Strengthening East Africa’s Decentralization Through Community Participation

Strengthening East Africa’s Decentralization Through Community Participation
Eazzy Banking

There is increasing evidence that decentralization plays a critical role in empowering local governments to take more control over the delivery of social services. In East Africa, Uganda and Rwanda have taken steps to mainstream decentralization into their governance structures.

Uganda adopted a decentralized system with the aim of ensuring that the governance of service delivery institutions is brought closer to the populace (Local government Act of 1997).

Due to popular demand by almost 70% of Rwandans to have voice in the running of their affairs, the Rwandan government began the implementation of decentralization in 2001. (Ministry of Local Government, 2004).

Decentralization as a system of governance is credited for its potential to accelerate good governance, efficient service delivery by ensuring mutual accountability between leaders and citizens.  When well designed and enacted, decentralization strengthens citizens’ participation in local government by, for example, improving access to information as well as fostering deliberative decision making. The other benefits of decentralization is its potential to enhance the ability of local governments to provide services by increasing their financial resources as well as strengthening the capacity of local officials, which would otherwise be hard to achieve under centralized governance structures.

While the promise and hope that decentralization results into efficient service delivery is valid and evident, there is need for a strong local government structure to translate these into functioning realities of good governance. Simple analysis, uncovers the challenges that have cut back on the ability for local governments to rise up to the challenge. These include but not limited to; over reliance on central government, elite capture as well as the inability to attract and retain required technical competencies to translate local plans into local  development guidelines. Similarly, Development Programmes implemented by local governments, often suffer from nepotism, political favoritism and inadequate financing.

The debate on decentralization and efficient service delivery has unfortunately centred around how efficient the structures of service delivery are, with more pronounced evaluation and  analysis of Health systems functioning, Education with focus on; Universal Education Programs. Little if any concern has been made on the need for a strong citizenry to function as accountability partners to local government.

Local Participation is limited to electing local leaders. Accountability systems function in a top bottom approach, with local governments working for the interests of central government more than those of their own constituents. A lot of time is spent on how to write good reports and account for funds than is towards local needs being addressed. Institutionalizing accountability by establishing watchdogs like the Public Accounts Committee, Budget Monitoring Committees and other regulatory bodies, has functioned to withdraw participation from local citizens and making corruption hard to curb. There is still a gap around citizen engagement in planning, community agenda formulation through deliberative decision making.

There are few opportunities for those with authority over resource allocation (at local government) to interact with the intended end users (local people). Budget meetings are often held in a representative format and rarely are budgets formulated with direct input from villagers. Even though local council politically elected representatives are consulted, its OK to be concerned that they won’t always have consulted their constituents on priorities to voice and campaign for budget allocation. Often if not always, the most vocal and influential political players, usually from the ruling party would dominate the discourse and influence allocations. This elitist approach robs of villages represented by less vocal and less popular representatives of their views and priorities making to formal agenda.

If decentralization is to function in a way that delivers on its intended results, there is need for greater organic participation of local communities in control over resource allocation for improved service delivery. This calls for a policy paradigm shift towards inducing organic participation for deliberative decision making. Rural poor people, have the greatest asset that elites and policy designers need – their knowledge of lived realities in rural areas. This knowledge though often scattered and disorganized, has an empowering aspect, when unlocked. It flames a self belief that; rural poor people are valuable agents to their own development and that their views and imaginations can offer critical ingredients for rural focused policy design.

This is not an easy process to start or even sustain. Such a process of engagement requires agency and the desire to take action among rural citizenry. Many local communities in the most part of Uganda, experience low levels of civic engagement due to a lack of community capacity and confidence to take collective action. Cyclically, many local development efforts aimed at accelerating service delivery by government and civil society reinforce this problem by making beneficiaries feel like passive recipients. This undermines long-term sustainability and does not create needed locally based checks and balances to strengthen governance systems.

At Spark, we have designed a Community Participation Exercise (CPE) in which community members directly meet and interact weekly for 6 months to design a community development plan. The community participation process promotes both social cohesion and action by facilitating open dialogue about community problems and giving the community members, the tools and financial resourcing necessary to solve those problems. Our work is to facilitate a process that taps into the imagination of rural local infrastructure poor villages as well as providing the financial resourcing to match with available local resources to spark collective action.

Think of it as replicating the town-hall meeting system that thrives in first-world democratic communities, replicated at the village/parish level in rural poor communities to promote democratic development from the bottom up. The added value of CPE is the creation of new institutions – like a democratically-elected village development committee – at the village level.

The village development committee reaches out to local government structures for technical guidance during project feasibility and planning, advocate for resources leveraging a communally designed development plan, such an engagement starts the process of accountability mechanism, where local community members task local governments to respond to priorities that have direct input by rural community members. If replicated at sub county level, the exercise would go by far in solving the transaction cost of generating, gathering and analyzing development priorities by local government for resource allocation. Large government, locally implemented programmes would be designed based on local priorities, benefit from the social capital built in a village over a period of 3 years and more importantly, the capacity of local communities to take up interventions would go up – ensuring sustainability.

Mr. Emmanuel Waiswa is the Uganda Country Director,

Spark MicroGrants


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