The power of local government?

I’m beginning to think that working on local governance accountability in Burundi might be jumping ahead a bit.  While some of the NGO projects really do improve local government transparency and accountability, this is definitely not the greatest problem in the provision of local public services.

Burundi has undergone a process of decentralisation in recent years which has left local government almost entirely financially independent from the central government. This means that local government funds only come from local taxes and it’s only people who have a regular salary or an established business who pay local taxes.  In most areas of the country, the vast majority of the population don’t pay taxes because they are peasant farmers or have a very small informal business.  Consequently, the major problem most local government offices here face is a severe shortage of funds.

Since there’s very little public money, if a local government wants to construct any public service infrastructure, such as a school, a road or a water source, the local community has to provide most of the building materials as well as free labour while the local government provides materials for the roof, for example.  Communities are meant to have a strong sense of responsibility for their own development since if they would like another classroom in the primary school, they have to make the bricks and build it themselves. While this may mean that people take responsibility for maintaining public amenities, it also means that local development is a very slow process and there is little hope for supporting the very poorest in society.

So, given the virtual absence of the national government in local development, it seems important that NGO projects continue to work on building the capacity of community organisations and local government staff as well as supporting closer collaboration between the two.  However, given the blatant lack of funds to invest in basic public infrastructure, it seems equally, if not more important, to work with national government to ensure much greater financial support for local development.

And on a completely unrelated note… last weekend I experienced a Burundian wedding!  I had been warned not to get too excited but I was curious all the same.  The church service was not unusual but the reception was something else.  It was held in a large room with a sort of stage at the front for the families of the bride and groom while the (hundreds of) guests sit in rows of chairs facing the stage as though it were a concert.  Once everyone is seated, the guests are offered a warm (!) or cold beer or soft drink and then the speeches begin.  The speeches began at 5pm and 8pm we left to get some food only to return at 10pm and find that the ceremony was still going.  Things were a little more lively by then as the local beer had been brought out and there was some kind of singing competition but really, Burundian weddings are not exactly a party…

Going with the grain

There has been a spurt of blog posts this week about going with or against the grain when it comes to development interventions (see Governance and Development blog and From Poverty to Power ). The basic idea is that rather than pursuing good governance ideals such as democratic participation, it may be more effective to work with existing governance structures and cultural norms to find incentives for the political elite to invest in sustainable national development. For example, in Senegal where secular state schools are unpopular, the state has worked with the Islamic community to provide new schools which teach the national curriculum but which also meet parents’ demands for the inclusion of Islamic norms.

On a local level, one of the projects which I am studying here in Burundi also follows the notion of ‘going with the grain’. The project aims to improve local governance and healthcare by forming a village network composed of representatives from different community organisations along with the elected village leaders and the Bashingantahe (local “wise men”).  An NGO provides training to this network of leaders on the subjects of health and hygiene practices, conflict resolution and how to seek external assistance. The idea is that the community representatives then pass on what they have learnt to the other members of their associations.  This should mean that the community’s health and social relations are improved through increased knowledge and collaboration between community groups.

On the one hand, it makes sense to strengthen the existing power structures by focusing the training on the current leaders because they can use their influence for the benefit of the community. The project should also make the community organisations more effective by uniting them to work on the same issues.  Interestingly, it has also been found that by bringing the elected leaders and community organisations together, the elected leaders have gained more power and recognition in the community. Before, for example, when an elected leader called a community meeting, only a few people would turn up but now, the majority of the village turns up because the leaders are better connected with the community.

However, as I discussed in an earlier post, not all the local leaders are good leaders. Some don’t show respect for women or youth or give them space to speak even when they have been chosen as community representatives. Therefore, reinforcing the position of these leaders without addressing problems of power imbalance between different social groups may mean that poverty, particularly among women continues to be reproduced. Unless women gain a voice in decision-making and a higher status in society, traditional rules which, for example, prevent women from having land rights, are unlikely to change.

So, it seems to me that “going with the grain” can be an important first step in development interventions and that it can improve the capacity of leaders to work for their community. However, if longer term changes are to occur whereby public policy is changed so that it effectively addresses the needs of the poorest, I think that problems of power imbalance in governance and community structures must still not be ignored.