By Erica Bustinza, mSTAR Project Director
mSTAR/Liberia ended activities in May 2018 after enrolling 4,870 civil servants across Liberia into mobile salary payments and successfully handing the mobile salary payment program over to the government. Over the summer we will be posting a blog series on what went well and why, how we overcame challenges, and lessons for the future. We’ll be writing from a management angle, monitoring and evaluation angle, a communications angle and a digital financial services angle.
Project closeout is a hectic time. There’s a list of detailed tasks to accomplish, from finalizing results and lessons learned to equipment disposition. But what if closeout plans are rocked by a natural disaster? Or a financial shock? Or a government transition?
For the first time in 12 years in Liberia, a new president was elected to power. It was a peaceful transition of power that the country celebrated, but it also coincided perfectly with mSTAR/Liberia’s scheduled closeout. Charged with supporting the government to offer mobile money salary payments to civil servants, mSTAR/Liberia’s planned closeout included a comprehensive handover of intricate tasks to government leaders. However, a new administration meant that many government colleagues who supported the project were being replaced. The mSTAR team couldn’t ask the government to reschedule the transition and it was unclear if there would be enough time to ensure the new administration would fully be able to take ownership. In the last few months of the project, navigating the transition appeared daunting.
From 2016 to 2018, mSTAR/Liberia supported the government in offering mobile money as a new payment option for civil servants. Before this payment option, the only way for civil servants to receive their salary was to travel down dangerous roads to banks in distant cities where low liquidity forced them to wait, often for days. Throughout this journey, civil servants spend huge sums of money on lodging and food, in addition to missing work. With the mobile money salary payment option, however, civil servants can receive their salary on their phones. This option has saved civil servants 12 hours at work and 979 LD on average, which is roughly 7 percent of the average salary.
For two years, mSTAR worked to make this payment option a success. mSTAR built consensus with government and private sector stakeholders to enroll civil servants in the program through over 60 local events across all 15 Liberian counties. Through this work, over 4,500 civil servants enrolled in the payment program and the country’s two mobile money providers signed on to offer their services.
Yet from June 2017 all the way to March 2018, elections and the change of administration caused an all-around distraction for both mSTAR and government staff, impeding progress during key months for implementation. Fortunately, several government counterparts felt the gains that had been made and were motivated to push for activities to continue, even if at a reduced pace.
In the last six months of mSTAR/Liberia’s activities, it became clear that mSTAR’s only option for a smooth handover was to begin project transition early and involve as many relevant stakeholders as possible. As election campaigns heated up, it took several months to hold initial transition meetings, but mSTAR remained persistent. Following the inauguration in January 2018, the new administration greenlighted select mSTAR activities and the mSTAR and GOL teams sprang into action. During the final months of the project, major sustainability activities were achieved including three large-scale regional trainings for district and county staff, a high-level stakeholder sustainability meeting and a final closeout event featuring public statements of support from each key stakeholder, many of whom were from the new administration. The project not only met, but surpassed expectations.
mSTAR’s Keys to Closeout Success:
- Build sustainability into project design. The project built government ownership into the design. Stakeholders knew from the onset that the government would own the initiative. From the start, the mSTAR team worked towards that goal. This understanding made the eventual government transition smooth.
- Involve local and technical staff in key parts of implementation. mSTAR worked with the GOL technical teams rather than focusing on politically-appointed decision makers. While senior staff were replaced in the new administration, the technical teams remained. The technical teams were proud advocates of the program and obtained critical buy-in from the new administration.
- Create collaborative and cost-effective mechanisms. At the project onset, mSTAR and the GOL knew the GOL would not be able to sustain the large-scale enrollment events that mSTAR was supporting, so they created a separate enrollment method called “individual enrollments.” This system utilizes processes that are already in place, eliminating the need for additional funding or time-consuming new functions for overstretched rural staff.
- Keep energy and momentum high. The government was energized to continue scaling up the project because they saw positive results. Benefits the government saw include:
- Staff spend less time collecting salary
- Staff have more time on duty at health facilities and schools
- Staff reported fewer complaints pertaining to salary issues
- Staff experienced financial savings due to reduced transportation and other related costs when collecting salary at the bank
In light of these four keys, the importance of building ownership into the project design remains paramount. It not only prepared the project and the GOL for the transition, but also helped mSTAR reach and exceed project goals and build civil servant trust in the system. County and district staff reported that they understand the importance of their duty and that they would continue to encourage civil servants to transition to mobile money salary payments. Leadership in Monrovia said the same. “We will run with this program,” said James M. Beyan, the Director of Human Resources at the Ministry of Health, at the closeout event. James Armah Massaquoi of the Ministry of Education echoed, “We will continue the effort of mobile money. We will not allow the dream to die though the challenges seem big.”
Erica Bustinza has worked in development for over 10 years in various geographic regions and sectors, primarily focused on access to finance, economic development and technology integration. She holds a MSc in International Development from Tulane University and a BSc from Bradley University.