Why Local Democracy Matters – A Plea for Empowering Citizens

During the Knowledge and Dialogue Days 2022, members and partners discussed on how to strengthen local governance and empower citizens at the local level. The diverse range of topics but also the different perspectives on how to look on these topics – from academia, civil societies, governments, donors and implementers – showed, how collaborative learning and knowledge exchange look like in a diverse and inclusive setting.

Local communities act as key components for democratisation processes. At the regional or local level – ideally – citizens not only get to know the political system, but can also actively participate. For instance, the case of the Sandaga Market presentet during the Keynote Speech by the political leader and activist Kah Walla, shows how co-determination rights for citizens can change the status quo at the local level of governance. It improves access to political, economic and cultural decision making processes, encourages and observes citizen-services, as well as the opportunities to increase the representation and the scope of action of women within municipalities.  

Research has shown that participation creates opportunities for more inclusive, equal, and sustainable urban development as can be seen in the Her City Toolbox by UN-Habitat which promotes girls' and young women's participation in urban planning and design. The toolbox guides urban actors to implement projects through a step-by- step methodology and facilitates an ongoing dialogue between professionals and citizens. Citizen participation allows individuals to gain knowledge about community affairs that otherwise resides with the elected officials.  

The role of citizens in (re-)building and defining stable democracies in an inclusive manner at the local level is crucial. Additionally, local and civil society organisations can provide the framework and practical know-how for such bottom-up engagement. Local democracy is intended to ensure, that local policies reflect the specific needs and preferences of its citizens. An example  is the Ethiopia Social Accountability Program by VNG. It helps to create a space for citizens to express their concerns and define their priorities for the delivery of citizen services such as in education, health, and agriculture. Recognising that citizens may have higher priorities related to other sectors, the ESAP3 approach does facilitate the identification of such priorities, so that local governments are aware and can take action in response. The aim of the program is to identify and create structures and mechanisms to facilitate citizens and local governments to exchange within constructive dialogues about priority sectors and sector-specific problems that citizens identified. 

Another project which focuses on the needs of citizens, is the ‘Basic Care Basket’ developed by CIPPEC, Southern Voice, and IDRC. The Basic Care Basket is a synthetic indicator that estimates the costs of health care within families and defines a concrete poverty line, below which a household can no longer afford professional care. On the local level, the Basic Care Basket collects data concerning the percentage of households with informal care for family members due to limited financial resources. In addition, they scale the proportion of women, who informally care for family members and do not receive their own income. The collected data, which clarify and visualize social and gender-specific inequalities, is intended to draw attention to the right to access of professional health care. Therefore, the Basic Care Basket  helps to develop policies to address care deficits.  

As highlighted, effective local governance can facilitate public participation, improve service delivery, and strengthen communities. However, the localisation of power does not automatically lead to more democratic structures. Instead, it can also provoke local autocracies and nepotism. It is therefore important to implement local democratic structures, which  distribute powers of action and accountability of political decision-makers as well as take the voices of local communities into consideration. Based on global trends towards increasingly authoritarian forms of governance, it is important to remain engaged and to take on an observer role as civil society.  Two out of three persons in the world live in nondemocratic regimes. Autocratic systems have become more effective at co-opting or circumventing the norms and institutions meant to support basic liberties.  

Getting actively involved in an undemocratic or even illiberal environment has an ambivalent character: It is not uncommon for the commitment of individuals, civil society organisations and their supporters to be associated with different risks. Many of them end up on the index of autocratic systems. Exclusion from the society, deprivation of liberty and even danger to life can be the consequences. However, staying engaged is key and is also in line with the 2030 Agenda and ‘leaving no one behind’. Moreover, staying engaged can also be seen as a ‘window of opportunity’ for change and fostering democratisation.  

However, which criteria can be used to determine whether to stay engaged? For example, the Swiss International Cooperation Strategy 2021 – 2024 has two relatively broad criteria to determine in which countries it will operate: 1) willingness for reforms by partner governments and 2) legal frameworks for an active civil society and access to relevant actors. In addition, the local context and actors must be considered individually for each case. In countries that have recently become more democratic, there is an opportunity to support efforts towards local democracy, decentralisation and  local governance through international development cooperation. 

In sum, the role of citizens in building stable democracies in an inclusive manner at the local level is crucial. Mechanisms for participation and accountability at the local level can help to ensure a more efficient and accountable democracy. Effective local democracy is increasingly recognised as a prerequisite for ensuring sustainable and equitable social development, promoting democratic values and good governance. Challenges to build and maintain local and regional democratic governance structures in the context of democratic backsliding and authoritarism highlight the importance of staying engaged.

Promoting local governance and democratic structures of practitioners is a key element and a life-long process to act through local networks and channels for open dialogues as an interface between decision-makers and civil societies. The many worldwide ongoing regional and local efforts and initiatives for decentralisation, local governance and democracy, initiated by individuals and civil society organisations also highlight the importance to bundle practical and empirical knowledge. Most important, to make this knowledge accessible to the public as well as to offer a platform for dialogue, partnership, and joint learning is the mission of the DeLoG network with its diverse global partners. The Knowledge and Dialogue Days highlighted the power of the citizen's voice. Together citizens can change the status quo in local governments by creating common spaces to discuss initiatives and projects. Citizens participate and promote their ideas when they feel that their voice is truly heard.