Good News for Democracy

Findings from the 2014 Report

Yes, it’s true. While the world stands shocked at despotic acts of brutality in armed conflicts for political domination, there is another story that goes largely unreported: the daily progress of millions of women and men as they take charge of their lives and destinies at the local level.

The central lesson of the 2014 State of Participatory Democracy Report is that in many countries where national-level democracy and respect for human rights may be fragile, the roots of democratic values are being deepened, often due to new legislation. This expansion of participatory local democracy has yielded improvement of public services and inclusion of an active civil society in the formulation of new laws.

What we see in this year’s report is:

 

  • More decentralization: Countries long seen as highly centralized have transferred more autonomy to local governments.
  • More investment in local capacity: Countries that are desperately poor have made dramatic strides in health, agriculture and education by investing in training tens of thousands of teachers, extension agents and front-line health workers.
  • More women’s leadership: More countries are establishing quotas and reservations to ensure that women have a voice in the decisions affecting their lives.
  • More mechanisms for social accountability: More women and men are gaining opportunities to hold local leaders accountable.
  • More enabling technologies: From big corporations to the villages of Bangladesh, the internet and computer technology is being applied to make information and public services more accessible, facilitate communications between citizens and their government, and increase transparency and accountability.
  • More collaboration between government and civil society: While some governments are restricting civil society — particularly human rights and environmental activists — other governments have established solid, formal and coordinated mechanisms to partner with civil society.
  • More clarity on what works: The key factors measured in our multidimensional index are becoming better known and more broadly recognized, leading local governance activists to increase their call for a global charter on local governance.
  • More recognition at the global level: As the global community has worked earnestly – in the most participatory policy dialogue the world has ever seen – to develop a set of Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals – the critical importance of local governance has [at last] been recognized.

 

This is not to say that the overall space for effective, transparent, accountable local governance is in good shape – far from it.

Expanding the Global Community of Practice

Our Global Community of Practice reached out to pioneering – and sometimes courageous – civil society organizations (CSOs) that have invested decades in shifting national policies towards greater citizen engagement and local democracy in areas where democracy is most fragile in Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Central Asia. This year, the Community also included participation from the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), including Arab countries and Western Asia.

We invited these CSOs to organize multi-stakeholder focus group discussions consisting of local and central government officials, civil society, women’s groups, academia, the private sector and international agencies (where relevant). We asked each focus group to reach consensus answers for each survey question, and provided space for comments where this proved impossible.

The CSOs shared their reflections on the value of this multi-sectoral process for their own work. These reflections are available on our website: http://localdemocracy.net.

Improving the Quality of the Data

One major discovery last year was that virtually no individual practitioner has ready access the information needed  for assessing all dimensions of participatory local democracy, both in terms of what is established by law and the actual reality on the ground.

Last year, we divided the assessment process into two surveys: one for those knowledgeable about the law, and one for those knowledgeable about ground realities. Despite extra outreach effort this required, we were still dissatisfied with the quality of most data. Of the 90 countries that submitted data, we concluded the data was only sufficiently complete in 35 countries.  

We concluded that the best approach for 2014 was to (1) streamline the assessment into one survey instrument – addressing both legal and implementation with more objective questions – and (2) disseminate the assessment surveys to be filled out by multi-stakeholder focus groups rather than individuals.

Organization of this report

In the following pages, we have included:

  • Country profiles, in alphabetical order, on the state of Participatory Local Democracy in the 32 countries that held focus group discussions.
  • Profiles in Practice alphabetically organized among the country profiles are seven articles that highlight important aspects of the evolution of decentralization in Bolivia, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Malawi, Morocco and Senegal.
  • Text of the 2014 Survey.
  • Results and Rankings of the 2014 Survey. The results include data from the 32 countries that held focus groups (in bold) and data submitted by individuals  from an additional 20 countries (in italics).

Observations from the 2014 Data

  • Africa – the Surprise Winner: Sub-Saharan Africa scored very highly – just behind the most developed countries. And a subset of African countries (Burundi, Senegal, Ethiopia, Liberia) are four of the the top-five ranked. This shows a strong commitment to decentralization, and survey respondents consider implementation to be quite strong. Ethiopia, for example – a large, federalized country – has made large-scale investments in community-driven development, training large numbers of health workers and agricultural extension workers at the local level. For example, see the Profile in Practice for Senegal. “New” decentralizers scored significantly higher than Africa’s older decentralizers – Uganda and Ghana – as well as all other countries. The gap between laws and implementation is quite large; the legal framework scores highest of all regions, while perceptions of implementation lag far behind.
  • MENA (Middle-East North Africa) scored lowest, which is not surprising as most of these countries are not considered democratic republics even at the national level. Yet, as shown in the Profiles in Practice for Morocco and Jordan, there are new initiatives underway for decentralization in these countries.
  • Central and Western Asia: these newly included nations scored surprisingly close to the middle and consistently across dimensions with a fairly modest gap between laws and implementation.
  • East and Southern Asia: Indonesia ranked highest in this group, despite showing the largest gap between dramatic and recently established decentralization and respondents’ perception of implementation. Indonesia has its own local governance index, which is featured in their Profile in Practice.
  • Latin America had a very strong score in its legal structure, yet the most severe gap between the legal framework and people’s perception of implementation – particularly in the fiscal and planning sectors.
  • Most Developed Countries that participated this year scored best as a region, reflecting long-standing systems of local democracy, although not as strongly as some might expect. For example, the US national government is “newer” than its local governments and, due to such, does not have a national policy framework for the role of local governments.  

 

  • Psychology? Although we have endeavored to make the legal and perceptual survey questions as objective as possible, we suspect that the wide variations in the gap between law and perceived reality may reflect a degree of “expectation” bias – that people’s optimism or pessimism about the likelihood of near-term progress may influence their perceptions.