Report of DeLoG, SDC, VNG International and GIZ Webinar on "Decentralisation and Local Governance in Authoritarian Contexts" Now Available
The inputs for the webinar were given by Melina Papageorgiou, Thematic Advisor Governance, SDC, Channisai Muong, Programme Officer Governance, Swiss Cooperation Office and Swiss Consular Agency for Cambodia, Volkert Doop, Project Manager, VNG International and Dr. Armin Nolting, Head of Advisory Project Governance, GIZ GmbH.
Over the past decade, we have witnessed an increase in authoritarianism all around the world. Incumbent and newly emerging regimes have not only shown little willingness to reform but also closed existing spaces for citizen participation and civil society engagement more widely. Given this “authoritarian backslide”, development cooperation faces both obstacles and risks: Not only does citizens’ limited or inequitable access to political decision-making impede upon inclusive and sustainable aid delivery, international cooperation may also be instrumentalised to grant legitimacy to authoritarian leaders and thus be a threat to long-term inclusive development. Where authoritarian regimes’ grip goes down to the local level, prospects for local self-government and constructive state-society relationships are poor. But there are also cases where authoritarian regimes display a commitment to decentralisation and local governance (DLG) reforms.
The webinar introduced the participants to the complex topic by querying them about their view on the prospects for decentralisation and local governance reforms and the role of donors in authoritarian contexts. The participants majoritarian judged the prospect of reforms as limited while assessing donor support as need, but at the same time indicating the existing dependency on the specific country context.
Melina Papageorgiou (SDC) kicked off the webinar and gave an insightful look at the different entry points and risks for donors as well as different strategic assumptions about change through development cooperation. She classified the SDC partner countries along different characteristics in government, focusing on their liberalisation and democratisation processes. Emphasising however, that the practiced DLG programme she referred to, has the underlying assumption that the relation between the state and the people will improve. Showing the space subnational and local level actors can provide for participatory decision-making and for responding to the people’s needs, she once again underlined the benefits of decentralised intergovernmental arrangements. Dr. Armin Nolting joined the discussion to share his expertise on the questions raised by Melina and if the made assumptions remain valid in authoritarian contexts as well as the possibility of strengthening undemocratic ways of governance by granting legitimacy to public authorities. He referenced the SDC Policy Note as an important resource on the issue of donor-uncertainty as it gives a conceptual approach to the different kinds of authoritarian regimes and trends in addition to a better understanding of their elements. The collection of possible concrete entry points for programming and SDC’s lessons learned was named as a valuable part of the study. The importance of supporting the local stakeholders by using the identified entry points and approaches was discussed by bringing in questions from the participants before the webinar shifted to concrete examples from Burundi and Cambodia.
Volkert Doop shared VNGi’s work in Burundi, where it has active programming since 2008. The objective of the presented VNGi’s programme was to improve the capacity of 8 communes in Burundi to cope with fragility risks in the area of human security. By implementing the programme in close cooperation with ABELO (Association of Burundi Local Governments) the following successful outcomes were achieved: Legitimacy of the Local Governments was enhanced through delivering effective services, while fostering inclusive decision-making on a governmental level. Through lobbying and advocacy, ABELO and VNGi were able to create an enabling environment for development cooperation.
Channisai Muong, emphasised the relevance of local governments for the development programmes of her agency. She highlighted the different political situations in Cambodia since 1993 and the importance of staying engaged in autocratic regimes in order to make a difference. Both in Burundi and Cambodia the development cooperation had a positive effect. Nevertheless, the participants were reminded that expectations regarding the impact and influence must remain realistic.
To wrap up the webinar, a roundtable uniting the experiences of SDC, VNG International and GIZ to exchange on the effects of authoritarianism on local governments and its implications for development cooperation came together. Emphasising once again how decentralisation reforms can open space for local communities and citizen engagement, the roundtable closed the webinar by underlining developmental actors’ responsibility to design contextual and conflict-sensitive strategies. Due to the active engagement of the participants and the limited time frame, the organisers gave the opportunity to leave unanswered questions for the speakers. The written answers can now be found here, as well as an elaboration on the Cambodian case study by Channisai Muong.