Our Reply to Obama
Now that the U.S. president has offered Africa his advice, here's our riposte for him.
Barack Obama delivered a tough-love statement to Ghana's Parliament on Saturday. "The world will be what you make of it," the U.S. president said. "You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people." The West can help, he added, but Africa will be responsible for its own progress.
Barack Obama delivered a tough-love statement to Ghana’s Parliament on Saturday. "The world will be what you make of it," the U.S. president said. "You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people." The West can help, he added, but Africa will be responsible for its own progress.
Aside from reaching Africa, Obama’s message of reform should also resonate in another ongoing debate — this one in Washington — about how aid to the continent can be more effective. In Liberia, we have followed this discussion with great interest. The United States is one of my country’s most important development partners, and the support of the American people has been crucial to our recovery from more than a decade of civil conflict and economic collapse. Yet as important as that assistance has been, reform is badly needed.
As Obama said, and as we in Liberia well know, governments need to be accountable to their people. But traditional mechanisms of development aid often bypass this critical bond. Too often, aid builds NGO capacity more than it strengthens the government ministries of the country it is meant to help. Going straight to the people to deliver services — and bypassing government — might seem more efficient, but the result is stagnation in the government’s abilities, and hence, a prolonged need for aid. Countries grow dependent on that assistance from outsiders.
Worse, aid can undermine the very government that it is meant to assist. Our capital, Monrovia, is filled with billboards heralding roads, clinics, and schools that are "owned" by various NGOs and donors. All these services would usually fall to a government to provide, but donors often prefer to look elsewhere. People are quick to perceive, rightly or wrongly, that the Liberian government cannot meet development challenges and provide a sustainable peace for our people. That vital accountability of governments to their people shatters.
The traditional approach to aid has another pitfall that is particularly pointed in our experience. Grants and organizations often separate governance, development, and security into disconnected spheres, believing that each facet can develop independent of the others. It was partly to address this challenge that Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, created the Liberia Reconstruction and Development Committee, a forum that has enabled the country’s development partners to work with the government across key sectors. Going forward, the international aid community might benefit from adopting a similar, multisector approach.
Now that Obama has offered his advice to Africa, this is our advice for him: Aid should strengthen recipient governments’ accountability to their people. Building capacity will be key. As Obama himself noted, "Africa doesn’t need strongmen; it needs strong institutions." And removing artificial barriers between sectors of aid will facilitate more collaborative work among donors themselves. This is the transformation in development policy that we hope to see — what "aid reform" can truly mean.
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