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Friday, January 20, 2017

Liberians Accuse Catholic Relief Services of Fear-Mongering

Liberians Accuse Catholic Relief Services of Fear-Mongering

Liberian reporters are accusing Catholic Relief Services of fanning the flames of conflict in Liberia with a newly-published survey titled, “State of Peace, Reconciliation and Conflict in Liberia.”  The survey was publicized in a press release by CRS bearing the headline, “New Study Reveals Deep Concerns for Peace in Liberia Ahead of Elections.”  According to this press release, a majority of Liberians have “deep-seated fears of renewed violence as the country prepares for historic presidential elections in October.”

In order to substantiate this claim, the press release indicates the following “key findings”:

Fragile peace: Respondents were evenly split on whether Liberia is at risk of once again descending into large-scale violent conflict (50.6% for “high to very high risk” and 43.7% for “no to low risk”).
Reconciliation: More than 80% of respondents felt that people who suffered grave injury during the war did not receive justice through the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Half of respondents (49.7%) believed that post-war reconciliation failed to achieve its objectives.
Key actors: Political leaders (71.8%) and unemployed youth (58.2%) topped the list of those who could instigate violence.
Flashpoints: Nimba, Grand Gedeh, and Montserrado were cited as the counties most likely to spark conflict, due to both historical and current factors. Inhabitants of Rivercess (79.3%), Nimba (74.9%); Grand Kru (74.4%); and Grand Cape Mount (74.2%) assessed the risk as highest, while respondents in River Gee were the most optimistic.
When considering such alarming statistics, international aid funders would surely be quick to respond with donations and grant money.  And given the rebuffs coming from Liberian reporters, this could very well be the purpose of the survey itself.  In other words, the real question is, “Is CRS fear-mongering for the sake of project donations?”

The first article coming out of Liberia on CRS’s survey bore the headline, “Pushing Up Fire: Why Catholic Relief Services Is Wrong,”  by Jeanine M. Cooper.  In her article, Ms. Cooper explains that the survey by CRS was being cited by local news sources “marking Liberia as imminently returning to civil war.”  As Ms. Cooper explains:

As far as I can tell, this looks like an international “Charity”, using their global platform to “push up fire”, as we say in Liberia, to fan any embers of conflict. And, unfortunately for Liberia and Liberians, it works for them. By releasing in January 2017 the so-called findings of a rather scant study conducted from March-May 2016, fully eight months ago; by calling it a “new” study, CRS can plant themselves firmly on the conflict prevention platform ahead of the Liberian elections.

The release gives CRS and other international charities credibility to raise funds in plenty of time for the elections in October.

Ms. Cooper then accuses CRS of “raising their profile by putting us down,” and concluding that CRS is “Pushing up fire and praying for a self-fulfilling prophecy in Liberia.”

This article was enough to raise our eyebrows, but we didn’t decide to write about it until a follow-up article was written thoroughly analyzing CRS’s survey and exposing its grave deficiencies.

Yesterday, Front Page Africa Online published an article with the headline “Catholic Relief Services Report Attempts to Undermine Liberia’s Peace.” The article was written by Taa Wongbe, who currently runs the largest research and evaluation firm in Liberia.  In the very beginning of Mr. Wongbe’s article, he provides a conclusion that directly corresponds with that of Ms. Cooper, saying:

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) had an agenda and it was not to “advance justice and positive peace” as stated in the report – it was about fear mongering and attempting to undermine our peace.

Mr. Wongbe’s article provides for core reasons for his conclusion.  While long, his analysis is sharp, which is why we are providing it in full here:

When I read the report, I quickly reached out to few of my research buddies who conduct polling and research globally to get their perspectives and they concurred with my conclusions and here are the 4 core reasons:

1) Inherent ambiguity and bias in how the survey tools were constructed

The questions are very ambiguous or biased in a way that a typical respondent may answer negatively. For example, questions 20 and 21 of the survey tools read: “Do you believe that Liberia can descend into another violent national-level conflict?” and “What is your assessment of the risk that Liberia can still descend into a violent national-level conflict, such as civil war, despite the peace it currently enjoys?”.

There is a big difference between CAN and WILL in constructing survey questions. “Can” leads the respondents and the fact is “anything CAN happen”. Given the current state of the U.S, if that question is asked today, no one is 100% sure that the US cannot descend into a conflict. Secondly, there is no time period for this conflict. Had the question been written, “within the next year” or “within the next 5 years”, we could define impending conflict. But the researchers present a purely hypothetical option that might occur at any time in the future.

2) Inability of the research to design target specific questions could lead to questioning the result of the report

Most of the questions were asked to all respondents, when it would have been more appropriate to ask the question to only certain respondents. For example, Question 9 asks the respondent to compare Liberia’s current situation to the situation before the war. This would make sense for someone who is age 43 or older (approximately age 15 in 1989). Anyone younger than this would not have first-hand memories to be able to judge the pre-war situation.

