Speaking at the 2011Commonwealth Local Government Conference in Cardiff, UK, Commonwealth Secretary-general HE Kamalesh Sharma noted how the Commonwealth prizes local democracy. “Our lives are lived locally, our governments are experienced locally. For most people local government is their first and perhaps only contact with the authorities in their country.”
Local government – improving lives
Local democracy is a vital part of democratic government. Indeed, the roots of a more democratic system often spring up at the local level and have a positive impact on making national governments more democratic.
It is increasingly being recognised that sustainable development cannot be done by national or state/provincial governments alone, and that local authorities are best placed to help improve living conditions, reduce poverty, and promote participatory democracy. With rapid urbanisation, the global financial crisis, and the growing impact of migration and climate change, local government’s role as the sphere of government closest to the people with responsibility for delivery of essential services is increasingly important. Many national governments are acknowledging this and are moving towards a more decentralised and localised approach to development to ensure that services and development are provided where and when they are needed.
Democratic local government provides the best opportunity for local people to play a role in decision making that affects their quality of life – including many of the basic services such as health, water, sanitation, housing and education. These are exactly the areas we need to ensure progress in if we are to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and improve the quality of life for the two billion citizens of the Commonwealth. Indeed, the role of local government was identified as central to the successful achievement of the MDGs, and essential service delivery, at the UN Global Forum, Kampala 2010.
Providing local leadership
Basic services are essential for improving the quality for people’s lives. However, local government can have a much bigger impact if it takes seriously its role as community leader and space shaper for the development of the area it covers, and is at the forefront of social and economic development to increase the prosperity of the area and boost income for local residents. There is general agreement that the role of local government must go beyond traditional service delivery and provide the leadership needed to energise local economies and communities.
More and more local governments in countries across the Commonwealth have responsibilities and powers for improving the wellbeing of citizens, tackling poverty and social exclusion, improving the environment and local economic development – in fact having a vision for the development of their areas to create a thriving place where people receive good services, and where they want to work, do business and spend leisure time. In some countries local authorities can already show how their policies and actions are helping revitalise their local areas, while in other countries local councils are just beginning to get to grips with these responsibilities.
The issue of how local government can contribute to the realisation of the MDGs is only now being properly integrated into the development and decentralisation policies of many countries and international donor agencies. It comes at a time when the UN has emphasised the importance of continuing the global efforts to reduce poverty and deliver key services beyond the initial 2015 target deadline, given that many of the individual MDG targets will not be met by then.
Consideration is now being given to how the existing range of MDG targets and policies can be further developed and supplemented after 2015. These discussions need to incorporate how any future targets can be better delivered at local, as well as national level, as set out by the 2010 UN Global Forum. In addition, questions have been raised whether the original MDG framework adequately addresses wider issues around social equality and cohesion, community empowerment, democracy and human rights.
Among the new issues being considered in the post-2015 MDG debate is how future targets can integrate social and political as well as more economic issues, for example social inclusion and cohesion and what has been termed the ‘well-being’ of communities and individuals. The 2009 Stiglitz Commission, established by the Government of France, which included prominent experts such as Professor Sen, recommended that this should entail ‘questions to capture people’s life evaluations, hedonic experiences and priorities’.
Improving local government to meet the challenges
But local government does not always have the capacity to meet these challenges – either in terms of financial, technical or human resources. That’s why the work of CLGF and other partners is so important.
The 54 countries of the Commonwealth are at different stages of decentralisation and developing local democracy. Some countries already have very strong systems while others are just beginning on the road to decentralisation and local democracy. Unfortunately, decentralisation does not always guarantee that the resources will match the responsibilities and services given to local councils.
The 2013 Commonwealth Local Government Conference, being held in Kampala, Uganda will look at decentralisation as a strategy for ensuring that local government is seen as a partner in development so that development meets the needs of local communities. It will look at policies and progress across the Commonwealth, looking at examples of successful decentralisation that has helped to anchor development in towns and villages where most needed, while still reflecting national strategies for growth.
The Aberdeen Agenda provides a framework for local governance and democracy in the Commonwealth to make local government more effective in delivering essential services that will boost development and help improve the social and economic well-being of communities.
The principles, the Aberdeen Agenda: Commonwealth principles on good practice for local democracy and good governance were agreed by CLGF members at CLGF’s 2005 Commonwealth Local Government Conference in Aberdeen, UK. This outlined twelve core principles for good practice in local democracy:
These principles have been endorsed by Commonwealth Heads of Government were incorporated into the fundamental values of the Commonwealth in 2009. They are providing a useful benchmark for reviewing local democracy and have already been used in a number of countries, such as Uganda and other countries where the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Governance and Institutional and Development Division (GIDD) has supported CLGF and its members in a number of studies and seminars to help develop a methodology for assessment against the principles.
These principles are important in promoting democratic local government, and ensuring that development meets the need of the communities that they serve, and underpin CLGF’s work in supporting its members.
The conference will consider how different countries across the Commonwealth have sought to embed some of the key principles of developmental local government and planning for adequate services for all into their decentralisation processes and the impact that this has had. In South Africa for instance the 1998 White Paper which set out the Government’s vision for local government in the country stated clearly that developmental local government should be committed to “work with citizens and groups within the community to find sustainable ways to meet the social, economic and material needs and improve the quality of their lives”.
The discussions will include a focus on how to involve the local community, community organisations, and business in developing and planning a strategic vision for their area, and the role of formal structures such as ward committees and more informal approaches such as focus groups or mass consultation exercises and surveys; the role of local government in effectively coordinating activities being undertaken by national/provincial/state government and other agencies in their communities; how to maximise the role of the community in service delivery and how to measure the impact of developmental local government on the lives of local citizens.
Key outcomes of the conference will include tools and policy strategies to strengthen local government’s developmental role; and recommendations for local government’s strengthened role in taking forward the post 2015 MDG agenda.