in Liberia to play an effective role also depends on their expertise on relevant policy issues (something most members are lacking) and the availability of resources (for example, availability of qualified staff and access to information and independent research). A key reason why the present Executive Branch headed by Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf tends to dominate the Liberia national legislature is that most legislators lack analytical capacities which are available to the executive branch of government. Some of our Legislators lack the education and experience to engage in wide-ranging policy issues, and we need to prioritize capacity building exercises designed to overcome these shortcomings in the national legislature. Member of the national legislature need to be given basic orientation program. The discussion should cover diverse topics including legislature’s functions, practices, procedures, and Legislative powers and privileges. The lack of qualify staff and resources limits the national legislature’ capacity to legislate. A competent legislative staff is crucial for passing on institutional knowledge from one regime to the next. Unfortunately, legislators in most PRSP Liberia have very few, if any, full-time staff.

Conclusion

There should be a growing demand from the national legislature for more knowledge about the poverty reduction strategy process and, specifically, about how the institution of the legislature might become more engaged in the process in Liberia.

As part of its governance program, the Poverty Reduction and Economic Reform Division of the World Bank Institute (WBIPR) has sought to strengthen parliamentary understanding, participation and oversight of poverty reduction strategies. The National legislature can make use of a Handbook for Parliamentarians on the poverty reduction strategy process developed by the World Bank Institute (WBI) and the Parliamentary Centre in Canada (see http://info.worldbank.org/etools/docs/library/106415
/istanbul/pdf/handbook_parliamenterians.pdf).

IFIs need to conduct a training program on Governance and the PRSP for member of the national legislature in Liberia. IFIS can also organize seminars and workshops for the national legislature, aim at promoting discussion of macroeconomic issues and the PRS something most members of the national legislature of Liberia are lacking.

The Planning and Economic Ministry as well as IFIs, NGOs (international and local) can assist the national legislature to play an active role in PRSP implementation and policy in Liberia by, assisting with capacity development for member of the national legislature and their staff, especially with respect to economic and sectoral issues, as well as negotiation skills; working with the legislature on freedom of information and freedom of association legislation; improving the quality of poverty data and general information available to national legislature; developing strategies and channels of communication between member of the national legislature and their constituents, and between member of the national legislature and the executive branch of government. The National Legislature of Liberia can benefit from improved institutional capacities and infrastructure in order to perform their core functions of legislation, oversight and representation more effectively.

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