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Thursday, September 28, 2023

The role of local authorities in the democratisation process


However, changing political ideology over the years require a state apparatus that is more sensitive to the market institution.  This new condition requires a transition from a state dominated economic order to a market-based economic system.

Similarly, the failure of past economic systems to adequately respond to the needs and requirements of the rural population induced unprecedented levels of rural-urban drift.  Despite heavy investments in social development, similar investments in the economic sector have failed to provide the required benefits.

Finally, political structures and processes of the past are found to be incompatible with changing needs and circumstances and failed to adequately address growing economic problems.  Thus we gradually begin to see the introduction of key elements of what some call political liberalization and others call democratisation.  

Democratisation may be defined as the evolution or development of democratic norms, institutions and practices.  The subject matter of this presentation concerns this aspect of global changes directly related and relevant to economic development and the role of local government in this process of change. 

Any textbook on politics and government will use the definition of democracy by Abraham Lincoln – the rule of the people, by the people, for the people.  As an evolutionary process, the establishment of democratic norms, institutions and practices is now closely related to economic development.  For resources to be efficiently deployed it is found necessary for the state to be more responsive to the needs of the people by involving the people in the decision-making process that would enable them to both signal their preference efficiently and enforce the compliance of leaders with their wishes.  There is a   need for informed information about local needs and preferences for the efficient use and allocation of resources.

In other words, it has become accepted that sustainable economic and human development cannot take place in a political and social vacuum.  Every society is required to develop systems of government that will assist it to attain its economic development objectives in accordance with its culture, tradition and aspiration and a system that will use and allocate its resources efficiently.

However, the inalienable contents and elements of democracy have always been the subject of broad discussions.  In the midst of this controversy how do we operationalise the meaning of democracy and make it functional – i.e. the subject matter of a democratisation process.

Democracy could be seen from two perspectives.  One principle is to confine its meaning to the political sphere – i.e. ensuring that interests and points of view of a group are fully represented.  This aspect of democracy does not concern us here.  From another point of view the primary meaning of democracy is that all those who are affected by a decision should have the opportunity to participate in making the decision.  To make this participatory process effectively functional, a variety of structures and mechanics are required.  However, there is no widely applicable recipe for democracy but as a process certain basic principles are found to be indispensable – the issues of representation/consent and legitimacy.

How do local authorities (LA) fit into this process?  The role of LAs is to provide a democratic-friendly state structure and can be defined within the context of the building blocks of the process and the concomitant structures and systems.



The condition of representation and consent has two political aspects – participation and accountability.  The former deals with increasing the role of citizens in choosing their local leaders and telling them what to do whilst the latter is the degree to which local authorities have to explain or justify what they have done or failed to do.

As mentioned early, one aspect of democratization is to address economic development issues. Economic development is one of the instrumental benefits of democratisation – such as its relevance to poverty.  Poverty is seen not just as a lack of physical resources for development but also as the lack of   power to exert influence upon the forces which shape one’s livelihood.  Without going into the history of development theory, it will suffice to say that classical development interventions were undertaken by governments using projects that were designed and implemented by a professional staff and were introduced in rural areas.  This style has now been seen as using rural communities as mere objects of development projects.  The approach has also proven to be inadequate in addressing the problems of these communities.  


There has been a reversal in this approach using one of the key elements of the democratisation process i.e. participation and the concept of accountability.  In the rural development context participation is people’s involvement in the decision making process, in implementing programs and influencing the direction and execution of such programs with the view to enhancing their livelihood.

Accountability is a validation of participation, in that the test of whether attempts to increase participation prove successful is the extent to which people can use participation to hold a local authority responsible for its actions.  There are two types of accountability – that of local authority employees to the elected officials and that of the elected officials to the citizens who elect them.  This presentation does not deal with the former which is hopefully left to the paper on decentralization.

Although elections provide the most obvious accountability, in the economic development context, elections are a somewhat blunt tool exercised only at determined intervals and offering only the broadest citizens control over local authorities.  They are no more than an act of rejection or retention of representatives.  Citizens need more discriminating instruments to enforce accountability – that major tool is participation as mentioned earlier on.

The role of LAs should be one of positioning themselves structurally in such a way as to satisfy these features of the process – i.e. identifying new forms of partnerships, participation and consultation, the promotion of conditions that enable effective participation and the provision of an institutional framework for citizen management of their own affairs in a partnership approach.  Their role should be one of creating an environment for greater openness and greater accountability to the local community, a distribution of responsibilities among all stakeholders for sustainable economic development – it is all about the process of the communities planning for themselves.

In order words, the role of LAs should be defined in the context of changes in the way we perceive and organise the government of, by and for the communities in order to address the issues and challenges facing their localities which have become more complex and diverse.



Just as the constitution of a country provides the legal framework to operationalise democratic norms, institutions and practices, very often the legitimacy of the role LAs is provided for in a local legislative framework.

In the 50s and 60s various approaches have been used in the past to enable LAs to fulfill this role.  Traditionally and in a general view, bodies were created separating them by law from the national center in which local representatives were given formal power to decide on a range of public matters. There was a political transfer of power to autonomous sub-national bodies from the center allowing the state to get closer to the people through local authority structures.  This transformation lacked depth vertically i.e. the power did not extend to local or community levels and laterally because other tiers of government – legislative and judiciary – were unable to contribute meaningfully to the policy process.

By the 80s another approach was introduced which transferred responsibility for planning, management and the raising and allocation of resources from the central government and its agencies to field unit of government, semi-autonomous public authorities or corporations.   The approach included some aspects of raising revenue where LAs were seen to require budgets commensurate with the functions they were to perform.  Communities have yet to be included in the decision-making process affecting their lives.

By the late 90s the approach took a practical endeavor to find the right balance between the different levels of government.  The role of government in general and local government in particular became one of a facilitator of economic and social change as opposed to provider and sustainer – as mentioned earlier.   

Today, LA’s are now seen in this context which is linked to the democratization process as a key impetus and catalyst for sustainable economic and human development.  It is a role to facilitate the empowerment of citizens/communities and thus allowing them to influence institutions to respond to their needs.  Their role, therefore, is to increase local participation leading to a strengthened democracy.

Thus LAs should play a key role in ensuring greater political awareness and create a well-informed electorate who can select their representatives on the basis of their integrity and the policies they advocate.  They should provide a sound policy framework and institutional capacity at the local level.

A ‘democracy’ may not necessarily be very democratic.  For example, the majority might be allowed to run rough shod over minority groups.  To attain full political pluralism, a strong local government system can enhance democratic society by providing potential local power bases for minority groupings, who may not be represented at central level.  This ensures a politically inclusive process – thus there is less likely to be frustration and sabotage as no one is excluded from the democratic process.  A strong democratic local government also helps to keep central government in check – i.e. a counter balance.

Local democracy is more visible.  The closer to the grassroots, the easier it is to hold representatives responsible.  Thus voters learn about democracy and the qualities required of a leader. There voter skills will improve the democratic process at national level.  Similarly, local government provides a training ground for national politicians.

Democratisation goes beyond the political sphere of creating local units and electing officials.  Without incorporating consensus building opportunities and dialogue between central government, local governments and the civil society at large, and the strengthening of the local planning processes i.e. the processes and the procedures for determining community needs, the benefits of the democratization process cannot be fully attained.

The LAs have a major role in strengthening the capacity of themselves in areas of policy formulation, resource management and service delivery and to build those of the communities in their areas of resource mobilisation, community planning and general policy awareness all geared towards the attainment of sustainable economic and human development.


By Lamin Comma


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