What Liberia Can Teach Haiti — the Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat

Global Philanthropy
Thursday, September 22, 2011

The following post originally appeared on Karen’s Blog, written by Karen Ansara, Co-Founder of New England International Donors, the Ansara Family Fund, and The Haiti Fund.

Ravaged by a 14-year civil conflict fueled by despotic President Charles Taylor, the country of Liberia began to crawl out of its abyss in 2006 when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected to the Presidency. Since then, according to government reports: the economy has grown by 7% between 2006-2009; …“has attracted 16 billion USD in foreign direct investment while negotiating more equitable terms in natural resource contracts; …is making significant strides in the fight against corruption; and the delivery of basic services has begun to be restored: access to safe drinking water has been increased by 50%; over 80 health facilities have been constructed or rehabilitated; and primary and secondary school enrollment increased by 44%.” (From a Secretariat handout for the 2011 Philanthropists Visit.)

Once deemed a “failed state,” the Liberian government’s audacious current goal is to achieve “middle income status” as a state by 2013. It well might. What is Liberia’s secret to such progress? Government officials and funders alike give some of the credit to a three-year-old cabinet-level ministry established by President Johnson Sirleaf – the Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat

– which recruits, support and harmonizes foreign philanthropy and social investment and, most importantly, ensures it works in tandem with Liberia’s national development plans. Each fall The Philanthropy Secretariat – the first of its kind in the world – gathers current and prospective funders to receive reports from national officials, to compare notes on grants, and to find partners for their ventures. I attended this annual gathering on Monday, hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation in NYC, and found the degree of mutual trust remarkable; the commitment to collaboration electric.

I couldn’t help but listen to the meeting through the lens of Haiti’s epithet as the “Republic of NGOs” (purportedly 10,000 of them.) Haiti’s philanthropic and foreign aid interventions have represented the antithesis of collaboration: during the reigns of the Duvalier dictators, the two rocky terms of President Jean Bertrand-Aristide, and the military coup period in between, both foreign aid and philanthropy deliberately circumvented the Haitian government, whether to directly undermine it, to avoid its corruption, or simply in arrogant dismissal of local wisdom and leadership. An oft-described parallel anarchy of NGO service providers evolved, and its vestiges remain. Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, attacks this NGO system as de-capacitizing the Haitian government.  Now, more than ever, he implores, foreign governments and NGOs must strengthen the Haitian government’s ministries, including providing direct budget support.  Haiti can only recover if we “accompany” the Haitian government and her people, as explained in “Foreign Affairs: Partners in Help.”

Could Haiti have a Philanthropy Secretariat? After the 2010 earthquake The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission was established to coordinate aid, social investments and philanthropic projects via a project approval process and a registry of projects by sector and geography. An auxiliary Haiti Reconstruction Fund was set up to receive foreign aid not earmarked towards specific projects, but its efficacy has been grossly disappointing. (See my prior blog post,A Failing Report Card for the Haiti Reconstruction Fund,” from July 8, 2011.)

The Interim Haiti Recovery Commision (IHRC) has been severely criticized for its structure: with co-leadership by UN Special Envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton and Haiti’s Prime Minister, half of the delegates represent the Government of Haiti and the other half represent the largest donor countries, those which hold the purse strings. Such a structure was ostensibly intended to coordinate the massive outpouring of commitments to relieve suffering and reconstruct the country; yet, clearly, the overriding concern was donor government fear of corruption in Haiti that could divert donations. The lack of firm control by one entity – the Haitian government – coupled with the three-month vacancy in Haiti’s Prime Minister post — has left the IHRC without a sure rudder or the power to secure the funding promised it.

Once new Haitian President Michel Martelly gets his Parliament in order (now likely with the third Prime Minister nomination of Clinton’s own Chief of Staff, Garry Connille), he may call for the IHRC to be reconfigured. (See a critique of Connille’s policy training.)

I hope the Liberian Philanthropy Secretariat will serve as a model and inspiration for the Haitian Government. By establishing a cabinet ministry directly under his charge, President Martelly could better convey the Haitian government’s need for capacity building in all sectors and at levels from national to municipal.  Priority interventions could be solicited to accord with the government’s poverty reduction strategies. Trust between government and international NGOs could be fostered. Successes could be showcased and replicated. Funders could make friends. Collaboration could become contagious.

If this can happen in Liberia, once ridden with atrocities and still grappling with shocking poverty, it can happen in Haiti. Yet, there are pre-requisites. For a national Philanthropy Secretariat to succeed in garnering funding partners, government officials at the highest levels must demonstrate a radically new behavior that eschews self-gain and corruption – one that warrants the world’s trust.

To learn more about the extraordinary partnerships forming with the Liberia Philanthropy Secretariat, please join New England International Donors and the Hunt Alternatives Fund in Cambridge, MA on September 28 from 3:30 to 5:00 when we will be honored to host Ms. Jennah Scott, the new Program Director for the Secretariat. We will examine the progress of the Secretariat in Liberia and explore whether the model can truly be replicated in other nation-states. Space is very limited. Click here to inquire or RSVP.

New England International Donors brings globally minded donors together to change the world through giving. Through learning and networking NEID seeks to increase the quality and quantity of international philanthropy from New England.