All Democracy is Local

A side event to the Summit for Democracy – December 6, 2021

A famous US politician once said “All politics is local.” By this he meant that the success of any political system depends on responding to local needs. Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that every person has a right to voice in the decisions that affect their lives – which requires active citizen participation in governance at the community level.

The Movement for Community-led Development (MCLD) works to achieve a new level of partnership between grassroots civil society and local government. MCLD calls for local communities to have a fair share of public resources and mandatory mechanisms for citizen participation that guarantees the voice of women, youth and marginalized groups.

This side event shared the experience of both civil society and local government actors in working together to fulfill the promise of participatory local democracy.

H.E. Dr. Hillary Barchok, Governor of Bomet County, Kenya

In Kenya, democracy has grown since the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1992. The current constitution of 2010 introduced new levels of leadership at the county level. This devolution of power produced several benefits, from the construction of extra roads to the expansion of education systems and health facilities. Local livelihoods also changed for the better. 

Bomet County has emerged as a significant socio-economic and political actor. The reason for this was the fact that Dr. Hillary Barchok, Governor of Bomet County, embraced a bottom-up approach, allowing key populations to develop their own home-based ideas. His government aided these groups to realise their ideas, oversaw implementation and helped develop unique strategies. Introducing and anchoring CLD programmes into the existing structures and system, Bomet will be a model county for Community-led participatory development. Through a bottom-up and middle-out approach, the government ensured communities could own, control and manage their projects at the local level.

Some key achievements of the partnership between the Bomet county government and local communities include the following: 

  • The Dairy Project: multiple farmers came together under an umbrella project for the rearing dairy cows. To honour their efforts, the county Government by constructing a modern dairy processing plant. When operational, the farmers will sell their milk to this plant. A part of the processed and packaged milk will be supplied to children in Early Childhood Development Centres to help fight malnutrition and catalyse further development. The government empowers the community and also treats them as customers of their own products. 
  • Instead of taking aggressive measures like other tea growing farmers, the farmers of Bomet County challenged the Governor’s office to look beyond conventional tea buyers. Now they are directly exporting to Iran, with better tea prices ensuring an improved economic status for farmers. 
  • Elderly men of Bomet felt they were being left out by many of the government’s programs for the marginalised populations, feeling more emphasis put on youth and women. A select group met with the Governor, who realised these men had lost their hope and dignity. They shared their own solutions, resulting in the formation of the Bomet Veterans Association, a unique network of over 600 elderly men who now share their ideas and experiences with different cadres of society.

Governor Hillary Barchak ended his presentation with this wonderful aspiration: “We  would  wish  to  open  avenues  for  these  grassroot organisations and create platforms for the exposures. We would wish to see a society that is just, productive, progressive and sustainable in social and economic development.

Anita Dywaba, Girl Up Leader, Journalist and Human Rights Activist, South Africa

In the future, I think we need to emphasise the importance of voting and the exercise of democracy. Now, also representation matters, we need young people vying for these leadership positions and I think we need more young people to also be part of civil society and coming up with ways that can help our respective communities grow. I think these are some of the few ways in which we can help restore local governance in local communities.”

Anita Dywaba emphasised the importance of local democracy from the context of South Africa. Their local government structure is divided into wards, headed by a ward counsellor. The aim is to bring the government closer to the people, because the national and provincial governments are not suited to engage and interact with citizens at the grassroot level. Wards are community members, and can therefore deal better with problems related to that community. 

Within the system, there is a heavy emphasis on service delivery: local municipalities put in place multi sectoral plans through communication and consultation with local communities. The government also assists the community to build itself over a 5-year plan. For example, when the community aspires to further develop farming, they speak to the ward counsellor, whom they are already familiar with. The counsellor can then provide them technical and financial support, possibly through higher government departments. 

However, Anita noted that there seems to be a trust deficit between the government and youth, which seems to be due to corruption, maladministration and poor service delivery. This leads to an apathy toward voting, which is a threat to the country’s democracy. The low voter turnout may indicate that none of the parties offered are what South Africans desire, hence they have no incentive to vote.

Jack Beling Kalipenta, Community Facilitator at the Zambian Governance Foundation

For 26 years, linguistic anthropologist Jack Kalipenta, has been involved in systems strengthening for Civil Society. He got introduced to CLD and local community philanthropy when he began working with the Zambian Governance Foundation as community facilitator. 

“Really, most of the support we [Zambian Governance Foundation] had, we were subgranting to civil society, to look at issues of governance. So that went on from 2009 to around 2017. Then, internally asking ourselves: what impact are we seeing on the ground, in spite all this money coming to support Civil Society. And of course we know that during this period again the space for civil society participation in the country was really being squeezed because of the kind of governance system that we had. So coming of 2018, we started thinking of new ways and this was the beginning of our journey to date.”

When people on the ground cannot participate in issues of governance, this often goes hand in hand with corruption and greed. Simply being able to cast a vote is not enough. This is why the Governance Foundation turned its attention to local communities and learned new ways of Community-led Development. Jack Beling Kalipenta shared that if local people are well organised, they are able to participate effectively in issues of their own governance.  

Unfortunately […] people of rural areas are left in the cold. One, digital divide: you find networks, like broadcasting, as well as radio, television, that is a nightmare. They don’t get any use. Even when it comes to the issues of even the newspapers… Like my colleague, [he] was supposed to be with me, he is in the North-Western Province, […] he was supposed to participate in this, I think it is a network issue. Issues of just how to get on the internet, you know, I think in the West [it] is something that is taken for granted. It is really a big issue for our people on the ground.”

