Liberia: “Ku Belleh Finai”

(In Kpelle: ‘Let us tighten our belts’)

From all indications, the new “Salary Harmonization Scheme” is generating great unease amongst public sector employees and for good reasons, too. The Scheme is being introduced at a time when the nation’s economy is in free fall amid rising prices of everyday commodities. Compounding the situation is the hike in tuition fees in public and private schools, which is keeping many students away from school. According to reports received by this newspaper, these measures are recommended by the International Monetary Fund(IMF) as part of measures intended to stabilize the nation’s economy.

This newspaper recalls the widespread public concern raised when hundreds of CDC supporters were employed at various public sector institutions. There was, apparently, little or no thought given to the implications such mass public sector employment implied, without the necessary budgetary allocations to underwrite their employment. Further, most of those hired were incompetent and ill prepared to handle the tasks assigned to their respective job portfolios. In some institutions employees had to scramble to work earlier than usual for fear of arriving late or even ten minutes or less to official time only to meet someone/people sitting comfortably at their desks. Faced with the economic reality of such ill-advised decisions, the GOL has resorted, it appears, to slashing salaries in order to shore up its ability to address the problem created by such unplanned mass employment.

The Ministry of Finance has publicly declared that the harmonization scheme does not affect a certain category of public sector employees which includes teachers, security officers and those in the military, as well as doctors, nurses and allied medical staff. At least this is what the public is being told. On the other hand, the facts on the ground show something completely different. The adverse effects of this newly introduced measure is already being felt. Enrollment has dropped significantly in public schools this semester, primarily because public schools are now charging fees exceeding three thousand Liberian dollars (LD$3,000). And the effects are being felt more intensely in rural areas.

According to reports from the Lofa County villages of Telimen and Gbanway, public school campuses are virtually empty all day, as most students lack the money to pay the required fees. Worse still, according to a local teacher, their meager salaries of thirteen-thousand Liberian dollars (LD$13,000) are being slashed by half. According to the teacher (name withheld), when they complained, they were told by Finance officials that the money will be paid back but will be in US dollars, to be placed in accounts opened in their names, respectively. But the concern is, according to the teacher, they had never been paid in US dollars before and so why now? Moreover, according to the teacher, as adults they are quite capable of opening their own accounts and they do not need government officials to do so on their behalf.

This newspaper is further informed that the story is the same in other counties. At least one Representative from Nimba (name withheld) has confirmed receiving such reports from his District. In the capital city, Monrovia, the situation is not much different as most public schools are reported to be witnessing a drop-in enrollment. In some cases, parents no longer able to afford private school fees are, in their numbers, turning to public schools where they can more easily afford the lower fees. And this is tending to crowd out students whose parents cannot afford the fees.

In view of these developments, the Daily Observer finds itself constrained to warn the GOL of the inherent risks associated with the imposition of IMF recommended austerity/policy measures, which often do not consider the human factor when such polices are being conceived. In a number of countries around the world, such policies have triggered riots, other disturbances and disruptions of public order. Some governments have been sacked and their leaderships deposed, not by soldiers, but by ordinary people.

As historical evidence provides, calling on the people to tighten their belts and accept tough austerity measures when they are faced daily with ostentatious displays of power and wealth by public officials is laden with untold problems, which government would do best to avoid by exploring other ways to avert what could otherwise be a potentially destabilizing situation with dangerous and unknown implications.

Such measures, amongst others, include the need to reduce waste by curbing public sector corruption, extra-budgetary spending and cutting down on excessive foreign travels with large delegations. This newspaper recalls that the UN had once before advised the past government to refrain from making public policies on the fly, something which was causing distortions and adversely impacting the implementation of sound public policy measures.

Could this have been the case in the decision taken to place hundreds of CDC supporters on the payroll? Was the reported mass hiring of CDC supporters intended to placate their supporters, for example?

This matter is now “water under the bridge” so to speak. There are strong indications that mass hiring of CDC supporters was indeed carried out and what we have now to contend with are the effects of such policy action. The GOL, in apparent desperation to fix the economy, has called in the IMF to help and the IMF has responded with recommendations of a host of policy measures which, in its wisdom, will eventually place the Liberian economy on an even keel.

History and experience suggest that there will be resistance and, not surprisingly, the source of such resistance may come from right within GOL circles itself. The Daily Observer recalls OPEX, GEMAP and, with bitter memories, the Firestone Receivership. The nation is in deep trouble with the risk of social unrest looming high as the IMF measures begin to bite.

Based on such experience, in such instances or situations, this government may either find itself faced with the tough decision to call off the recommended IMF austerity measures, or it may find itself staring right down the exit hallway. This is the time to tighten belts; as our people say in Kpelle, “Ku belleh finai”.

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Author: skvaller

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