The recent emphasis on good governance as a foundation for sustainable and equitable development within the new post-2015 MDGs rests in large part on the effective participation of an active citizenry. While opportunities for participation exist at the national level through elections or organized lobbying, more frequent and intense participation at the local level is increasingly viewed as a necessary condition for widespread engagement of citizen groups and traditionally marginalized stakeholders.
In 2006, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) convened with leading experts on engaged governance and participation to discuss the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. The meeting covered topics such as preconditions for effective participation, impacts of engaged governance and civil society participation, efficacy of community engagement in the attainment of the MDGs, and lessons learned from case studies in community participation. UNDESA later published a report in 2008 summarizing their findings as well as existing research and literature on participatory local governance, aptly titled Participatory Governance and the Millennium Development Goals. Below we offer an introduction to the paper’s first chapter authored by Harry Blair (Yale), Siddiqur Osmani (BRAC University), Jean-Philippe Platteau (University of Namur), and Adam Przeworski (NYU).
Chapter 1: Sections 1 – 3
Chapter One adopts the enormous task of distilling the issues that are relevant to engaged governance by analyzing current literature and case studies. The authors summarize the topic of participatory governance generally in Section One and and discuss various conceptual issues in Section Two. Section Three provides an overview of national-level electoral participation and, although the authors recognize the significant limitations of elections, they suggest that a minimally participatory electoral process at the national level can benefit the poor.
Specifically, the authors discuss several successful examples of the “efficiency effect” and the “equity effect” regarding the localization of government decision-making. The chapter establishes a credible theory that describes the benefits of local governance; most importantly, that decentralized decision-making and budgeting increase citizen participation frequency and intensity (page 14). Generally speaking, a shortage exists in the number of rigorous studies that offer a comprehensive international analysis of the aforementioned trends. Due to this shortage, Blair et al stand out by making sense of the available data. Blair et al further stress in order to successfully expand government participation, many factors must develop simultaneously; for example, government must balance the top-down devolution of administrative and resource management tasks with the bottom-up growth of community organizations.
Chapter 1: Section 4
Section Four explores the efficiency effect of decentralized participatory governance in greater detail. Focusing specifically on participatory management of common property resources by the users themselves, the authors observe how participation enhances the efficiency of governance by reducing costs and augmenting resources in ways often not available to outsiders. Community managed systems appear to have a superior ability to resolve resource allocation tensions, and the authors point to the growing body of evidence suggesting groups of self-interested (but socially co-invested) individuals, when working together for extended periods, can spontaneously devise institutions for cooperation that address sensitive free-ridership issues.
Unfortunately, not all forms of participation generate these benefits. Reinforcing the need for capable and accountable local administrative bodies, the authors caution, “It should not be assumed that decentralized participation automatically and necessarily enhances efficiency,” particularly “if people do not have the capacity to make informed decisions on technical matters.”
Chapter 1: Section 5
Following the overview of efficiency enhancers in local governance, Section Five discusses its equity effect. Weaker groups demonstrate an increased capability to influence resource allocation in their favor when allocative decisions are decided at the local level or through a democratically elected representative. The authors review various successful case studies ranging from India’s panjayati raj system and participatory planning scheme to Brazil’s famous model for participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre (Orçamento Participativo).
The authors lay a surprisingly thorough foundation for analyzing the aforementioned cases and acknowledge methodological research obstacles. The most significant of these obstacles is a problem of endogeneity in measuring local participation. To clarify, isolating a causal relationship between greater participation and successful project outcomes proves extremely difficult. Are participatory projects more successful because of greater participation, or are those individuals simply more likely to participate in projects that they expect to be more successful?
Section Five refers to several studies that have successfully isolated the endogeneity effect to find that high levels of community participation have a statistically significant positive effect on pro-poor policy decisions and other budget outcomes (see Adato et al, 2003; Asham et al, 1995).Finally, Section Five attempts to address what the authors call “community imperfection,” or common characteristics of community collective planning that potentially undermine the desired equity and efficiency effects.
Chapter 1: Section 6
Next, Section Six examines the most important provisions for encouraging effective community participation. The authors suggest that success essentially depends on how well a society can deal with three distinct but interrelated “gaps” – the capacity gap, the incentive gap, and the power gap.
The capacity gap refers to the fact that meaningful participation in governance requires certain skills which traditionally marginalized and disadvantaged groups do not typically possess, such as the ability to work well in teams or to articulate one’s view. Closing the capacity gap often requires building local skills through practice, sustained social mobilization, and careful intermediation of CSOs and social movements.
The incentive gap in active citizenry refers to the idea that individuals and communities with fewer resources may face greater costs burdens. In order to enhance governmental participation, the perceived intrinsic and instrumental value of participating must exceed the perceived costs.
Finally, and perhaps most detrimental is the power gap. A large power gap increases the likelihood that dominant groups use participation to advance personal interests. Stressing the need for “countervailing forces” to act as equalizers, the authors suggest implementing transparent institutions and decision-making rules. Transparency rules must protect against the manipulation of weaker groups and discourage powerful groups from being easily attracted to the option of “exiting” the shared decision-making process. In order to achieve transparency, the authors advocate for enhancing self-confidence among marginalized individuals by increasing educational opportunities and economic security while implementing civil-political and socio-economic human rights.
Chapter 1: Section 7
Section seven concludes the chapter with insights into fostering synergies to address the complex systems of challenges currently thwarting effective participatory governance.
Chapter One seems to dwell in difficult abstractions, particularly regarding the conceptual issues discussed in Section Two. However, if practitioners deem the issues too esoteric, the authors make up for it with an enormous collection of references and resources at the end of the chapter.