Consensual democracy and devolution

In Federalism by any other name…: (SN: 12/6/2013) I said ‘I think that with the following statement by Mr. Ravi Dev, the discourse between us about the relevance of federalism to Guyana has come to an end. “In the post-WWII era, almost every country that has been forced to deal with plural societies have adopted federalist approaches. Most recently, after Kenya experienced severe inter-ethnic violence following their 2007 elections, they instituted constitutional changes …. They divided the country into 47 ‘counties’ and constitutionally mandated at least 15 per cent of national revenue be sent directly to the counties, giving local leaders greater authority in managing resources. Each county will have a County Executive headed by a county governor elected directly by the people and a county assembly elected with representatives from wards within the county’ (KN:02/06/2013).

In that article I observed that Kenya had some 41 ethnic groups and its 2010 constitution established 47 counties with clearly defined distribution of functions and resources between the national and county governments. However, (according to my reading) the national government had some 35 major functions while the counties were allocated 14 usual local government ones.  I claimed that the tasks accorded to the counties ‘are too restrictive even for my understanding of radical devolution, and given his orientation, I am certain that Ravi would not object to their enhancement.’ I concluded the article by stating that: ‘For a form of devolution in an ethnically divided democratic society such as ours to be acceptable to me, all that is needed are mechanisms – preferably at the regional level – to prevent regional authorities from discriminating and so giving rise to exclusion, balkanization and even to demands from minorities within states for further division. I have previously argued that federalism does not preclude the need for executive shared government at the central level. Here I go a bit further and argue that since our intent must be to reduce central government intervention in regional affairs to the minimum, avoid exclusion and foster intra-ethnic relations in the regions, shared governance arrangements are also necessary at the local level. In my view, then and only then would we see the kind of united ethnic regional politics that will make the natural state-centeredness of federalism/devolution harmless to our project of building a united Guyana.’

Apart from the above contribution, Mr. Dev’s notion of federalism and the issue of devolution has been expressed many a time in this column – Federalism and racism. SN: 08/05/2013; Federalism: the ethnic balkanization of Guyana. SN: 22/05/2013; Local government reform. SN: 10/07/2013; Local government: a bird’s eye view. SN: 17/07/2013, and Local government should be liberating, SN: 24/07/2013, to name a few. In relation to devolution, my ideological position is ‘subsidiarity:’ 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 (Subsidarity, autonomy and local democracy. SN: 21/08/2013).

Now, Mr. Dev knows all of this and so I was somewhat surprised when he stated, even before this series of articles on consensual governance has been completed, that ‘Disappointingly, Dr Jeffrey floated another “grand coalition” proposal, and ignored political devolution.’ Yet, I should thank him, for since there has to be devolved authorities and I have said so much about their  importance before, I (perhaps wrongly) did not believe it necessary to again consider the matter.

I have had my quarrel with what I believed to have been Mr. Dev’s federal proposal until he suggested that his objective could be accomplished by a system of devolution similar to that established in Kenya. Unfortunately, he now faces a similar difficulty with Mr. Vincent Alexander, who has accused him of surreptitiously attempting to place Indians at an advantage in the distribution of the regions and thus the natural wealth of Guyana (`I maintain that Dev’s Federalism proposal is highly flawed. SN: 25/01/2018’). This is not as disturbing as it sounds, for over many years, Dev and Alexander have been proposing shared governance and radical devolution as the answer to our national ethnic security problem.

Because of my substantial discussion with him in this column, I do not believe that Mr. Dev’s intent is as suggested by Vincent Alexander, but unlike Sir. Arthur Lewis, whom he usually quotes favorably for recommending ‘coalition and federalism’ as essential for countries such as ours, Mr. Dev’s notion of devolution is set upon a continuum that ends with federalism. Thus, it appears to me that while he has a preference for federalism, in practice he is prepared to accept less radical expressions of devolution. Fortunately or unfortunately, he takes an extremely narrow view of Sir Arthur’s position on coalition formation and has become associated primarily with federalism: he tends to give it priority and it has become his signature motif. In an effort to substantiate this contention, let us follow Mr. Dev at his most recent.

‘So, once again, I propose that Guyana be reconstituted as a Federal Republic, even as a coalition government be formed at such a republic’s centre. In a society where the major ethnic groups each constitute majorities in different areas of the country, political devolution offers the largest number of incentives towards addressing ethnic insecurities. There are several variants of devolution, ranging from strong Local Government to Federalism. The latter arrangement offers the most benefits to Guyana: in a federal structure, “winner takes all politics” would be eliminated, since the central government would be concerned with national issues such as defence and foreign policy’ (Federalism to end ethnic conflict. SN: 3/12/2017).

For me, what is worrying is that, contrary to what Mr. Dev claims, I do not believe that it is possible to eliminate ‘winner takes all politics’ by establishing more opportunities for ‘winners to take all! The kind of ethnic differentiation that is to be found at the national level also exists in every region and therefore coalition only at the centre will not suffice. As I pointed out to him before, even if stealthily,  in his kind of system it would be possible for the African political leadership in Demerara to discriminate against Indians and vice versa, for by the Indian leadership say in Berbice. To escape such an environment of indiscernible discrimination ethnic groups are most likely to conclude that it would be better to find security among your own, ‘Thus making the racial balkanization of Guyana a distinct possibility.’

That said, Dev cannot fault Alexander for he has expressed a preference for the strongest form of devolution, i.e. ‘federalism;’ although he is in fact not averse to accepting less radical ‘federalist approaches.’ In response to Alexander, he tells us that “Mr Alexander would know that the only practical difference between our present regional system and a federal system is the “competencies” of the latter ‒ such as Police functions, local development, local taxation and spending ‒ which are constitutionally entrenched and cannot be manipulated as they have been since the eighties, by the central government’ (SN: 27/01/2018). I would be surprised if Mr. Alexander strongly objects to the formulation implied here. It appears to me that it is Mr. Dev’s attachment to the label ‘federalism’ that is responsible for much of the attack upon him.  Therefore, I end as I began: ‘I think that with the …. (recent) statement by Mr. Ravi Dev, the discourse between us about the relevance of federalism to Guyana has come to an end.’

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