Liberia exposes finances with city billboard

AP News
Posted: Jan 25, 2013 4:26 PM
Liberia exposes finances with city billboard

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Liberia's people have a novel way of finding out how their government is spending their money.

On a bustling street in the capital, people can look up at an electronic information billboard that relays how state funds are being spent.

The U.S.-supported project in Monrovia aims to improve state transparency, and the government of Nobel laureate President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wants passers-by who might not normally read newspapers or surf the Internet to see what government projects are under way and where its money is being channeled.

Hundreds turned out Wednesday as the Harvard-educated president switched on the billboard, which is connected directly to the Finance Ministry's database, for the first time.

The billboard amounts to another step in the country's reconstruction following back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 2003 that killed an estimated 250,000 people, displaced millions and devastated the economy. Founded in the mid-19th century by freed American slaves, the impoverished country has received hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid since the civil war.

The bright, colorful, viewer-friendly screen shows how tax dollars go to hospitals, roads, schools or agriculture, and how Liberia shapes up by sector compared to its West African neighbors.

Finance Minister Amara Konneh said the ultimate ambition is that Liberians "will hold public officials accountable for results." He acknowledged it won't be an antidote for corruption, but could help make inroads against it.

"The official corruption in our country is entrenched," Konneh told The Associated Press. "What we are doing by putting this symbol of openness out is to prevent; prevention is better than cure."

As Monrovians stopped to ponder the new billboard, some struggled to see the point or sensed a public-relations stunt.

"I don't see any significance," said James Smith. "Government should find another means to really educate people rather than plant billboards."

But Marie, a hairdresser who preferred to give only her first name, said: "Liberians should learn to appreciate a small beginning .... We were never being told of how our money was being spent. This is a way to start creating the awareness."