Thursday, 12 July 2007

THE DEMOCRACY & THE HUMANITY WITHIN



With local elections where I live looming large, doorbells and mailboxes got extremely busy in the last few weeks – even exasperatingly so, at times.
But, today, something different from the usual electoral pamphlet came through my door: a hand-written letter from a local councillor asking for votes on her (much younger) supported candidate. Of course the letter was reproduced from the original and serially printed , but still it looked and felt like it was personally handwritten specially to each one of the addressees, just like the envelope was, not least because it ended with the word 'love'…


This got me to an often recurring reflection on the importance of the physical proximity and the personal touch in the relationship politician/electorate, particularly at the local level. Having heard and read so many times, especially from die-hard ‘marxists’ (although most of them have hardly ever read Marx, or practiced Marxism...) from my country of origin, rumblings about how Western democracy is all just about money and lobbying and the protection of the rich – in which they are often right when one looks at the higher echelons of political power in countries such as the US, or at scandals such as the “cash for honours” which has recently tarnished the Blair government – I find, however, something to be said for the “representative democracy” obtained through local elections.

Just to give an example: some time ago, a gross mistake by my local council, while I was working abroad, had catastrophic consequences in my personal and professional life, including the loss of my home… Yet, through the local representation system, I could count with the personal availability, attention and services of two prominent MPs who have helped me to rectify, at least partially so far, the situation.
Just to put this into context: years ago, I lost, totally unlawfully, my house in Luanda. I wrote, cried and begged to everyone with any power or influence whatsoever to help me to recover it… to no avail, let alone a reply. As a result, I ended up staying where I could afford to have a home and my rights over it protected… that is London, at the moment.
These are the sort of “simple things of life" that make me value properly functioning institutions at all levels, accountable elected politicians and government officials, particularly at the local level, and the rule of law over the entire political and social system in any country.


With local elections where I live looming large, doorbells and mailboxes got extremely busy in the last few weeks – even exasperatingly so, at times.
But, today, something different from the usual electoral pamphlet came through my door: a hand-written letter from a local councillor asking for votes on her (much younger) supported candidate. Of course the letter was reproduced from the original and serially printed , but still it looked and felt like it was personally handwritten specially to each one of the addressees, just like the envelope was, not least because it ended with the word 'love'…


This got me to an often recurring reflection on the importance of the physical proximity and the personal touch in the relationship politician/electorate, particularly at the local level. Having heard and read so many times, especially from die-hard ‘marxists’ (although most of them have hardly ever read Marx, or practiced Marxism...) from my country of origin, rumblings about how Western democracy is all just about money and lobbying and the protection of the rich – in which they are often right when one looks at the higher echelons of political power in countries such as the US, or at scandals such as the “cash for honours” which has recently tarnished the Blair government – I find, however, something to be said for the “representative democracy” obtained through local elections.

Just to give an example: some time ago, a gross mistake by my local council, while I was working abroad, had catastrophic consequences in my personal and professional life, including the loss of my home… Yet, through the local representation system, I could count with the personal availability, attention and services of two prominent MPs who have helped me to rectify, at least partially so far, the situation.
Just to put this into context: years ago, I lost, totally unlawfully, my house in Luanda. I wrote, cried and begged to everyone with any power or influence whatsoever to help me to recover it… to no avail, let alone a reply. As a result, I ended up staying where I could afford to have a home and my rights over it protected… that is London, at the moment.
These are the sort of “simple things of life" that make me value properly functioning institutions at all levels, accountable elected politicians and government officials, particularly at the local level, and the rule of law over the entire political and social system in any country.

6 comments:

Cho said...

Isn't the point actually one that often made, that as good as decentralised Government may be, you need Central Government to eliminate the incentives for "gaming" among local authorities. A purely decentralised system of Government would probably not be socially optimal in a world with political boundaries that only a national state can resolve.

Nice blog by the way :)

Koluki said...

Hi Cho!

Welcome to this space.
I totally agree with you. I do not advocate a purely decentralised system of government: that wouldn't be a 'system' anymore, but and atomised body with totally separated parts, making each one of the local authorities a government in itself and... an autonomous national state. The point I’m trying to make here is that local government is key for the well functioning of central government – provided, of course that they are in tune, which they are supposed to be naturally by the rules of the game of party politics - at least in the UK.
What I do not agree with is a centralized government without any properly functioning local structures, which makes for the inefficient and macrocephalic central governments totally out of touch with their tax-payers and citizens in general we unfortunately find in most of our African states…
Well, I see from your profile that we share some common interests, so let’s keep in touch.
You also have nice blogs :-)

Cho said...

Thanks!

"What I do not agree with is a centralized government without any properly functioning local structures"

I agree.
The key though is what is meant precisely by local structures.

This is important because in Africa further decentralisation might also lead to weaker control mechanisms if certain areas have higher levels of income inequality -the richer and more economic powerful might dominate local processes. In theory stronger and more centralised states are meant to be better at dealing with the challenges of inequality compared to heavily decentralised.

But like you I very much favour decentralisation especially if it is underpinned by Participatory Budgeting!

Koluki said...

Hi again Cho,

Thanks for coming back to what's certainly an interesting subject.
What I mean by local structures is very simply local government structures; local administrative authorities; structures that ensure political and economic administration at the local level and are simultaneously integrated in and accountable to central government structures in a systemic way.
A more crucial question is perhaps what does 'local' exactly mean - and to that I would say it depends on the specific way in which a particular state is structured at the national level and on factors such as population density, ethnic diversity, etc.
Cho, I'm not sure that "in theory stronger and more centralised states are meant to be better at dealing with the challenges of inequality compared to heavily decentralised" - could you give me examples of this?
As for 'participatory budgeting', I think that's precisely the key government function which requires local structures (however you define them), in fact you can't have 'participatory budgeting' without structures that will plan and channel to central government the financial needs at the local level and will properly administer the budget at that level. And here is where I see your first argument being particularly relevant: if such local structures are inneficient and not effectively accountable to the electorate, 'participatory budgeting' might be just the perfect "incentive for gaming" among local authorities...

PS: Thanks for the link. I've also linked you here.

Cho said...

"Cho, I'm not sure that "in theory stronger and more centralised states are meant to be better at dealing with the challenges of inequality compared to heavily decentralised" - could you give me examples of this?"

I guess I could have put the sentence a little better :) Basically where you have heavily decentralised system of Government, you would have to accept that inequalities will exist across regions. Different localities will grow at different rates as their institutional make up with be different - and of course differences in endowments. Those inequalities can only be addressed through central funding.

Thanks for linking it up here!

Koluki said...

OK, Cho. I guess we tend to converge on some basic points.
National budgeting, even when 'participatory', is always a central government domain and it can be used to a number of different things, including accentuating regional asymmetries arising from differences in local resource endowments, or worsening income differentials arising from all sorts of social and economic inequalities, or... it can be used to do the reverse. It all depends on the particular economic policies (fiscal and redistributive) of a particular government in a particular country.
Just to put all this in context: in Angola, a country with a highly centralised government structure, the provinces that most contribute for the national budget are the oil-rich Cabinda and Zaire and the diamond-rich Lundas, yet they are far from benefiting the most in terms of 'central funding'... Both decentralisation and participatory budgeting supported by strong local government would help enormously to correct the situation and avoid new sources of potential armed conflict and national fragmentation, as seen in the past.