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Saturday, 5 April 2014

Fixing Broken Councils

Municipal councils around the country are currently electing new mayors and deputies, with district councils electing chairpersons and deputies. The new office bearers are being elected by councillors, from existing councillors, and for the councillors! It is democracy but not as we know it!

In many councils what should be an issue about deepening local democracy and governance has become mere politics. In many places most candidates are first being subjected to approval by the PF before running for office, with little internal democracy. And yet these "elections" are but a symptom of a much larger problem! The bigger issue is that our local government model is totally broken.

The current system does not promote accountability because the people have little direct say in what takes place in our councils, let alone who should be the local mayor or where money should be spent. You can create many districts and devolve all the revenue to the local areas, but that will NOT a make a difference as long as you have poor and unresponsive local leadership.

In order to bring about local accountability it is vital that we have a new institutional realignment that incentivises better and more credible local leaders to emerge and puts people at the heart of decision making. Three important areas should form part of a new local institutional architecture.

FIRST, we need to institutionalise a new system of local government that diminishes the role of local leaders as rent seekers. Currently many of our local leaders govern purely to enlarge their pockets. Until we introduce processes that prevents them from doing so we wont see meaningful local development.

SECONDLY, we need to strive to develop local systems that are able to kick out incompetent and shallow local leaders. This calls for contestable local electoral arrangements. Present local leaders are just the same recycled politicians who change ship whenever the political wind changes course. Yet our people have not been able to kick them out.

Until the electoral system is more contestable and leaders can be hired and fired easily, corruption and malpractice will continue unabated. The key here is to have directly elected mayors. We also need councillors to elected by proportional representation, so that local parties and independent groups can stand a better chance of local representation.

There are some moves towards this position in the leaked Constitution Technical Committee draft constitution. Article 191, (2 a) says that "there shall be a mayor elected directly, in accordance with Article 74, for a term of five years and may be re-elected for one further term of five years". Article 74(c) states that "elections to councils shall be conducted under a first-past-the-post electoral system".

THIRDLY, direct people engagement is vital. World wide we have seen that local authorities which have truly allowed participation from local citizens beyond simple voting of councillors, tend to generate greater and more locally focused development. They tend to meet the immediate needs of the local people in an extraordinary way. Real responsibility entails the local citizens truly being involved in important decision making beyond simple local elections of councillors or mayors.

A good model is one adopted in much of Brazil and has is promoted by UN Habitat, called "Participatory Budgeting". To quote Ubitratan de Souza, the man responsible for the invention, Participatory budgeting is "a process of direct, voluntary and universal democracy, where people can debate and decide on public budgets and policy". In short local citizens' participation is not limited to the act of voting to elect local councillors, but citizens also decides on spending priorities and management of the local councils.

The beauty of such a mechanism is that it improves the transparency of local administration and efficiency in local expenditures. It demands increased accountability of local leaders and managers, through the encouragement of local people to participate in decision making and oversight the use of public funds. In short it makes the local council accountable in a new and innovative way, and as a byproduct, it creates a democratic culture within the community and strengths the social fabric.

Chola Mukanga | Economist
Copyright © Zambian Economist 2014

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