India is a geographically and socially diverse country, operating under a decentralized federal governance system since the implementation of the Panchayati Raj local government system in 1992. However, these constitutional provisions often confront persistent structural challenges and limited mobilization of resources that impede effective participation, local planning and action. Against this background and with the support of the UN Democracy Fund, The Hunger Project (THP) organized an expert consultation in New Delhi on January 9 as the next step in cultivating a global community of practice on capacity building for participatory local democracy.
THP greatly appreciates the generous and enthusiastic participation by committed individuals from the UN system, academia and civil society who provided great support, information and recommendations to the project. We greatly appreciate the leadership of Dr. George Mathew (chair) and Dr. Ash Narayan Roy (executive director) and all the staff of the Institute of Social Sciences for organizing and hosting the consultation.
The experts identified numerous challenges, the most significant being the widespread shortage of resources among panchayat institutions and the civil society organizations supporting them. Only about 3-5% of total public funds in India are in the hands of local governments. Chronic shortages of funds and limited access to information about mandates and politics rights restricts their ability to mobilize resources to address local needs, even when there is local political will.
Similarly the experts also identified a history of persistent mistrust between central government officials and international donors, and NGOs involved in decentralization as a barrier to progress. They agreed that it was important to include key representatives from public agencies early on in the development of the Community of Practice, in order to overcome these barriers to trust and cooperation moving forward.
Why Participatory Local Democracy? The consultation highlighted its advantages for governmental efficiency, effective financing, legitimacy of decision-making, people’s voice and ownership, transparency, participation, utilization of local knowledge, and leveraging networks in collaborative governance.
What needs to be done? Numerous challenges must be addressed in addition to the shortage of sufficient financial resources among the panchayats: limited local authority to reform obstructive structures; large discrepancies between decentralization policies in writing and in practice; low levels of participation in decision-making processes among marginalized social groups including women and minorities; lack of knowledge among both local representatives and citizenry due to lack of civic education; low political visibility of a decentralization agenda; and lack of high-level domestic political advocacy for effective decentralization, such as among political parties or credible political figures.
How can we impact this? Discussion centered on the challenge of balancing the Community of Practice as a center for knowledge sharing, as well as a platform for supporting and coordinating effective advocacy. The shared advocacy agenda and Community Score Card intend to trigger a serious dialogue at the highest levels about the role of local participatory democracy in sustainable development initiatives, and the group expressed a hope that the Community of Practice and its online platform could also be used to help act upon that new agenda.
There are many existing practitioner communities and domestic indices that focus on local governance in India, presenting the larger community with a great opportunity to connect with these resources. The goal of this initiative is not to duplicate those efforts already underway, but to offer a platform for communication among those groups and to leverage their own strengths a networks towards a common agenda. We are happy to see such a vibrant community of practitioners and advocates here, and to include them in this growing discussion and global community.
We discussed the plan to develop a Community Score Card, which has now developed into five primary dimensions: active citizenry, political, fiscal, administrative, and planning capacity – each of which includes several sub-components, described on the public website.
The group agreed that the issues of decentralization and “subsidiarity” have fairly low political visibility among the political elite at the national level, and pointed out that no major political party currently has these issues on its political platform. Experts stressed that the Score Card somehow consider the will and/or capacity of credible political institutions to advocate for decentralization – such as by reflecting agendas of political parties, high-level officials, or other groups that could champion this issue at national levels.
The consultation further emphasized that the Community Score Card reflect the actual levels of decentralization and participation in each of the dimensions, as compared to measuring them only according to official laws in each country. The experts agreed that there are significant discrepancies between India’s legal provisions for local participatory democracy, and the actual realization of those provisions due to various structural, financial and political barriers. Additionally, the consultation raised practical questions about how the forthcoming index will be scored and weighted – such as including relative rankings as well as absolute country scores for bench-marking progress (or setbacks) independent of movement in the rankings. The experts offered several suggestions for how the Community Score Card methodology could be modeled, and we look forward to a lively debate over the best approaches as the Index becomes more specific.
Who can we enlist in the Community of Practice, and when? Many of the consultation eagerly offered to share the project across their own networks and local communities of practice, opening the door to large communities of practitioners already committed to these issues in India. The consultation distinguished several top experts who may serve on a project advisory council, and invited additional suggestions of universities, organizations, professional networks and other groups that would be interested in this project.
The Institute for Social Sciences offered to help THP share the project in a meeting among delegates from South Africa, Brazil and India in early April titled “Deepening Democracy through Local Governance”. There is also a South Africa national meeting of local democracy practitioners in late March/April at which this project could be presented.
Participants suggested several possible additions to the online platform in order to facilitate a more active community, which are being reviewed.