Interview with Ana Maria Vargas (ICLD)

Underlining the relevance of the newly launched working group on decentralisation, local governance and local democracy within the DeLoG network.

Ana Maria Vargas is an academic passionate about connecting research and practice. At the Swedish Centre for Local Democracy (ICLD), her work has focused on the development of different spaces for long-term partnerships between researchers and local governments including labs and talks for mutual learning on complex problems. ICLD has also developed a publication series of policy briefs, video-policies, case-based learning and dilemmas to help local governments get access to the latest research on topics of political interests. Her academic background includes a PhD in sociology of law from Lund University and the University of Milan, and her thesis was awarded the prize for Best dissertation in Sweden in the field of working environment by FALF – Forum for Working Life Research in 2016. She has published research on inclusive urbanization and local democracy, the everyday life of street vendors and rickshaw drivers, the local politics of air pollution, and everyday forms of resistance to urban politics, recently with a focus on climate change adaptation. She is from Colombia where she studied Law at the National University.

DeLoG: As DeLoG’s current Focal Point at ICLD, we would appreciate if you could tell us a little bit more about your current work at ICLD and how you got involved with ICLD in the first place?

Ana Maria Vargas: I'm the Director of Research at the Knowledge Centre of ICLD. At ICLD the core of our work is around  the Municipal Partnership Prorgamme , which allows Swedish municipalities to apply for funds to work on projects with municipalities in 15 countries. ICLD also has a unit that provides training programs for local governments officials – both politicians and civil servants in these countries. We want to strengthen their capacity to provide opportunities and means for citizens to influence their lives. Our focus is local democracy. We hope to empower them to influence local government decisions, exercise their rights and hold local governments accountable. By doing that, they can improve their lives. So it's also a way to reduce poverty. But we don't believe poverty is just a lack of economic resources. Poverty is a lack of ability to influence those decisions that are affecting them. In Africa we work in Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. We also work in Eastern Europe, in Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Ukraine. In Latin America we are starting to work in Colombia and Guatemala. Until last year, we also worked in Asia. My work advisedly can be summarized as connecting  research and practice. We (researchers) are often seen as unapproachable, who often take ourselves too important and relevant and our analyses seem too abstract and unrelated to the real problems of local governments and their everyday challenges. Local practitioners need often answers that are straight and don't go around too much. We've been working in the last seven years in strengthen that connection and really piloting different models, trying different solutions, trying to innovate and being very flexible. ICLD is a small organization, so it's really easy to try out something new – to test, to change and to move on. We are a living lab for connecting research and practice for local democracy.

DeLoG: Why is the nexus of local democracy and DLG relevant to ICLD and why do local democracy-related topics matter to you (personally)?

Ana Maria Vargas: You can work with democracy at so many different levels. But the reason we work with local democracy is the importance of local government, because it is the area of government closest to the citizens. The French Philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) said once “Municipal institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science: they bring it within the people’s reach, and teach them how to use and enjoy it. A nation may establish a system of free government, but without the spirit of municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty.” I believe like Tocqueville that local governments are key to democracy. It´s at the municipal level where you can practice an understand your rights. This is how you exercise influence. This is the moment and place where you understand that there is a government that you can influence and that you have rights – those local governments and local democracy must go hand in hand. And either you have a local government that practices the principles of local democracy that opens the door and lets the citizens influence it, or you have a local government that is authoritarian, anti-democratic, classy, corrupt, that is far away from the citizens, or that patronizes its citizens or simply works in a client-holistic manner. I believe you need to work in different spheres. Of course, it's very exciting to work with the United Nations to understand why we need to change things at the global level – topics related to climate change, migration, conflicts amongst many other important issues. But personally, I am interested to see how that translate in people's everyday lives. How everyday citizen experienced and are impacted by climate change? How does it affect me as an individual and how do I contribute to the solution as well? So I think  local governments are really this magic place where you can see things happening.

DeLoG: According to your personal experience, what can institutions and authorities do to integrate local democracy perspectives into local governance systems?

