Building a strategy

Research and knowledge systems in difficult places part 2: Liberia

By 16/06/2016

In April, INASP published a blog post featuring South Sudan, introducing the first of a series of new papers on research and knowledge systems in “difficult places”. Around 4000 miles west of Juba, hugging the Atlantic coast of the continent is Liberia, which is the subject of this next post. While South Sudan is the world’s newest state, Liberia is Africa’s oldest republic, independent since 1847. But when we chose Liberia we weren’t tracing a simple conflict or crisis theme. Instead, with strong partnerships in Ghana, and new projects in Sierra Leone, it was a logical next step for INASP to consider working in Liberia.

Common threads

Of course, as countries which have both suffered many years of violence, there are some obvious, if superficial, similarities between Liberia and South Sudan – both are slowly rebuilding basic infrastructure and developing new institutions, and both lost many people during these crises, leaving major gaps in universities, research institutions and other organisations. Both are countries with a considerable presence of international organisations, with humanitarian and development agencies providing basic services and engaged in the remaking of shattered states. Both are also characterised by more recent crises – the ongoing conflict and displacement in South Sudan, and the recently ended Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

The reach of the donor community extends into research, with significant centres relying on the support of international agencies. In fact Gberie  (the author of our paper on Liberia) suggests that donor-driven work, which is “more about measuring outputs than using previous studies as a baseline” has led to research fatigue amongst communities who are regularly surveyed.

Research in Liberia’s universities is more of an aspiration than an observable activity, Gberie notes, with universities and other research institutes constrained by the familiar problems of insufficient funding, poor facilities and insufficient numbers of qualified staff. “Funding for its premier research institution, the University of Liberia, has been consistently inadequate, and the university is in a poor state. Government spending on the institution has decreased as student numbers have increased”, he notes.

Although university resources are strained, the mass failure of all of the 25,000 candidates sitting the University of Liberia’s 2013 entrance exam demonstrates that the problems facing the university are in part the result of weaknesses in the country’s schools, meaning students are unprepared for higher-level studies. As Gberie explains:

“It emerged that a policy to relax academic standards had been instituted since 2006. This was to allow for the mass production of university graduates to make up for the non-production of graduates during the war years. Once the university authorities decided to adhere strictly to acceptable academic standards, none of the applicants could pass. The episode exposed the parlous state of primary and secondary education in Liberia.”

Strengthening the state

Liberia’s national development framework – Vision 2030 –suggests that the higher education and research system is a priority of government. Vision 2030, with the caption ‘Liberia Rising’, expresses an ambition to move the country away from a model of development based on natural resources, and towards a model based on knowledge, and identifies an important role for higher education institutions in helping to strengthen the capacity of the state, and relationships between the state and its citizens.

Peace and reconciliation, part of an overall process of national healing, are major themes for the research that does take place, typically funded by the US and in partnership with US institutions. The University of Liberia’s Institute of Policy Studies is noted for its work related to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and its work on a national history project.

Several ministries and government agencies have interests in policy research. Although Gberie notes that capacity for conducting or using research is generally weak, he points to its role as part of Liberia’s ongoing programmes of political, legal and administrative reform. The Governance Commission is felt to be the “most effective and prolific in producing solid research and documentation”, while a series of other public institutions cover issues from land reform to national data and statistics.  Paralleling the work of the official agencies are a number of civil society organisations covering similar themes of justice, land, accountability.

Responding to Ebola

The 2014-15 Ebola outbreak also highlighted the need for a stronger domestic science infrastructure. Since the outbreak, the University’s Liberian Institute of Bio-Medical Research has become the country’s focal point for research on the virus, working closely with several US state institutions.

An op-ed in the New York Times pointed to a prior study in a European journal, written 30 years previously, which suggested Liberia was within the endemic zone for Ebola. Unfortunately the work had not involved Liberian scientists and was unknown within the Liberian medical community, while the country’s public health laboratories were a casualty of the conflicts. While the issue wasn’t just a case of simple access (see this post for a more detailed discussion), it drew the problem of a weak research system into sharp relief. As Gberie explains:

“No university in Liberia has online access to journals or the facilities of other libraries. International NGOs are so far the only organisations in Liberia with good access to published online research. Liberian researchers access online research mostly through links provided by visiting lecturers with access to university systems.”

The full profile can be downloaded here. It is a relatively brief, high-level summary, and we would be keen to hear from others who can help us deepen and expand upon these foundations. Please get in touch via email to