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On inefficiencies (and corruption?) in the Liberian government

27 Sep 16
Andy Jones

During the first two weeks I have interfaced with the Republic of Liberia a number of times by attempting specifically to: process Tax Clearance (certificate from the Liberia Revenue Authority showing the NGO is current on all taxes owed) and Duty Free (a one-off grant from the LRA that the NGO may pay a reduced rate on import duties) for our first donated 40′ container which arrived to the Monrovia port a month early (yay and yikes); obtain resident and re-entry permits (the long-term version of a visa) for the family from Immigration; obtain a Liberian driver license from the Ministry of Transport; properly register a motorcycle for the NGO; obtain police cleareance (like a background check that only tests your social connections OR how well you’ve bribed police officers). To understand the context of effort required, all of these processes require in-person interaction at the various Ministries (government departments) which are in Monrovia. It takes me between 2-3 hours to get to any of them, which includes a trek in the rain and mud and traffic via motorcycle taxi and car taxi and keke (three wheeled covered motorcycle),and costs about $15 round trip. No email. No websites. No phone numbers. No written (or followed) procedure whereby one can know what to expect and within what timeframe.

In all this I have not experienced anything different from what I already have come to expect over the past 17 years in running an NGO in West Africa, which is crazy-making inefficiency of official and unofficial procedure that causes extreme waste of time and private resources, and enables the perpetuation of a culture of corruption. To go through the official channel means one will be required to “go and come” any number of times as documents and permissions are followed up on, with little certainty as to the current status or estimated time of completion. To go through the unofficial channel is to pay extra money for services and entitlements that should be rightfully granted, thereby upholding corruption in the system.

For an example of going through the official channel:

In order to submit our Duty Free we were required to go the the LRA to get the information that would be required to sumit. That was Sept 5th. The next day we came back with our packet prepared. But we had to deliver not to the duty-free desk, but to the basement where somebody beind an unmarked desk was to receive it. From there the document was to be carried by him to the third floor, approved, then to the fourth, where it arrived on day three. At that point we got a call saying it was ready to go, except for our pending tax clearance. A couple of days later we got our tax clearnace (another story there which involved me being required to pay the property tax, plus penalty and interest, on behalf of the land owner and landlord of the compound we rent for the orphanage because he had failed to pay, because apparently “tax must be paid” :-), and attached it to our packet. We submitted it to the fourth floor, where it had already been once or more times previously, and where it has now been stuck for 3 days. When I went back on Friday as told by the document handler on the fourth floor I was informed it wasn’t ready, and to come back Monday. I was told the reason for the delay in finalizing the document that had once been approved once already, was that one commissioner was supposed to go speak to the commissioner general about “a concern”. No further information could be obtained, even with persistent questioning. He told me the commissioner wasn’t in the office. But I learned from a different official that the commissioner was in the office, and had approved other documents that day.

The following day I returned to the LRA and was able to speak to the person (a young man who appeared to be in his twenties) on whom our letter was waiting for approval. I found that the reason for the delay was because I didn’t list everything on the invoice in the cover letter (even though the cover letter references the attached invoice for a comprehensive list of contents of the container), as if it were a requirement (it isn’t possible to find within the LRA a written explanation of what a cover letter should contain, or even a requirement of having a cover letter). I was told within a couple of days it would probably be approved. I was wished “good luck” by the secretary as I was leaving the office. I stopped and turned and said, “I could use a little luck; it isn’t easy working with this government as we serve the Liberian people.”

As I was leaving on my motorbike the very guy who I had been speaking to appeared by my side in the parking lot. He was going to town to get to a college class, and asked me for a free ride on the back of my bike. I oblidged, and considered myself lucky. On Sept 20th our letter was “approved”, which means it has passed over six or seven different desks, and we were called to come back in. I picked it up and gave it to our broker, who explained that now he must type up the entry to submit to customer with our letter. This took three days, and the packet was submitted to customs (third floor where our packet had already been at least once for approvals and signatures). The broker told me that the entry must be reviewed by the Commissioner of Customs, who could deny the duty free that had already been given an approval. Then we must pay whatever duty may be assessed, bring the receipts, and then re-submit for a second assessment of duties and fees and penalties (old vehicles carry with them a penalty), which we must then pay. Then, after everything has been paid, the entry is submitted to customs located at the port, who has to give yet another approval, and could deny duty free despite any prior approvals or assessments, and levy additional charges before releasing the container.

