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)
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- Decentralization and Local Governance
- Citizens Participation in Local Governance