Subsidiarity, autonomy and local democracy

Given our long association with local government, the idea that it is a good in itself comes naturally and so the temptation to believe that any working system of local democracy is better than none is ever present. Recently (12/08/2013),the NGO Face the Future’s (FtF) mail, with some interesting ideas on local government, alluded to this when it said “… it is worrying that public comment on the new Bills has focused almost exclusively on the fact that they clear the way for local government elections, rather than on their substance.”
Of course, there is a grain but only a grain, of truth in the position that any working local system that gives people a level of control over their lives may be better than none. On the other hand, the outcomes from a badly constructed system could lead to dashed expectations and alienation from the very process it seeks to establish.

Last week, I indicated that, depending on their ideology, people can come to a reform process with different expectations. Therefore, in my view, if we are to establish a reasonably adequate system of local democracy, it is best that the underlying principle or principles that drive/s our endeavour be made explicitly clear.

But although general agreement on such principles would prove a huge advantage, this is not always possible or necessary for the negotiation to proceed. Once we understand the goals of the other side it does enhance the capacity of the parties to build and swop value in the interest of a more coherent outcome.

future notesThat said, my approach to local government reform is based on “subsidiarity.” The Oxford dictionary defines subsidiarity as the organising principle of decentralisation, which holds that the central authority should have a subsidiary function dealing with only those tasks that cannot be dealt with effectively at the local level and that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralised authority capable of addressing them effectively.

The reforms now being attempted have not taken on this kind of depth, but a studied division of functional location could be important.

For example, we recognise the scourge of domestic violence, children at risk, truancy, nonresponsive policing, etc. but are the state’s responses located at the most efficacious and/or accountable level of government? It appears to me that if well embedded in and/or accountable to Neighbourhood Democratic Councils (NDC), these responses would be better placed to timely capture and take remedial action to deal with many of the above mentioned problems.

The heavy bias towards local autonomy has to do with our ethnic context, to which I believe we must unashamedly make concessions. It does not take much to see that it is possible to configure a local government system presumably based on subsidiarity but that is essentially founded in the delegation rather than the devolution of power. I believe that in our context “subsidiarity” must involve arrangements that facilitate ethnically balanced distribution of local personnel and resources and encourages really independent local action.

Before we proceed to look at the current reforms, we need to have some basic idea of the nature of the extant system. Local government is enshrined in the Constitution and is provided for by the Local Government Act 1998, the Municipal and District Councils Act 1988 and other pieces of legislation.

Guyana is divided into ten regions, six municipalities; sixty five neighbourhoods and about seventy five Amerindian village councils.

The regions are governed by elected regional democratic councils (RDCs), which then appoint chairpersons and deputy chairpersons, who are considered the political heads of the regions. Regional executive officers, under the guidance of the regional chairpersons, are the accounting officers and are responsible for the day-to-day activities of the RDCs.

The municipal councils elect mayors and deputy mayors from their elected members. Town clerks are the chief administrative officers of municipalities, responsible for coordinating the work of the councils and treasurers are the chief financial officers in control of financial and accounting matters. Neighbourhoods are governed by elected neighbourhood democratic councils (NDCs). They, too, have political chairpersons who are elected from among the membership, and executive officers responsible for day-to-day administration.

Local democratic organs have broad responsibility to maintain and protect public property; protect and improve the physical environment; improve working and living conditions; stimulate economic activities and improve production and efficiency; promote the social and cultural life of the people, etc. RDCs are responsible for health, education and agriculture support services and the main functions of the NDCs appear to be those they took over from the old village councils, namely responsibility for drainage and irrigation, infrastructure, sanitation, markets, etc. The councils of Georgetown and New Amsterdam have more autonomy than NDCs. The regions, municipalities and NDCs receive transfers from the government and the latter two have revenue-raising powers, the most important of which must be the levying and collection of rates and taxes.

I have previously stated that the system put in place by the PNC was very centralised and remains so today. The most well-known examples of this must be the perennial bickering between opposition-controlled RDCs and their regional executive officers, and the present unseemly quarrel between the minister responsible for local government and the mayor and town clerk of Georgetown. In both cases, elected local government councils appear to have little legal control over their most senior officers.

Those who seek reform of the legal framework of the system argue that it will give more power to the communities, and some have expressed optimism that the president will assent to the bills in a timely manner. But as we proceed to consider the four bills that have been passed in the National Assembly, it will do us no harm to note that simply taking power from one individual or body at the centre and passing it to another in a similar location is not synonymous with giving more power to local people. This will depend very much upon the actual structure and dispersal of that power.

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