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Food From This Soil: Land Rights in Liberia

Rachel Ostrow|

We’ve got case studies. We’ve got six years worth of blogs, research, and webpages dedicated to open government. We’ve got thousands of civil servants and civil society reformers working across the globe to make governments more transparent, accountable, and responsive to citizens. We’re the Open Government Partnership, so we have a lot of information, and people, and structure.

But what does that actually look like?

As a member of OGP’s communications team, it’s hard for me to know. I don’t visit countries the way our country teams do; nor do I meet with ministers and civil society leaders the way our management team does. For me, OGP reforms have always been abstract; I read about them every day as the editor of this very blog. In many cases, these blogs are coming from the reformers on the ground. It’s like listening to the radio: you get a feel for what’s going on, but you’re not totally immersed.

There’s another problem: the very language of open government reforms. We talk about governance in an abstract way, due to its complexity. There are no simple answers. Frequently, there isn’t a clear narrative to describe things in an accessible way. We try to rectify this on the blog and in some of our reports, but it can be hard to avoid the elaborate language of governance.

Earlier this year, as part of a joint effort between the Independent Reporting Mechanism and our communications staff to write accessible stories about OGP reforms, I wrote about Liberia’s commitment to ensure that information on commercial land use rights is publically available.  This story stuck with me, and in August, the communications team traveled to Liberia to shoot a video about it.

Land was a driver of Liberia’s civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s; according to the UN, it’s still the biggest factor in future conflict there. Without constitutionally or legally mandated land rights, conflict will continue to spring up: between communities, between communities and companies, and between communities and the government. Every year since 2013, the government has introduced the Land Rights Act in the legislature, attempting to codify rights for the Liberian people, concessionaires, the government, and communities. The Act hasn’t been passed yet, stuck in limbo between the demands of the stakeholders.

In Liberia, we spoke to civil society leaders both inside and outside the land rights discussion, lawyers, government ministers, representatives from concessionaires, citizens from the concessions-impacted Jogbahn community in Grand Bassa County, anyone we could find with a view on the issue. The story was complex, tied in with the civil war, the recent Ebola crisis, and the upcoming presidential election.

The day before we left Liberia, after getting remarkable footage from the Jogbahn community, we attended a meeting of the Civil Society Working Group on Land Reform, hosted by Transparency International’s Liberian chapter, CENTAL. We walked up a set of concrete steps with camera equipment to a powerless, un-air conditioned room across the street from the main hospital in Monrovia. It was rush hour during rainy season; discussions were punctuated by rain on the tin roof and the honking of cars and tuk-tuks passing by.

Twenty-five people came from a variety of different organizations, with different advocacy positions. Advocates argued over statutes and rules that should go into the Land Rights Act, which was up for discussion in the legislature again. Newspaper articles about land reform were shared. In the end, the group decided that they would take a meeting with a government representative to share their concerns about the Act as it stood. The only non-Liberians in the room were myself and one of our videographers, quietly moving around to catch photos and quotes. There were no aid groups, no multilateral funders, no external stakeholders – simply civil society, advocating for citizens.

Why am I sharing that scene with you? To illustrate the one thing we quickly learned: the stories we seek are not easily tied up in a bow, and in open government, there’s as much to learn from the process as from the solution. Open government is a new concept and, in many cases, we only have the earliest of early results showing how it’s worked (or how it hasn’t). We set out to tell a success story; in reality, what we ended up telling is a process story. Civil society having that space to talk – civil society having the ability to speak to the government and other stakeholders – civil society making progress on the Land Rights Act – these are remarkable steps in and of themselves. Civil society is using the data released through the OGP commitment I wrote about in February to know more about concessions and land use. They’re using this information to run their meetings and to speak with the other stakeholders.

My colleagues and I returned from Liberia with hard drives full of video and a story without an ending – one you can see here. We hope that this story helps to illustrate what OGP looks like – both the process and the results – when you strip away the elaborate language and show it from the citizen perspective.

OGP would like to recognize and thank the Sustainable Development Institute, Accountability Lab Liberia, the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism, Winston Tubman, the Civil Society Working Group on Land Reform, and the Jogbahn community for their cooperation and assistance in the making of this film.

Open Government Partnership