I was 10 when the war started and I cannot remember any critical “situation before the war”. I remembered that my parents both worked and they worked very hard to send us to the best schools. What I do not remember was all the nuances that my older brothers, sisters and some friends now explain. They remember details that I was just too young to comprehend. CRS should have focused on asking target-respondent specific questions in this study, unfortunately we do not see a lot of that in their report.

3) Wrong context analysis on reconciliation and negative peace in Liberia

Almost every time friends and family who are not Liberian visit Liberia, they are always amazed at stories about former fighters roaming freely. Many can’t seem to understand how Liberians could “forgive” someone who killed their friends and family members and now see the person roaming around freely and even serving in government without reacting. In my mind, I am always wondering if those people who they think have forgiven would react if given the chance because that is in fact the true definition of reconciliation.

Using terms like “reconciled” in the CRS report is too vague to produce an interpretable response. Does “reconciled” mean that former rebels have shaken the hands of their victims and said “sorry”? Does it mean that all stolen property has been returned? Does it mean that your neighbor during the war who stole some of your rice has apologized and returned it? “Reconciled” means different things to different people — and after war, people often feel like they have never been compensated or appreciated for what they suffered.

Related to reconciliation is the concept of negative peace or positive peace. The report states that “66.3% of the respondents described it as “negative peace”—implying that even though Liberians are not openly fighting, they live under circumstances (e.g., laws, rules, regulations, policies, programs, and practices) as well as conditions (such as neglect, poverty, discrimination, etc.) that inflict hardship”.

First, Question 10, which CRS mentioned extensively in the report is biased towards producing a negative response.  Based on the wording of the question, one could easily say the US is in a situation of negative peace —even before Trump was elected! If you look at all the incidents of police brutality and race issues in the U.S, one could deduce that the U.S is certainly going through a period of negative peace.

I doubt even Johan Galtung, the father of peace studies, would have used the definition of “negative peace” in the context of Liberia knowing the historical context of the country. As I previously stated, one could easily say that the US, Nigeria, Ghana and so many other countries are experiencing negative peace.

4) Lack of rigor in the study approach and design

Bad sampling design

While I doubt that sampling cause any of these results, the issue with the sampling questions CRS’s credibility and level of rigor. In the report, CRS attempts to justify why it did not use the most recent national population census which was conducted in 2008. The report states that CRS “planned to use the most recent population data from the national population census, however the most recent population census was conducted in 2008, which is outdated data for the purposes of sampling.

Additionally, the national population census data provided information on population distribution per county, but not down to community level.”

These two factors led them to use the national electoral roll used for the 2011 general elections from the National Elections Commission (NEC) because it provided, “the most comprehensive and in-depth proportional distribution of Liberia’s population across the country. It shows population distribution down to the level of electoral districts and further down to the specific polling stations. Also, it provides maps of the electoral districts and GPS locations of the polling stations.”

Even if I bought the justification, why didn’t CRS use the 2014 Voter Registration Update from the very National Elections Commission (NEC) since that is the latest? The statement that the 2011 data from NEC is the “most comprehensive and in-depth proportional distribution of Liberia’s population across the country” is plain false! 2014 is!

Furthermore, Liberia Institute of Statistics & Geo-Information Services (LISGIS) has a document on its website that projects the new population of the country based on the 2008 census results. The projection is done by County, District, Clan and Households and can be found here: Therefore the claim that the census population distribution was done per county, but not down to community level is also false! Why CRS did not use the new projections leads me to question its motives further.

Lastly, while reading the report, I also discovered that CRS did not provide enough information on how households and respondents within households were selected to participate. The report simply states that “procedures for determining specific households from which interviewees were picked as well as the process for identifying and selecting specific individuals for the interviews were discussed at the data collection training that took place in Gbarnga 10-11 March 2016”. CRS owes it to the public to provide more details regarding this subject.

No data triangulation whatsoever

After separately analyzing both types of data (qualitative and quantitative), it’s often critical to conduct a joint analysis using a triangulation process. However, the report did not mention anything about data triangulation once! Triangulation is a powerful technique that facilitates validation of data through cross verification from two or more sources. In particular, it refers to the application and combination of several research methodologies in the study of the same phenomenon (Erlandson, Harris, Skipper, & Allen, 1993; Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Bogdan & Biklen, 2007; Silverman, 1993).

The triangulation process could have enabled CRS to validate the outcome of the study while offering robust recommendations and strategies to ensure peace in Liberia. The lack of triangulation leads me to think that CRS had a pre-determined mindset regarding the topic.

Lack of clarity on QA process or technical competence of the field researchers

The report states a lot about its methodology, but nothing on quality control and quality assurance of the data collection process. I am unsure if any quality control measures were taken so I have serious questions and reservations about the validity of the data. For example, was the data collection instrument pretested?

