Are we imposing too grand an agenda on local government?

Dear Editor,

The coalition government has commendably spared no efforts in outlining its vision for local government in Guyana. From its public statements, one can discern that this vision straddles two levels. One level is a narrow traditional one, focusing on the restoration of community infrastructure (roads, canals, markets, etc) and community services, such as garbage collection. On a far grander level, local government is envisioned as the platform from which to propel the social, political, cultural and economic transformation of communities.

Minister (of Communities) Ronald Bulkan, for example, in a letter to newspaper editors just over a week ago, touched on both levels when he wrote that local government elections (LGE) are an indispensable investment in “deepening democracy as well as good governance” and that local government will result in cleaner, safer and better managed communities. President Granger likewise, in a report carried by the Guyana Chronicle on Monday (captioned ‘LGE will mend broken communities’), remarked at a ceremony in Region 6 that not only must local government units deal with unsanitary conditions and neglected infrastructure, but also with problems such as “alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide”.

Are we expecting too much from local governance? And is the LGE in March 2016 being mis-advertised as the magic brew to metamorphose our local councils into models of high achievement?

Decentralization as a democratic concept and practice has a lure, and some soon view it as an end in itself, not as a means to an end. What could be wrong about giving people in communities the power to decide matters that reflect local conditions and choices? The hard-nosed reality is that the allure of decentralization, however, must be weighed against the capacity and the desire of local residents to manage some their own affairs, and against the need for financial and administrative economies of scale (all NDCs need not own their own fire engines, you see).

Even if we focus on the narrow traditional mandate, several factors threaten the growth of local self-governance in Guyana. None of these factors is news. The largest challenge is, of course, public self-motivation and participation. The country has held only two LGEs since independence in 1966. Voter turnout nationwide at the last LGE in 1994 was put at a not indecent 48% by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Still, without a widespread culture of community spirit and engagement, local government could become pointless except to local elites and political interest groups.

Secondly, managerial incapacity at the community level remains a bugbear. The continued exodus overseas of the qualified seems to have drained the country of a broader set of human resources, in particular fresh university graduates, teachers and nurses. The skills gap brings into question the wisdom of imposing too grand an agenda on local government.

Thirdly, despite the recent passage of enlightened local government legislation, confusion over jurisdictions will likely still persist between central government and all tiers of local administration, between RDCs and NDCs, and between NDCs and the several hundred unelected Community Development Councils (CDCs). This confusion has in the past led to conflicts, overlaps and implementation gaps. Given the grander vision for local government in Guyana, one area ripe for such problems is community and economic development, where even CDCs are involved.

Fourthly, the intended participation of the major political parties has generated much comment, mostly negative. The hazard here, of course, is that local organs can become mere appendages of the political parties and thereby become arenas to play out national political hostilities. The introduction of the first-past-the-poll system for single candidates and community groups, starting from 2016, is meant to dilute the influence of parties. Political parties however could bring a few virtues. They will be the main galvanizers of public interest and participation and can lend technical and other support to the new councils. But the cons may likely outweigh the pros.

The fifth risk to successful local governance is any underperformance by the new Local Government Commission. This body (spawned by the 1999 constitution reform process) has been given the mandate to regulate local authorities and promote their effectiveness. The commission by now should be fully constituted and building up to full steam. An organizational structure should be in place. All commissioners and staff should be undergoing intense training and should be researching international best practices. Systems and procedures should be designed and encoded. Public visibility should be increased. And so on.

Putting legs to the government’s soaring vision for local governance must start with understanding and accepting that decentralization is not a good in itself and that more of it does not necessarily mean more goodness. Overburdening local councils could lead to operational breakdowns, deny citizens of expected services, waste money and other resources, and turn people off. Each local government unit must determine its own community goals in line with what it can properly deliver with the resources at hand.

 

Yours faithfully,

Sherwood Lowe

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