Divine Key Anderson, a young Liberian filmmaker, stands under a faded grey palaver hut at the University of Liberia in Monrovia. With wide eyes and animated expression, he speaks passionately about the revolutionary potential of film and the film school he set up with a small grant. The audience, made up of a group of students and civil society advocates, listen attentively before posing questions to the filmmaker about his project. Anderson is followed by a young man who has a proposal for holding Monrovia’s magisterial courts accountable, through allowing the citizens who use them to assess them through a scorecard system—a radical idea in a country where there is little justice.
Welcome to the Accountability Collective, a monthly meeting of Liberians working to develop innovative ideas to hold those in power accountable and create change in a nation where corruption remains public enemy number one.
The Accountability Collectives are organized by the Accountability Lab, the brainchild of Blair Glencorse, a 34-year-old international relations graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) with a decade of experience in international development. The organization incubates small-scale, low-cost entrepreneurial ideas that encourage accountability, an idea Glencorse terms accountrapreneurship.
While the Lab is still in its infancy and operating in two developing nations, Liberia and Nepal, Glencorse hopes that it will evolve into a movement that challenges the aid industry, an industry that he argues more often breeds corruption and dependence, rather than democracy and development.
In fact, the project emerged out of Glencorse’s experiences working in an aid industry that he argues is more preoccupied with big budgets rather than tangible results. He saw money being wasted, the same schools being built twice because of corruption and mismanagement.
“Despite rhetoric about ownership and alignment, I think many of these larger organizations still are sadly caught up in measuring results through numbers rather than through impact; and managers are promoted on how much they spend rather than how well that money is spent,” Glencorse tells FORBES AFRICA.
“The overall effect is that you have often very large projects, which these organizations cannot afford to admit don’t work; and they are also accountable and answerable to taxpayers in the West more than they are to the citizens in the countries where they are actually working.”
With the offer of a small amount of funding from private donors and a crowd-funding campaign online, Glencorse set off on a new path. Unlike his developmental counterparts who ride around in white four-wheel drives, Glencorse zips through the streets of Monrovia dressed in collared shirts and slacks on the back of motorcycle taxis on a different mission.
International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and dollars are ubiquitous in Liberia, the small West African nation that was wracked by a 14-year civil war that left its infrastructure and institutions in tatters and its communities divided and population traumatized. The crossroads of Monrovia’s main thoroughfare, Tubman Boulevard, are punctuated with the dusty signs and slogans of these organizations. It is a route that ascends into a crescendo of blue and white buildings that belong to various UN agencies. Despite this assistance from international donors, Liberia is perceived by its citizens as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International, and graft and predatory behavior was found to be widespread among the police force according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.
Yet despite its ongoing challenges with corruption, Liberia received $765 million in development assistance in 2011 according to figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a remarkable amount for a nation with a population just short of four million. The United Nations Mission in Liberia, one of the longest serving and largest missions in sub-Saharan Africa, has a current troop presence of around 7,500 and costs $500 million annually to sustain. One former senior diplomat referred to Monrovia as the workshop capital of the world, underscoring how overrun the city had become with NGOs.
For Glencorse, the heavy presence of NGOs in post-conflict countries like Liberia often undermines accountability both at a local and governmental level, something he found from working on fragile and conflict-affected states at the World Bank.
“The amount of money that has flowed into this country [Liberia] since the end of the war 10 years ago has changed incentives so that aid has become a business rather than a process to help people improve their lives. What this means from a Liberian perspective is you can make a lot of money in the non-profit world by telling foreigners what they would like to hear rather than doing work that would actually improve the lives of Liberians,” Glencorse says.
“The government has become a lot more accountable to external actors rather than its own citizens.”
While Liberians remain deeply suspicious of the political establishment and those in power, Glencorse argues that due to Liberia’s long-standing patronage networks, corruption is rife at all levels of society. Thus, his approach starts from the bottom up instead.
“In somewhere like Liberia it needs to begin with this sense of personal responsibility. Accountability, which is synonymous with corruption for many people, is seen as something that happens among big decision makers in government and possibly the private sector and not actually something that individuals see as applicable to themselves. So there is a sense of othering that takes place,” he says.
So what is the solution?
Innovative and creative ideas that encourage accountability and engage the community at a local level, argues Glencorse.
“It’s about collective solutions to shared problems; it’s not about pointing fingers at individuals and saying you are corrupt,” Glencorse says.
The Lab provides small grants of up to $2,000 on the basis that the ideas they support are feasible, scalable and sustainable.
In its early stages, the Lab received proposals for workshops with complementary lunches, awareness raising campaigns that involved printing banners and t-shirts, a reflection of the lack of imagination amongst many NGOs operating in Liberia.
After a while Glencorse and his team took a more targeted approach, and focused on engaging civil society groups, musicians, artists, university students, journalists and young people who have proposed ideas for projects. Among the projects the Lab supports is Anderson’s Accountability Film School that helps ordinary Liberians to create small films that explore issues of corruption and accountability using narrative and role-play.
“Since 1847 we have been writing papers and not much has changed in this country and that is because 70 percent of our population are illiterate (…) But with film even a blind man can see,” says Anderson who believes that film can be instrumental to change in Liberia. Liberia’s adult literacy rate is 61%.
The Lab held its first accountability film festival this year and will hold several more in the coming year.
The Lab also supports an SMS information system called the Tell-it-True project at schools and universities in Monrovia, where students can make inquiries and lodge complaints about everything from sexual harassment by teachers to lack of attendance.
Among other projects are a community mediation project that looks at ways to solve problems between neighbors outside of the justice system; a project where the well-known citizen journalist Alfred Sirleaf informs the public about laws and access to services on a newspaper made out of a chalkboard sitting on the edge of Tubman Boulevard; as well as a radio program called Oil Talk, that is broadcast in counties whose shorelines border areas of ocean that multinational companies are currently exploring for oil.
But the long-term sustainability of these projects poses a major challenge for Glencorse and the Lab.
“Accountability is more difficult than business in that regard,” he says.
“There is no user-fee model that we might be able to use for some of the ideas. Sustainability is a bit more difficult but it is something we are thinking hard about.”
The Lab is planning to raise funds through accountability bus tours and postcards that showcase its work in Liberia and Nepal to tourists and delegations that pass through.
On the future of the organization, Glencorse says he would like to see the Lab and its ideas exported to neighboring countries like Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. But he wants the organization to remain a grassroots one. Glencorse and his team are currently devising a toolkit so that small groups in different countries can create their own Labs.
“We would like to scale the vision. We don’t want to become a big bureaucratic organization because that would begin to take away from what makes what we are trying to do unique,” says Glencorse.
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