Was the process piloted? Were field quality assurance procedures put in place to ensure that correct respondents were sampled in each polling unit? How were they sure that the data was not collected under the mango tree?

When I read that training was conducted from March 10 to March 11 of 2016 and data collection and upload started on March 12th, it led me to conclude that the training process was very poor. I have never…and I mean NEVER seen data collection training for a national study lasting only two days. From the statement in the report, it means that piloting was not done, supervisor training was not done and no time to adjust and retrain the team.

If piloting was done, CRS would not have experienced a situation where “several data clerks lost interviews in the process of uploading”. Note that CRS did not say how many were lost, but simply “several data clerks lost interviews in the process of uploading”.

No focus group discussions conducted whatsoever

The research only conducted key informant interviews (KIIs) as part of the qualitative methods. It would have also been best to conduct focus group discussions (FGDs) to gain other insights into the perceptions of people.

Relying only on KIIs leads to lack of triangulation within the data collected for the study. Based on our experiences, KIIs are typically conducted with an influencer or elite in the community and their opinions often do not represent the community.


Why would an organization such as Catholic Relief Services that should be focused on peace and reconciliation allow for such a botched-up report to be released to cause fear? While the report provides some seemingly good recommendations, there are many other reports within the development community in Liberia with similar recommendations and they managed to achieve similar outcomes without causing fear and they were pretty rigorous studies.

The only conclusion is that CRS had intentions and agenda beyond advancing justice and positive peace in Liberia. The report was also meant to instill fear and undermine the peace in Liberia.

As it stands, CRS’s survey is woefully inadequate for the conclusions to which it jumps.  But as both reporters suggested, what needs to be found is the possible motive for such a shoddy report with highly unreliable conclusions.

Twice now, Liberians have publicly accused Catholic Relief Services of fear mongering for the sake of some agenda other than the claim of advancing “justice and positive peace.” Ms. Cooper, in fact, alleges that CRS could use the survey as a means of raising funds.  As it turns out, she may be right.

In the “Recommendations” section of CRS’s 206 page report on this survey, CRS makes several cases for expanded projects and funding opportunities that would benefit CRS and its partners.

The recommendation on page 113 for suggests forming a coalition for training opportunities leading up to the election:

Organize and administer a nation-wide election observation mission:
Liberian civil society organizations including the Justice and Peace Commissions (JPC) of the Catholic Church should form a coalition to recruit, train and deploy election observers across the country. The Catholic Church should leverage its extensive network of parishes and associations, and also capitalize on good relations with civil society faith-based groups. The experience of sister churches on the continent can support this effort.

On page 114, CRS proposes that “donors provide financial and material resources to support healing and reconciliation services” as implemented by organizations like CRS and its partners:

Support multiple avenues to healing and reconciliation: Victims and offenders should be reached through multiple, inter-faith efforts by Catholic and Protestant Churches, by Muslim leaders, through African Indigenous Religious practices and non-faith-based community support. It is recommended that donors provide financial and material resources to support healing and reconciliation services.

Page 116 suggests that CRS’ financial programs could play a role in youth employment programs:

Provide capacity building and other opportunities to improve youth employability:
Reintegrating young people requires retraining and equipping them with knowledge, skills and tools that correspond to job market needs and reflect their interests and capacities. Individualized and interest-based capacity building are much more effective than blanket vocational training. In the agriculture sector, vegetables, fruits, flowers and other high value crops with long value chains are a good entry points. CRS’ Savings and Internal Lending Communities (SILC) have proven successful in helping people of all ages learn to manage, save and invest money into small businesses.

On page 116, CRS also proposes that CRS Liberia should get involved in judicial reform efforts:

Advocate for the establishment of chiefs’ courts as Community-based Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms (CADRMs):
CRS Liberia and its partners should support legal and judicial reform efforts to integrate chiefs’ courts into the formal justice system as part of the ADR mechanism. Formal recognition and integration of the traditional systems into the national justice framework will enhance the image and capacities of these grassroots channels and ensure that chiefs’ decisions are legally binding add enforceable (and also subject to ratification and/or appeal in higher courts)

On page 117, CRS promotes one of its own programs that just happens to be available for use at the time this survey is published:

Conduct social cohesion strengthening workshops:
CRS has already developed social cohesion strengthening approaches and tools, in the Philippines, the Central African Republic and elsewhere. These best practices can be readily applied in Liberia. CRS’ flagship social cohesion training guide, “The Ties that Bind: Building Social Cohesion in Divided Communities”, includes a training of trainers module and will be available from January 2017.

On the face of it, if the analysis from Liberia bears out, CRS is employing unethical methods for the purpose of fundraising.  But worse yet, driven by its desire to score yet another major-funding project, it could spark an unnecessary conflict by elevating fears that aren’t currently there.