My country Liberia is about to play host to global leaders and thinkers, including the United Kingdom Prime Minister and the Queen of Jordan, as they discuss what priority issues to include once the current Millennium Development Goals (MDG) expire in 2015. I could not think of a better place for this to happen.
Liberia has many lessons to teach on how to ensure past development mistakes are not repeated. The most important of these is the need to tackle corruption head on. We need with a new Millennium Development Goal that specifically calls for greater governance with a way to measure progress – such as access to information targets and open government commitments, a transparent way to follow the money – as well as obligations that specify and measure the enforcement of anti-corruption in each of the goals to fight poverty, hunger, maternal mortality, education and sustainability.
Liberia, which means “land of liberty”, was founded by freed and former slaves thirsting for a better future. Yet more than a century of existence has been characterised by conflicts, entrenched public sector corruption and civil wars that destroyed this dream leaving us poor and angry. Our last civil war was in its final throes when the United Nations set the initial MDGs to tackle extreme poverty, hunger, health, equality and environmental sustainability.
Despite some gains and a return to peace and democracy in the past decade, Liberia is still a long way from realising the MDGs, particularly for extreme poverty and hunger, maternal mortality and universal education. In Liberia today, two-thirds [PDF] of the population lives in poverty and 40 percent of Liberians go hungry. One woman out of a hundred can expect to die giving birth.
Liberia: In the shadow of civil war?
In the case of the environment, the situation is dire after years of pillaging of natural resources, including forests. An independent investigation, which I was part of, recently reported that in the last three years, commercial logging permits have been issued corruptly for nearly a quarter of our native forests. This meant that the gains from exploiting these forests that should have been used to help the poor have been squandered.
Unfortunately, this is the reality for many countries. The reason behind many of these horror stories is mismanagement, corruption and an insouciance to implement much championed reforms. It is a problem that infiltrates institutions, local administrations, services and sectors – from education, health and infrastructure projects – to forestry and agribusiness. It is a problem that has undermined Liberia’s development and a scourge that continues here and elsewhere to weaken the ability to realise the MDGs. As in many other underdeveloped countries, corruption is a regressive tax on needy households.
In 2010 Transparency International studied the impact [PDF] of embedding anti-corruption programmes into aid delivery for three of the MDGs, water, education and maternal mortality. The results were clearly measurable. Analysis of access to drinking water in 51 countries showed that lower levels of bribery translated into improved availability of clean water. Countries with good marks on anti-corruption legislation showed reduced rates of maternal mortality. There was also a strong correlation between greater public access to information and higher literacy rates for nation’s youth. In Liberia, my organisation, CENTAL, and other CSOs found education efforts, for example, have been severely undermined by corruption due to ineffective application of procurement laws.
Liberia’s current government has made anti-corruption and good governance a priority with the same weight as fighting poverty and providing good healthcare and education. We now are one of the few African countries with an access to information law, an anti-corruption commission and laws on whistleblower protection and a code of conduct for public officials. These efforts to fight corruption have moved Liberia up in anti-corruption and governance rankings.
In response to renewed concerns about corruption in our forestry sector, the government moved swiftly to implement recommendations of the special investigative committee: a moratorium has been placed on some logging, officials dismissed, new reforms started and a prosecution team established to deal with culprits.
What Transparency International believes and what Liberia’s lessons show are that tackling corruption head on can produce results. If we really want to end poverty in the next 15 years, good governance and anti-corruption must be part and parcel of the guiding principles established to ensure effective delivery of results.
Back in 2000, governance and anti-corruption were not put at the heart of the MDG agenda. It is critically important that the leaders meeting in Monrovia understand that unless there is a goal and targets for governance, we will continue to fall short on delivering the promises of a better life for all. Let’s not make the same mistake for the next 15 years.
Thomas Nah is Executive Director of the Centre for Transparency and Accountability in CENTAL, the Liberian Chapter of Transparency International, the global anti-corruption organisation.