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…