The NGO Regulatory Framework in Liberia or how an American Charity’s Activities could go so Awry
One of my first email exchanges with my academic advisor carried the subject line: Another failed NGO (American charity) in Liberia to communicate my general research interest in the roles and sometimes, foibles and worse, of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) in developing countries. His response addressed the complexity of INGO governance structures and he also pushed me to look beyond my own biases as a Liberian-American in order to address the implications of that intricacy. I was the recipient of INGO aid as a young Liberian and returned to my native country in 2013 as an aid worker for an INGO initiative there.
My email to my advisor highlighted the case of an American charity working in collaboration with the Liberian government to protect and educate a group of vulnerable teenaged girls in Monrovia (Liberia’s capital) through the establishment of the More Than Me (MTM) Academy. MTM also managed 18 other schools located throughout the country aimed at assisting impoverished students. Instead of offering these youths a secure environment and opportunity at the Monrovia location, however, the charity’s co-founder raped 11 of the girls enrolled there.
Given local mores, this situation led to the girls and their families being stigmatized in the community. The school ceased operations in June 2019, offered a formal apology and offered support to the affected girls and their families if needed (Young, 2019). The questions of how this scenario could happen and who might have prevented it arose as soon as the crisis became public knowledge. One means by which to address these concerns is to examine the regulatory framework governing INGOs in Liberia. More particularly, it is useful to explore what role, if any, the Liberian national government now plays in overseeing INGOs operating within the country.
Liberia, like most developing countries, is open to assistance from foreign donors and partners in efforts to spur its national development. Such initiatives are often led—frequently on contract with major funding governments and organizations—by INGOs. Following more than a decade of civil conflict (1989-1997; 1999-2003) in the nation, the Liberian government has not yet developed effective policies or guidelines to oversee INGO efforts undertaken within its territory. This fact can probably be attributed in part to the government’s need for development support and perhaps also to avoid conflicts with INGO representatives. Aid Data has reported that more than 7,000 aid-related projects operated by NGOs (including INGOs) took place in Liberia between 1960 and 2013 (Aid Data, 2014). The population of Liberia is a little more than 4 million people, and Global Witness has estimated that there was approximately one NGO for every 4,000 Liberian citizens during President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s presidency in 2016 (Global Witness, 2018).
Unfortunately, despite such a huge representation of NGOs (both domestic or internal and international) and its heavy reliance on INGO efforts particularly, Liberia continues to face daunting social and economic challenges. The question then becomes: In its desperation for aid, is Liberia turning a blind eye to the need for INGO oversight and regulation in hopes of fostering development? This concern in turn implies a need to examine national policy regarding such nongovernmental operations in Liberia. As it happens, Liberia does have such a policy and it was established more than a decade ago to provide oversight of INGOs (MPEA, 2008). That statute included guidelines to ensure better coordination among the various government ministries/agencies involved with the operations of NGOs and INGOs in Liberia.
Nevertheless, the inadequacy of that policy approach was exposed by the MTM Academy crisis. That scandal revealed that existing law did not provide sufficiently developed procedures and/or protocols for dealing with such concerns. In many developing countries, including Liberia, insufficient funding, a lack of clearly articulated policies and planning, as well as poorly prepared and trained staff can all lead to inadequate supervision of INGO activities. In an earlier response to some of these challenges in its own activities, the Liberian government launched a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) throughout the nation for its educational sector, known as Partnership Schools Liberia (PSL) in 2016.
PSL delegated primary responsibility for pre-primary and primary education to eight private operators, including the American charity MTM, which was assigned to serve as a provider of education for especially vulnerable girls in the capital city of Monrovia. With the PSL, the Liberian government explicitly shared responsibility with specific entities to operate K-12 schools in its stead. Implicitly, at least, this choice suggested that the national regulatory framework could ensure effective accountability for such efforts and could also manage the conflicts that might arise with their implementation. Nonetheless, that policy, like the country’s initial INGO oversight statute in 2008, contained little language concerning such oversight processes.