Ana Maria Vargas: Local governments need to have power and resources to be able to deliver. In many countries we see that the national government has taken away all the power and all the resources from the local governments. They even appoint “civil servants” from the national level who are the head of the district or the head of the county. And then, that person who has not been democratically elected or accountable to the citizens has more power and resources than the locally elected councilors. The person is accountable to the president, or to the chiefs, or to whoever had the power in the region to appoint the person. This is very problematic for local democracy. But if we have democratically elected councilors in a system where there is also the possibility of opposition and where power democratically passes from one person to the next, with different mechanisms of accountability, resources and power then we can talk about local democracy. ICLD works in four perspectives of the local level:

  1. The first one is equity, where we have the possibility to work with anti-discrimination. We want local governments that provide services to everybody on the ground. That means not only providing them equally, but actually removing the barriers that for some groups make it difficult even if they have equal rights on the paper.
  2. The second perspective that we use is participation. Participation is something that local governments use in different ways and at different levels. In the worst cases, for some local governments, participation means contributing labour to local projects without having the possibility to have a voice about them. If you want to participate, that means you come and help to clean the streets or to build schools.  Very often, it’s a one-way conversation where citizens don't really have the possibility to influence. The ICLD supports different forms of participation that is free, informed and generates influence in local decision making. So, the government and the citizens can decide together.
  3. The third issue is transparency. To be able to participate and influence the decisions of the local government information needs to be easily accessible. Local governments need to be responsive and answer to citizens request of information in a simple and diligent manner. We have a research project on transparent budgets during the last years. Where and what is the amount of money that they have? How do they use it? It has to be easy for citizens to understand. Being transparent about the budget is sometimes seen as a taboo that can cause conflicts, but it is essential.
  4. The last one, which is the most important of all and the most difficult is accountability. Accountability is the possibility to sanction or reward local governments. Citizens need to know and understand that there are measures and tools that can be used when decision-makers abuse their power and, for example, have been corrupt. Conversely, the citizens can also reward them by re-electing them.

DeLoG: In general, what type of DeLoG network would you like to see and shape in the future, also regarding to the newly launched working group focusing on DLG and local democracy?

Ana Maria Vargas: All three working groups intersect in different ways. But of course, decentralized local governance could work a lot in the issues of participation. And I think participatory democracy could be something that we could enhance more. There are many experiments, great organizations that we could work hand in hand on participatory democracy and increase citizens’ influence over the local government. We also need to work with donors that are supporting programs on climate action, peace and security, gender equality or any other of the SDGs. Donors need to connect their projects to the citizens and add the key ingredient of “local democracy”. Only by listening to citizens and allowing for local democratic institutions to have a stronger role in donor’s programs we can guarantee that we do not repeat the history of failed interventions. Working within local democratic institutions allows for a more equitable and bottom up approach to development that is rights based and sustainable in the long-term. What about local democracy mainstreaming? How can we ensure that all the projects that donors support enhance those local democratic spaces or channels that exist already? A lot of the work is on how to see getting results done. They do projects on health and education, on forests and on climate. But the Delog network is about articulating donors to include the local democracy mainstreaming in their projects to become sustainable in the long term by always asking the question of how citizens are involved in those decisions and how local democratic institutions play a role. We have seen a democratic decline in the last years and donors should not in any way contribute to further the gap that already exists between citizens and their governments, by relying for instance on NGOs. Our goal in the Delog network is to provide a space for exchange of knowledge about how to bring politics and citizens together strengthening local democratic institutions that can in turn support sustainable development.

DeLoG: Before we close, is there anything else you would like to add?

Ana Maria Vargas: I think knowledge is power. Because of this, I work as a researcher at the ICLD Knowledge Centre. We live in an era of mis- and disinformation. So it's important to support local governments, donors and actors in the process of data collection and to have accurate fact and research at hand. We don't have time to repeat mistakes over and over. It feels like we always come up with new ideas and new policies. How can we ensure that we leverage existing research that has proven itself? I would therefore like to see a stronger connection between research and practice in the network.