The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Reversing inequities requires political pressure, with people making demands on decision- makers. But even if resources are reallocated and political pressure succeeds, a further risk is that mechanisms for effective implementation will not be created. Basic public services closest to the needs of the poorest people — health clinics, schools, hand pumps, standpipes or wells — are usually managed by bureaucrats and government employees who report to their superiors within the vertical hierarchy of line ministries.

Such bureaucrats and government employees rarely feel a strong sense of accountability or belonging to the communities or neighbourhoods they administer. If they were instead held accountable to locally elected municipal bodies, services would likely be delivered more effectively. Effective, accountable responses are encouraged by local incentives — and censure.

The millennium development goals are national political commitments with the potential to provide ordinary people with a powerful tool for holding their leaders accountable for results. The goals are exciting because they articulate the dreams of ordinary people: to have a school nearby with teachers who show up for work and with books and pens for students. To have at least a hand pump that provides safe water and that women and children can walk to easily. To have a local health clinic supplied with drugs and staffed by a doctor and nurse. But realizing the potential of the goals requires that poor people organize and take collective action. This is not simple. Poor people tend to be less organized, less capable of articulating their concern politically, less able to gain access to public services and legal protection, less connected to influential people and most vulnerable to economic shocks.

Whether the goals succeed partly depends on the local political environment — on whether there are avenues for citizens to participate in decision-making through formal democratic structures or through direct collective mobilization and action. The political processes that matter most to poor people are at the local level, because that is where they have the best chance of holding governments accountable.

The major political reforms of recent decades have made such outcomes more feasible. The Eighties and Nineties saw a huge increase in the global spread of democracy. Some 81 countries — 29 in Sub-Saharan Africa...10 in Asia and 5 in the Arab states- took steps towards democratization. As part of these political changes, there have been moves towards decentralization and an emergence of new social movements, giving citizens new ways to take collective action...In recent years a wide variety of countries — transition and developing, solvent and insolvent, authoritarian and democratic, with governments of the left, right and centre — have pursued decentralization...

Decentralization involves a central government transferring to local entities some of its political authority and, crucially, some of its resources and administrative responsibilities. These local entities then provide some basic public services and functions. Multipurpose local councils have been created for this purpose in more than 60 countries...

It is widely believed that decentralization increases popular participation in decision — making because it brings government closer to people — making it more accessible and more knowledgeable about local conditions and so more responsive to people’s demands. But does evidence support this idea' More important, does decentralizing authority and resources help advance the pro-poor agenda'

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