Many factors affect government-INGO relations, but a major one is that such organizations are private in character (Bratton, 1989). In the case of the MTM Academy, Liberia’s policy called for the appointment of an independent appeals board comprised of appointees from NGOs, relevant government agencies and a reputable individual to review the allegations when they became public. The board was responsible for rendering a judgment on the basis of its findings. However, the group was dominated by INGO representatives and lacked clear and established investigatory procedures. It therefore floundered as it went about its assigned task.
Indeed, when the abuse allegations were first brought to the attention of government officials in 2015, those representatives did not halt the school’s operations or revoke its accreditation. In fact, the government did not take any action until 2019, and then only after ProPublica, an independent investigative journalism group, released a detailed report chronicling the abuse. The government’s appeals board then called on the American CEO of MTM to resign and return to the United States. She did so, but has never personally apologized for what occurred. In any case, and overarchingly, the government found itself in the difficult political position of taking action against an INGO with which it had formally partnered to provide public services and which its representatives had previously lauded for its performance (Young, 2019).
One key lesson of this horrific case for Liberia, as it continues its relationships with INGOs, is that the government must develop stronger protocols to ensure the accountability of such organizations. Such a step is essential if any genuine collaboration between the nation’s government and its foreign nongovernmental partners is to be achieved. As matters now stand, the complaint resolution procedure available in law to ensure INGO strategic and operating accountability is cumbersome, unduly political and lacks clear protocols for action. While INGOs can surely play positive roles in development efforts; not least in partnering with domestic NGOs as those institutions develop independent capacities to address shared aims, they are guests of the nations in which they operate. As such, the governments of those countries must ensure they are held to the highest standards of both programmatic and ethical accountability feasible. This did not occur in the MTM case in Liberia and that tragic episode provides a critical reminder of the importance of this national governmental responsibility.
Aid Data (n.d.). Aid Project List. Retrieved from http://dashboard.aiddata.org/#/advanced/project-list. Accessed on March 8, 2020
Backer, D. and Carol. D. (2001) NGOs and Construction Engagement: Promoting Civil Society, Good Governance and Rule of Law in Liberia. International Politics Vol. 38, pp. 1-36
Bratton, M. (1989). The politics of Government-NGO Relations in Africa. UK: World Development, Vol. 17 (4), pp. 569-587
CIA World Fact: Country- Liberia (2020). Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/print_li.html Accessed on March 8, 2020.
Global Witness (2014) Is Liberia Tired of NGOs? Retrieved from https://www.globalwitness.org/es/blog/liberia-tired-ngos/ Accessed March 8, 2020.
MPEA (2008). National Policy of Non-Governmental Organization in Liberia. Retrieved from https://www.emansion.gov.lr/doc/NGOPolicguidelines.pdf Accessed March 8, 2020.
Liberian NGO Directory (2020) Retrieved from http://www.liberiangodirectory.net/listings/S
Tasch, B. (2016). The 25 poorest Countries in the world. Business Insider. Retrieved March 8, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.com/the-25-poorest-countries-in-the-world-2016-4#5-burundi--gdp-per-capita-951-662-21
Young, F. (2018). “She wanted to Help Liberia’s Most Vulnerable Girls. Then her School Became A Predator’s Hunting Ground,” Time Magazine. World. Retrieved from https://time.com/longform/more-than-me-investigation/
Randell Zuleka Dauda is a doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program at Virginia Tech. She received her Master’s degree in Higher Education from Northeastern University in Boston. Her current research interest centers on race and power structures in international programs in sub-Saharan Africa. Randell works as a Graduate Assistant for Outreach with the Global Engineering, Engagement and Research Office. She prides herself on being a community organizer and loves working with diverse populations to collaborate on efforts to secure social change. In her free time, she curates African stories online to counter the too often voiced narrative of a “helpless” continent. She loves traveling, dressing and playing Mas in Caribbean carnivals and being an aunt to a spoiled Maltese.
March 19, 2020