In 2018, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy released the Global Philanthropy Environment Index, the world’s largest and most comprehensive effort to document the state of global philanthropy and the factors that enhance or inhibit its success.
By Kelly Ann Krawczyk, MPA, Ph.D., associate professor, Auburn University
My first visit to Liberia was in 2011, eight years after the end of Liberia’s brutal civil war. The country still displayed many scars from the prolonged fighting that spanned from 1989-2003, during which 250,000 people lost their lives, and a million more were displaced.
During that first visit, I saw countless abandoned homes and buildings riddled with bullet holes lining the streets of the capital city of Monrovia. I saw people engaged in street selling and wheelbarrow carrying, due to high levels of unemployment and a lack of any real formal employment opportunities.
I also met some of the strongest, most resilient people I have ever encountered, who were committed to rebuilding their country, and improving their lives. Today, some 17 years after the signing of the Accra Peace Agreement that ended the Liberian civil war, the country looks somewhat different.
Buildings have been repaired, and several new ones have even appeared. The capital city of Monrovia now boasts a single traffic light. I can still vividly recall how excited I was when I arrived in 2014 and saw that light, which was touted as a symbol of development. As Liberians continue to work towards peaceful economic, social, and political development, civil society is a vital partner in helping to reach this goal.
For almost a decade now, I have been working with civil society organizations (CSOs) in Liberia. My work is varied; sometimes I engage in my own field research, collecting survey, interview, or focus group data on the role of Liberian civil society in strengthening democracy and development. Other times, I develop and execute training workshops or impact evaluations for organizations such as the U.S. Department of State and the World Bank.
My favorite activity, though, is engaging directly with members of civil society organizations in Liberia, through outreach work that helps them to build stronger organizations, and create a more vibrant and effective third sector. Through my work in Liberia, I have observed several essential characteristics of Liberian civil society, which we can refer to as the “four Rs”: the sector is incredibly resource-poor, overly reliant on donor funding, yet also resilient and resourceful.
Lack of resources
Liberia still struggles tremendously with post-war poverty and development challenges. In 2018, Liberia ranked 176 out of 189 countries on the UN Human Development Index. Liberian civil society also grapples with a severe shortage of resources: human, technological, infrastructural, and financial. Only about half of the population can read and write, and the literacy rate is even lower for females.
Sixty-five percent of children in Liberia of primary school age (6-11) are out of school. This leads to difficulty in finding qualified people to run CSOs. There is a serious lack of public infrastructure, including roads, electricity, and WASH. Information and technology challenges include limited mobile networks, especially outside of the capital, and countrywide internet penetration of only 5 percent. Finally, CSOs are sorely underfunded, and have no tangible revenue sources other than international donor funding.
All civil society organizations face these challenges, whether they are located in the capital of Monrovia, or in rural, less accessible counties. But there are also variations in capacity, reflected in the stark disparities between CSOs based in and around the capital of Monrovia, and those based in the outlying, rural areas of Liberia. CSOs in Montserrado County, where the capital is located, have higher access to skilled staff, and to financial and technological resources, resulting in more robust capacity.
Reliance on donor funding
Most CSOs in Liberia depend on a single donor for intermittent, project-based funding. CSOs with funding from more than one donor tend to receive it sequentially; that is, one project finishes, and the next is funded by a different donor. This means organizations may be “finding money wherever they can” without being strategic or mission-oriented.
My own research suggests that civil society’s reliance on international donor funding creates an uncertain environment for Liberian CSOs, resulting in a nascent sector that is susceptible to mission drift and upward, supply-side accountability to donors. One way Liberian CSOs have tried to address this donor dependence is to start engaging in earned income activities, such as business activities and fee-for-service models that involve agricultural activities, as well as small-scale production of goods.
Resilience and resourcefulness
The Liberian civil society sector remains small; only about 1,350 registered organizations at last count, although this probably underestimates the sector, as it leaves out unregistered, informal grassroots organizations. While NGOs in Liberia can register and operate freely, some of the registration and accreditation requirements are cumbersome, resulting in a large number of unregistered NGOs.
For example, an NGO must have the primary goal of “enhancing the social, educational, professional, scientific, athletic, cultural, and economic well-being of communities.” The NGO must also have a mission statement with clearly defined objectives, target beneficiaries, sector of operation, and have a constitution and by-laws. Registered NGOs are subject to annual reporting requirements in order to maintain their status.
To complete the registration and accreditation process, an NGO first obtains articles of incorporation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by submitting a letter of request, completed application form, and required documentation. After the NGO obtains articles of incorporation, a Certificate of Accreditation is obtained from the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, which is good for three years.
Additional requirements include: having an office space with visible signboard, an organizational bank account, at least three full-time staff, and a board of directors. In a country faced with low formal employment, and where only 36 percent of the population aged 15 or older has an account at a financial institution or mobile money provider, these requirements are formidable.
The sector also faces serious challenges when it comes to human, technological, and financial resources, but it is resilient and resourceful. Perhaps the most recent example of this was during the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis, when civil society faced dangerous conditions and lacked resources, yet still contributed in vital ways to help stop the spread of the disease.
Civil society engaged in grassroots mobilization, and was involved in activities such as contact tracing and disseminating information about, and acceptance of, health and burial practices that helped stopped the spread of the disease. Civil society was involved in other forms of service delivery as well, such as providing patient and family support services, and meeting material and immediate needs such as providing new homes and belongings to Ebola survivors, and caring for Ebola orphans.
Liberian civil society organizations successfully functioned as “civic intermediaries” between citizens and government, because they have the trust of local citizens, and because they possess the local relationships, networks, and skills to mobilize citizens to action.
Ultimately, my research from 2014 found that Liberia’s battle against Ebola was won at the community level, due to the efforts of civil society organizations that participated in wide-scale, collaborative, grassroots mobilization efforts designed to combat rumors and distrust, and that encouraged citizens to abide by heath precautions and burial practices.
As evidenced by the recent Ebola crisis, government is increasingly open to, and reliant on, engagement and collaboration with civil society. In fact, post-Ebola, the Government of Liberia (GoL) and Civil Society Organizations Accord was signed in 2016.
The Accord aims to create a new framework for partnership between the GoL and civil society by facilitating an enabling environment for civil society, strengthening the technical capacity of the sector, broadening the opportunities for civil society to participate in governance, and engaging civil society as development partners to meet these needs (GoL-CSO Accord 2016). The Accord also acknowledges the role of civil society in service delivery.
With international donor funding waning, particularly in the post-Ebola environment, Liberian civil society will have to embrace new ways of finding the resources it needs to survive and thrive, potentially by increasing its ability to generate earned income. In addition, by strengthening its capacity and increasingly its voice in governance, the Liberian civil society sector can make a tangible contribution to the country’s continued development.
Further suggested reading
Banks, N., Hulme, D., Edwards, M. (2015). NGOs, states, and donors revisited: still too close for comfort? World Development, 66, 707–718.
Dr. Krawczyk is an associate professor and the Ph.D. program director in Auburn University’s Department of Political Science. Her research focuses on the relationship between civil society and democratic governance. She is specifically interested in how civil society impacts political behavior. Her research has been published in journals of public administration and civil society, including Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, and International Review of Administrative Sciences. She has also authored book chapters, as well as governmental and professional publications for the Governance Commission of Liberia and the World Bank. She is a founding committee member of the Strengthening Research on Civil Society in West Africa project, an initiative of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), funded by the Ford Foundation. She is also a Democracy & Development Fellow at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana).