In August 2003, Liberia emerged from over 20 years of upheaval badly bruised and war weary, with 14 years of civil war fuelled primarily by ill-gotten wealth from its natural resources. In August 2013, the country celebrated ten years of uninterrupted peace. Although a major milestone in Liberia’s history, much of the last decade of peace has not fundamentally changed how the state operates. Big business and political elites continue to jockey for power over the country’s natural resources, and the overreliance on concession wealth has eroded relations between the state and its citizens. There have been considerable strides in transforming the legal frameworks underpinning Liberia’s natural resources sector, yet the lack of political will to implement broad sweeping reforms remains a major challenge. In the past decade, civil society has emerged as a major player in pushing for a ‘positive peace’ agenda, one that insists on an overhaul of rules, regulations, attitudes, behaviours, norms, and processes that fuel inequality, impunity, and graft—major causes of Liberia’s civil war. One such organisation, the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI), has insisted on a complete break from the past. Although the SDI was initially conceived in its embryonic stages in 2002, the organisation was formally birthed as a full-fledged civil society player in Liberia in 2004. With only three staff, few resources, and very little clout, the SDI set out to address the continued marginalisation and exclusion of ordinary citizens from natural resources decision-making processes. In the last decade alone, the SDI has mobilised and empowered local communities across Liberia and advocated for them to have an active role and a space in decision-making in natural resources governance. According to Nora Bowier, Coordinator, Community Rights and Corporate Governance Programme (SDI), the organisation has also “advocated for improved laws, policies and provisions that protect community rights, promote benefit sharing, improve transparency and accountability, and increase civil society participation.” SDI has also increased its staffing, expanded its resource base, and gained recognition (and sometimes notoriety) domestically and internationally as the ‘go-to’ source of research, advocacy, and policy-making in Liberia’s natural resources sector. According to its founder, Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor, the SDI “is viewed by diverse stakeholders as a credible and strategic thinking organisation, and one that often has an alternative and informed viewpoint on issues related to natural resources.” In 2006, Siakor received on behalf of the SDI the Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest prize honouring grassroots environmentalists. The SDI story proves that ‘people’s power’ can ultimately prevail over corporate greed and the politics of the day.
Sustainable Development Institute, Monrovia, Liberia