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Meaningful Citizen Participation in Decentralization and Local Governance

Sabina Panth's picture

We expect decentralization to bring decision-making governance closer to the people/citizens.  Donors use this rationale to push governments, mainly in developing countries, to devolve central power and authority towards strengthening civic engagement in local governance processes.  But according to Dany Ayida, a governance expert who shared his field experience in Central and West Africa at a recent presentation at the World Bank, meaningful civic participation in a decentralization setting depends on various factors, including:  a) vitality of the public sphere or political environment; b) the culture and political history of the country; and c) the capacity and incentives of both civil society organization and local governments to interact and interface meaningfully with one another.

First, let us discuss what we mean by civic participation in decentralization and local governance.  Ideally, decentralization would devolve government functions and authorities to the local level, allowing citizens to elect their representatives to manage local affairs. We typically expect that moving government closer to the people will ease interactions and information flow between citizens and government.  This process theoretically aids in formulating a development agenda that corresponds to local needs and opportunities while improving transparency and accountability in public service delivery. 

Based on the field realities he experienced in six francophone African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Togo), Ayida concluded that, despite the fact that decentralization is picking up momentum in these countries, there hasn’t been a comparable increase in civic participation and government accountability as a result.  Ayida further claims he has not witnessed any natural interaction evolving between civil society and the local governments.  On the contrary, it has been donor interests and funding that appear to be the driving force in bringing civil society and government together.  This, according to Ayida, has -unfortunately- led to only episodic interaction between the two parties, without adequately enunciating deep social, economical and political challenges.  Moreover, the tradition of chieftaincy and feudal culture, combined with low literacy rates (as low as 89% in rural areas) are seen as severe obstacles to effective participation of citizens in local governance processes.

Ayida’s presentation was followed up by a brainstorming session, where a general consensus emerged that civil engagement in decentralization has not been adequately internalized or institutionalized among both government and civil society organizations.  Donor engagement has remained project-based and is not equipped to deal with fundamental problems associated with local politics and culture.  On the other hand, opportunities do exist, despite these shortfalls.  Rather than taking an open-ended generalized approach to strengthening civil engagement in local governance processes, the project-based support from donors can be turned into issue-based civic participation with specific need-based sectoral targets and outcomes (e.g. whether drugs have reached the health clinics or whether teachers are attending classes, etc).   Basically, the issues identified should be a driving force and an incentive for both the demand and supply side to meaningfully engage with one another and improve the quality and standard of public services.

In terms of tackling illiteracy and local power dynamics for meaningful civic participation, new technological innovations are expected to assist the devolution process, increasing citizens’ access to pertinent information (See my previous blog post on illiteracy friendly technology).  One of the participants also pointed out that facilitating skills are important in galvanizing participation of illiterates in government affairs.  Similarly, building reform coordination and alliances around specific issues and cultivating a spirit of competition among and between civil society actors and government entities (including traditional chieftaincy) is expected to create incentives for all parties to interact and engage effectively in local governance processes.  

Observations of people such as Dany Ayida, especially those with solid field experience, are invaluable as strategies and processes are refined in the field of decentralization and local development and beyond.

Photo Credit: PriaEducation India (Flickr User)


Submitted by Akabzaa Roland on
I agree with Dany Ayida's research finding, it is applicable to the Anglophone countires as well. I am from Ghana, I recently reviewed evidence on the impact of decentralisation on poverty reduction and democary in West africa and Ghana, the result is the same. In addition to these findings, is the issues of partisan politics which at the local goverment level encouraging corruption and exlusion. In ghana even though the local elections are non-partisan by the constitution, in reality they highly partisan and people in opposition are excluded inteh runing of local governemnts. Social benefits including social protection benefits are targeted at party members instead of the deserving poor. Elite capture si another problem is encourage corruption and lessing participation i local governace. thus the democratic benefits of decentralisation is not been fully realised.

Submitted by Dany Ayida on
I would like to thank Sabina for her good article on the debate we had at the World Bank. Mr Akabzaa's comments show that there are similarities in the situations of different countries relating to decentralization and local governance in Africa. The quality of the involvement of civil society and community based organizations in local governance deeply depend on the whole institutional and political environment. Although local development does not have political colour, the fact that the overall actions toward social and economic changes are carried/governed by politicians affects the atmosphere of every locality. Mr Akabzaa's findings on the grabbing of the local dynamics in Ghana by the ruling political party need to be discussed. But we should admit the legal framework of decentralization in Ghana is far different from the situation in neighbor countries. A comparative study can help to understand the interactions between the conditions of establishment of local governments and the overall effectiveness of local dynamics. Sabina's reflecion on the importance of the population access to pertinent information is the key to improve decentralization process.

Submitted by Akabzaa Roland on
Mid 2012, we conducted a study, assessing the capacity of Civil Society to enagage Local Authorities (LAs) on transparency and accountability issues in Ghana. The findings show that CSOs were involved in improving accountability and transparency at the national level but there is limited engagement at the local level on transparency and accountability. While there are some national CSOs engaging in accountability and transparency, their activities are usually nationally based with limited involvement of the grassroots CBOs. Many CBOs dread issues pertaining to transparency and accountability for fear of victimisation and intimidation. For the local authorities, the involvement of CSOs in transparency and accountability issues is unsettling often resulting in a reprehensive relationship between them and CSOs. There is a general sense of mistrust between CSOs and local authorities in Ghana and these is worsening limited capacity by local level NGOs to understand the local ogovernance system and to engage. The result is limited participation of NGOs and citizern in governace. The result is that Local goverance in Ghana remained opigue and distance form the citizen. Factors affecting CSOs Engagement with Local Authorities (LAs) included the following: 1. Inadequate Knowledge of Government Policies:The level of appreciation of government and district assembly policies and programmes was low especially among CBOs and small National/regional CBOs. 2. The Lack of a Common Voice or Platform for Engaging LAs: Another critical issues affecting CSOs engagement with LAs is limited common voice or platforms for engaging LAs. It was observed that MMDAs are interested in engaging CSOs but the vast number of CSOs operating at local makes it difficult for LAs to engage with them. LAs therefore pick and choose which CSOs to work with and this creates affective active participation of CSOs. LAs indicated their frustration in dealing with a sea of CSOs on different areas of development at the district level. 3. Resource Constraints: Funding opportunities for CSOs in Ghana has dramatically shrunk over the last years. Many CSOs have folded up and of those left many are financial insecure. This has affected the degree of activity at district level as well as the quality of staffing 4. Low Credibility of some CSOs: The low credibility of some CSOs tends to impact negatively on their operations. Such credibility issues emanate from CSOs inability to register with the assembly. 5. CSO Accountability: It was observed by both CSOs and LAs officials that while CSOs are preaching the virtues of accountability they rarely practice it themselves. The issues of local governace and participation of the citizerny need to be further explored and comparative analysis is helpful.

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