I am writing now on Sept 27th, three weeks into the duty free process, sitting on a metal bench in the Commissioner’s lobby. I was told by the broker that the Commissioner denied our duty free entirely. I saw the handwritten note on the letter: “Attn: Deputy Minister, Not exempt on these items.” The DMP could not tell me why, but that maybe I should go to the Ministry of Gender, Childre, and Social Protection (in charge of orphanages) and have them petition on our behalf for duty free. Even if I could get a letter, it would take days or weeks, and still there is no guarantee we would get duty free at the end of the process. The personal secretary to the Commissioner says he is in the building, or was, but nobody knows where he went or when he would be back, but I was welcome to wait. I’m an hour and a half into my wait. I do not actually have any confidence that I’ll be able to make any progress, and I’m now resolved that we are going to have to spend some of the money that has been donated to implement our projects to pay the import duties and taxes we are rightfully entitled to an exemption from paying.

The mission statement of the LRA involves promised transparency, timeliness, and fairness in collecting lawful revenues. Meanwhile we are paying daily fees to the continer yard for storage until it is discharged. So far we are up to about $600. The duties and taxes we would have had to pay had we not applied for duty free comes to $2,600. That’s a snapshot of what the official channel can be like. Of course we can hope that not all government officials behave this way. The good folks in charge of orphanages are approachable and generally easy to work with. And I’m sure there some officials, somewhere at the LRA, who are committed to building their country through honest application of established guidelines and laws. Maybe someday I’ll meet one.

Multiply this experience by driver license, resident permit, NGO accreditation, etc. and you’ll have an idea of how difficult it is to get anything done properly when relying on government procedures through the official channels.

The other option is to go through the unofficial route, which is to arrange for a handler from within or without the department who has the connections to push through the process more quickly, perhaps not officially, and certainly at an additional cost. The extra cost is called “cold water” to drink: the government agent – the gatekeeper – I’m told, cannot seem to find the strength to sign my paper or stamp my document without a little “cold water” to drink. Any number of excuses can be fabricated as to the reason why any given procedure has stagnated, until a little grease has been applied to the wheel. For example, I was stopped twice by stern fellows in street clothes telling me to pull my motorcycle to the side of the road. Each tried to reach over and take the key from my bike, which I didn’t allow. They asked to see my documents, which I promptly showed. Then I was asked to step aside and speak to the guy. “Your documents are in order. You can just ‘put yourself together’ now and you can go.” I said, “I can give you my respect, and appreciation for keeping the streets safe of rouge motorbike drivers. But I cannot give you anything else.” I was held for another 15 minutes while I was thretened to be taken down to the police station for violation of traffic laws. I was told my bike would be broken. I said to please give me a ticket if I am in violation of a written law, and I will pay it to the government LRA. But I cannot give any money to law enforcement officers on the street. I got an earful about how the real work is done on the street, not in the government offices, and that I should “do something” for them. When I eventually started to pull my phone out to call their boss I was encouraged to go and to have a nice day.

In a country where there are billboards sponsored throughout the city by the UN that contain anti-corruption messages, and where I committed to promoting government honesty by not paying bribes, it kind of seems like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position to be in. I see a bribe as money paid to receive a service or permission that shouldn’t legally be granted because the legal requirement has not been met (i.e. pass through a border without a visa, or receive a title for a stolen vehicle). Where we are in compliance with all legal requirements and still are not given permissions needed to do our work properly, is the “cold water” principle considered a bribe? What recourse is available to a small NGO when up against an unethical government employee? Do the ends of doing good charity work justify the means of taking the fast track? When using a handler it is expected that a portion of the money paid will be used to pay officials to grant permissions that should be given for free once established requirements are met, but typically are delayed, if granted at all. Will the fast track always exist? Is this issue unique to governments of low-income countries, or is the practice of government employees exploiting their position as gate keeper for personal gain a universal public problem? Either way, I am not just annoyed at the inconvenience such a system causes; I am not just put out by the extra energy, expense, and time required to work within such a system; I take it to be an offence to me and to the people of Liberia when individuals who have been placed in a position of public trust leverage that position for their personal gain. I’m normally pretty easy going, but I can get myself up in a dither when I am needing to jump through a proverbial hoop in order to advance my charity work but some thirsty person in a uniform is stopping me until they get their “cold water”.


  1. Avatar
    Mom September 28, 2016 at 1:19 am

    Interesting read, and so, so very sad. I hate dishonesty. Truly hate it.

  2. Avatar
    Wynn Jones October 18, 2016 at 3:43 am

    What an interesting post, Andy. By sticking to your guns and trying to get things done without “cold water” you are little by little helping to change a culture. By giving in, you would be just opening you and the NGO up to further “cold water” requirements. That seems like a slippery path.

    When I was in Peru I was in charge of renewing the visas for all the American missionaries. Every one of these renewals had to be processed through “Cesar” who was a government official. Cesar and I had a few discussions early on about what I could and could not do for him. He and I finally settled on me bringing him chocolates and well wishes. With this relationship established we were able to keep all our missionaries in the country without interruption.

    Bribery with cash is illegal. Being good-willed and giving a government official a ride on your motorcycle or a chocolate bar isn’t crossing the line in my opinion. We are praying for you guys Andy!

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