By Kaustuv K. Bandyopadhyay
At the turn of the millennium decentralised local governance was the mantra of the era. A significant number of developing countries in 1990’s and 2000 have had engineered some form of decentralisation of governance. In most of these countries, this wave of decentralisation also accompanied new spaces for citizen participation aimed at deepening democracy, ensuring effective service delivery and making development more inclusive. After decades of experimentation on decentralised local governance, it may be pertinent to ask: have these spaces and mechanisms for participation transformed the unequal power relationships that existed between the State and citizens?
A simplistic answer could be: “well, we have a mixed experience”. A lot more citizens with greater capacities are now engaged with local governance as compared to beginning of the millennium. A more critical interrogation, however, may reveal that in most instances these institutionalised spaces for citizen participation and engagement have remained passive, unresponsive and guarded by the elites. In other words, the governance institutions and many of their representatives who were supposed to design, facilitate and animate these spaces as arenas for participatory decision making and democratic accountability, have deliberately made them ineffective and often defunct. In the absence of a well-buttressed ‘right to participation’ along with well-defined accountability, these spaces are further dilapidating rapidly. As a result, the local governance institutions once envisaged as the sites for participatory democracy and citizenship, are becoming epitomes of power status quo.
This could be read as quite a pessimistic view from a generally optimistic and staunch supporter activist of democratic local governance. During last year, LogoLink, a global network of CSOs and academic institutions, also an ardent promoter of democratic local governance and citizen participation, organised a series of consultations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The consultations reinforced the understanding that the existing institutional spaces and mechanisms for participation in local governance are necessary but inadequate to make participation meaningful and substantive, particularly for those whose participation matters and indeed should be counted – the poor, women, indigenous people, ethnic minorities, youth, disable and other marginalised groups. The core of governance as we understand – the decision making on mobilisation and utilisation of public resources for common public good – is still dominated by elite groups in society and polity across the world.
So, what went wrong in the global project of democratic decentralisation which received decent support from the international development community managerially, financially and intellectually? This is a complex question and may require an additional blog. Let’s come back, then, to our original question: have the institutionalised spaces for participation which accompanied decentralised governance been able to include marginalised groups in decision making? NO….. Getting an affirmative answer would have required us to conceptualise and operationalise participation differently.
In light of this, I propose to illustrate some values and principles that will allow us to promote participation more broadly and eventually include the most marginalised into the decision making of local governance institutions.
- 1. The history of participation has been the history of struggles over how it is to be defined, who should define it, and deciding whose participation is crucial? The institutionalised invented spaces for participation often do not include the issues, views and perspectives of socially, politically and economically excluded citizens. These excluded groups continue to innovating new meanings, mechanisms and spaces for citizen participation. Citizen participation needs to combine both these invented spaces (e.g. street actions to demand transparency and accountability) that engage from outside and aim to create public pressure and expect a forthright response from local government along with institutional spaces (e.g. provided by the laws) that engage local government from inside. Thus, acknowledging multiple meanings and expressions of citizen participation is critical to find common ground for decision-making.
- 2. Citizen participation in local governance is both a means and an end. Participation is to be interpreted, promoted and evaluated in light of both democratic (e.g. equity and justice) and developmental (e.g. access to public services) outcomes. For a long time, both democracy and development as concept and practice each stood on its own; however, they must reinforce each other and citizen participation must be promoted to bridge these two sets of outcomes and thus acknowledging multiple outcomes of citizen participation.
- 3. The overall purpose of citizen participation is to enhance the degree of shared control and influence of citizens over key decisions related to public policies, institutions and resources. It must broaden the bases of decision making, instead of keeping decision making as an exclusive domain of a handful experts or elected representatives. As participation enhances inclusivity in society, the final outcome must produce just and equitable governance in society.
- 4. Participation in local governance must be considered as innate human rights and must be respected, protected, nurtured and continuously enhanced. This understanding of citizen participation as innate human rights holds governance institutions squarely responsible and accountable to the citizens for fulfilment of such rights and also obligates citizens to participate actively and responsibly.
- 5. Participation is a political process of developing and enriching collective citizenship where citizens directly engage local governance institutions, and demands and agenda are presented through collective action with collective interests. It allows for reviving the idea of collectivisation in its multiple meanings, such as social movements, political parties or other collective manifestations that seek social and political transformation.
Participatory spaces created through legal means in local governance institutions require re-designing and re-engineering in order to empower and include the most marginalised in the decision making process. It has to be complemented with various other spaces, mechanisms and practices ‘innovated’ by these marginalised groups. Acknowledging and bolstering participation as a right can go a long way in empowering citizens.
Kaustuv Kanti Bandyopadhyay, Ph. D
Director of Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), India, and Global Coordinator of LogoLink
Kaustuv is currently the Director of Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), India and the Global Coordinator of LogoLink. He has more than two decades of professional experience with the university, research institution and civil society organisations. He has led and managed a number of national and international research and action learning initiatives on citizen participation, social accountability, civil society development and democratic governance in urban and rural contexts. He has extensively worked on capacity building projects with particular emphasis on participatory learning, monitoring and evaluation, organisation development, strategic planning, and participatory training methodology. Kaustuv has been associated with a number of global and regional civil society networks. Based on practical experience, he has authored and published a number of articles, manuals, books and other publications in Asian context. He has a Ph. D degree in Anthropology for his work with the Parhaiya tribes of Chotanagpur in India.