Civil Society has become more confrontational and challenges the government and agents of the donor community. In 2012, the new Zambian Government brought about a shift in paradigm. In the past, support from the central government never really reached local constituencies. This has changed. The Government in power now allocates support  directly to the constituency. The Foundation helps ensure this, assisting to hold the duty bearers accountable. It is Civil Society’s job to work closely with structures of local government, also considering active citizenship. For example, one constituency in central Zambia has 10 wards, divided into zones with different elected zone facilitators. These are people close to the community and they check whether money is actually reaching the people on the ground. This has brought hope; People are not simply seen as mere voters.

Veda Bharadwaja, Senior Program Manager (Advocacy and Research), THP-India

The reason why women like Jamuna Devi – as seen in the video below – are able to assume leadership positions was because of the constitutional amendment in 1993. Here, a formal mechanism of quotas was introduced in order to get marginalized cast groups and women into positions of power and to devolve power to local bodies. This is based on the closest proximity principle, in line with what is already mentioned above, meaning that people closer to the community know best what is needed to localize the development agenda. 

“In closest proximity, the whole idea is that you choose your elected leaders, and then you have quotas […] Who else would know what is really required to localise the development agenda?”

“Just by introducing these quotas, just by having these formal mechanisms, [it] does not operate on its own. You also have to […] take thos additional measures in the informa spaces so that you can really push the agenda of or the whole principle it as meant for.” 

THP India also saw that informal spaces in village counsels are needed in order to hold duty bearers accountable. This is done through the Village Awareness Platform, a site for political learning. They include women, men and youth and should be established early in order to get people active. The goal is to make citizens active in their  own development.

One example constitutes the early informal engagement with adolescent girls to see them as citizens of their community. This meant introducing the concept of citizenship and showing them how they can change their problems, for example inappropriate behaviour of teachers in schools. You then need to make sure to get the community and the elected leaders together in a comfortable space so that they can share solutions. This goes together with petitioning, advocacy, etc. This then again resulted in some of the girls – inspired by elected women as role models – to contest the patriarchal counsel elections of the place where they lived. Early political engagement really makes a difference. 

Break-out room 1: Women in Local Government

The main realisation in India was that communities are not homogenous. It is important to contextualise in order to fully capture the spirit of inclusion. For example, the awareness platforms are very dynamic and politically charged. You need to recognize the members are not simply recipients of information or beneficiaries, but political agents. Giving them info means enabling them to move forward to localise their agenda. 

An important question also arose related to the elements that discourage Indian women to join politics and positions of leadership and what can be done to change this. The main reason is because it is a very disabling environment, in terms of violence against women. Especially related to politics, women do not really have a support structure or legal mechanism available for this issue. This reveals that simply having for example quota measures is not enough. You need to move beyond and also empower women and focus on capacity building. Otherwise, women get overwhelmed and because of this pressure, they cannot act in their full capability. Support structures are needed, together with a shift in paradigm and mindset, away from the patriarchy. 

Break out room 2: Youth Engagement 

In South Africa, young people are angry that they are being excluded. Young people are not actively engaged in activism , since they come from excluded communities. This can be addressed by trying to urge the government to cater more to disadvantaged communities. The government should include them in conversations and development policy as a whole.

Regarding youth engagement and social media, the latter has played a critical role in advancing activism. Movements are on social media and gaining momentum from social media rather than door to door. Social media is important for reach and as a way for young people to have a voice. It is the only way to have voices heard around development and identities.

Examples from South Africa: there was a nationwide shutdown for solidarity of victims of gender based violence and femicide. This began on social media and spread out onto the streets. This has caused the president to have a national plan for the elimination of gender based violence. Social media conversations can also be embedded in journalism and stories, acting as a platform for documentation during protests.  

Break out room 3: Civil Society and Local Government Partnerships

All the participants agreed that democracy is, by nature, local. However, the perception of politics is of distance and extravagance. Locals have the power to make democracy a constant reality on the ground, rather than a single vote every few years. CSOs shape democracy, motivating, sensitising, and awakening citizens to their potential and harnessing collective power. They should also be self-aware, always centering the people they represent. Central governments can only be held accountable when CSOs work together as pressure groups. Democracy is not a theoretical concept that only politicians can harness, it belongs to all. 

Break out room 4: Citizen engagement with Gov. Hillary Barchok

What inspired you to go from teaching to the position you have today?

“I cannot describe myself as just a politician, I used to have a negative perspective on politicians for not delivering to the people. I moved into politics for one reason: to re-write this narrative of politicians and finally deliver for the people. I came from a disadvantaged background, from a family that did not have a lot, but with this position I’ve had, I want to continue working to ensure no one is left behind”.

What is something you’re most proud of from your time in office?

“To give power of self-governance to the people, to recognize the rights of communities to recognize their role in society. Reaching out to low levels, people who are not endowed in resources but giving them increased opportunity to work towards having a better future. We have been able to empower them, women who have not been to school, and others who can participate in building the economies of their homes, villages, and the country to leave a long-lasting legacy of economic empowerment”. 

What are the strategies for community involvement in your country?

“Village councils are made up of 5-7 members of villages that help share information with relevant departments so that I can have information to address those issues directly. This is to ensure that development systems address the needs of villages and that community leadership is included in the development”.

The short video shown by Veda on women community leaders fighting COVID in India is here: