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…

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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.

Visiting the collines

I’m settling into life in Gitega and the daily chorus of “mzungu! mzungu!” as I walk to work is becoming normal.  Day-to-day life here is calm and people are friendly, especially if you greet them in Kirundi.  I began my fieldwork last week by visiting several ‘collines’ (villages) and conducting focus groups and interviews with people there.  The collines consist of small houses, mostly made of mud, which are nestled into the hillsides amongst the small holdings.  There are a few central buildings in each colline, such as a school and there are unmade roads connecting the collines together.

I was struck by how isolated people are from the main towns.  The distances between the collines and the towns are not that great but there are only public buses on the main roads and most people live from their own small holding, only selling their crops if the harvest is good.  This means that the ‘commune’ (district) administration, never mind national government, seems very distant to most people and so it’s local governance which matters to them most.  For this reason, researching local governance structures in Burundi is important for finding ways for small communities to better manage their basic public services.

Each colline has an elected council which raises local problems with the commune council and oversees local development activities such as planting trees and protecting water sources.  Local communities are largely expected to develop their villages themselves through ‘community works’.  For example, if the school needs a new classroom, the colline inhabitants must come together to buy the building materials and construct the classroom and then the district council may provide the roof.  While this means that people take responsibility for public services in their village, it also means that those who cannot contribute, such as handicapped people and the very poor, may not be valued by the rest of the community.  Even though it is the very poor who need the most support from their community and local leaders, their inability to participate in community works means they are often marginalised, with no-one to advocate for their needs.  This is why I am researching how NGO projects can ensure that the most vulnerable people can participate in local governance and have their needs recognised by the rest of the community.

No easy answers yet though so here are some more photos instead.

Bonjour Burundi

It’s been more than a week since I flew into Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, gazing down at the expanse of green hills and mountains below. Most of my first week was spent in Bujumbura, meeting people and getting to know the city. It’s a quiet place, not as you might imagine a capital city, very green and quite tidy and clean. Bujumbura is on the edge of Lake Tanganyika which is home to freshwater crocodiles and hippos. At the weekend, a colleague took me to a bbq by the lake which was organised by the Bujumbura boat club. As we were eating and chatting, a group of five hippos swam over to have a look. Amazing as it was to see the hippos, I was glad they kept their distance.

After a lovely weekend taking in expat life in Bujumbura, I travelled to Gitega, the second town of Burundi, where I will spend the next three months. Despite being the second largest town in the country, Gitega is more like a village. It’s right in the centre of the country, surrounded by rolling green hills and with a beautiful climate. It also has the only museum in the country so that will be something to visit next weekend! This weekend a Burundian colleague kindly took me to the market to help me buy some sports clothes. The market was nothing like the Latin American markets I love which are full of life and entertainment. The market here doesn’t have food or juice stalls, people were all selling the same few vegetables and the clothes were a strange assortment of items, many which looked like free promotional t-shirts made in Europe. As a result, I now have a nice t-shirt saying “Do you football?”. I am, however, genuinely pleased with my new clothes as they meant I could join a Sunday morning running club. It was really fun to head out on the roads around Gitega with a large group of Burundians, all singing and clapping constantly as we jogged!

So, apart from discovering life in Burundi, the reason I’m here is to study some of the projects which two international non-governmental organisations are implementing in the Gitega province. A lot of effort is being put into strengthening local-level community organisations so that they can work with local authorities to improve basic public services. I’ll be researching the local governance and community structures to try to understand how different community organisations can influence service provision and highlight the needs of the poorest members of the community. I’ll write more on this later as my research gets going but for now, here are a few photos from the “field”:

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