The rocky road to citizen rule

Ehsan Masood
3 April 2006

Bottom-up. Community-based. Multi-stakeholder. Participatory. And now Everyday Democracy. The litany of descriptions seeking to convey the value of citizens' direct involvement in public life is proliferating.

At one time, citizens entrusted policy decisions, big and small, to those they elected every four or five years. But today, with fewer people turning out to vote (particularly in the western world), and with increased private and charitable-sector involvement in the delivery of public services, what the British think-tank Demos calls "everyday democracy" and the Italy-based scholar Paul Ginsborg characterises as "the politics of everyday life" seem to be the way to go if you want your voice heard.

Members of parliament and local councillors are yesterday's men and women, exemplars of older forms of "top-down", "state-directed", "command-and-control" planning that (to today's reformists and innovators) combined the worst of both worlds: inefficiency and authoritarianism. If you want to complain about the shape of new municipal refuse-collecting bins, or lobby to have a new international law to slow down climate change, the solution now is to Do It Yourself (along with your neighbourhood).

Take "participatory-budget setting", for example, a system in which ordinary people get to play at being finance minister, and which has been adopted by some 300 local authorities. Pioneered by Brazil's Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party / PT) in Brazil's industrial city of Porto Alegre in the 1980s, neighbourhood residents are invited by local authorities to suggest how to spend a part of the public-sector budget. The development charity Oxfam reckons that some 12 million people worldwide currently have a say in spending public funds; it has taken the innovative step of inviting experts from Brazil to England to see if participatory budget-setting can be adapted to the northern city of Manchester.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He is the editor of two books to be published in 2006: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press) and How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He also writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network.

Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"The Hizb-ut-Tahrir equation" (August 2005)

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief" (November 2005)

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (December 2005)

"Doing the maths" (January 2006)

"Bush’s 'war on science' through the microscope" (January 2006)

"A post-Satanic journey" (February 2006)

"Alexandria’s bridge" (February 2006)

"The Islamic world’s United Nations"
(March 2006)

"Language: a toolkit for life on earth"
(March 2006)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Strengthening "citizen participation" has also become a priority for international development agencies. Even some adherents of the older ways of doing things have begun to embrace the new thinking. Consider, if you will, the World Bank. In the past week alone, an institution better known for "advising" countries on how they should develop agreed to take a fresh look at a $945 million project aimed at improving Mumbai's road and train networks. The bank acknowledged that it had failed to consult widely enough, especially owners of roadside shops and slum-dwellers who will be evicted when the new roads are built.

All of this is indicative of the fact that an appetite for innovation in governance seems undimmed. Indeed, Eduardo Mancuso, international-relations coordinator for Porto Alegre, says that participatory budget-setting shouldn't be seen as undermining democracy: "In Porto Alegre it has re-oxygenated democracy."

I like Mancuso's scientific analogy. But perhaps he could have added that citizen participation, without the right ingredients, has the potential to suck the air out of democracy. What the Porto Alegre experience demonstrates is that even the best will in the world and generous helpings of international aid are not enough for citizen participation to work. Three further critical ingredients for success are needed: the essence of a functioning (efficient, inclusive and transparent) state bureaucracy with proper support from within government; genuine enthusiasm, confidence and ability among local people to take up the challenge; and accountability mechanisms that work.

The lessons of failure: Uganda and Australia

These more sober conclusions are suggested by two research papers published in 2005 from two very different countries that tried to measure the effectiveness of more citizen participation in governance.

In one, Frederick Golooba-Mutebi of the school of public health at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa assessed a scheme designed to boost popular participation in healthcare in a district in Uganda in the late 1990s. In the other, Marcus Lane and Tony Corbett of the Universities of Adelaide and Queensland, Australia, investigated a nationwide project aimed at increasing the participation of Australia's indigenous peoples in the management of protected areas.

Uganda and Australia do not have a great deal in common: they were once both part of the British Empire, and have similar population sizes, but that's about it. Uganda had its first democratic presidential election in 1996. Australia, by contrast, is a politically-mature, developed-world state, whose people have elected their fortieth continuous democratic parliament.

But in both cases, their bureaucracies failed their citizens, and in more ways than one.

So what happened? In Australia, members of indigenous communities were invited to apply for a new fund, the Natural Heritage Trust, designed to help them take control of managing their lands in a more sustainable manner, instead of the state taking on this function. However, few indigenous communities succeeded in getting funds – in fact, federal funding for indigenous-owned land management actually declined after the heritage trust was established.

The government panicked and appointed fifteen professional facilitators from within indigenous communities. Their job was to encourage more people to apply to the fund, and to help them refine applications to the required standard. But even that didn't work. The influence of "native title" land laws since 1992-93 has contributed to a situation where around 15% of Australia's land has come to be owned by indigenous communities, so this would have been a good funding target to meet. Instead, in 1999-2000, indigenous expenditures amounted to 1.8% of the total.

As part of their research, Lane and Corbett interviewed the facilitators and asked them to describe why they felt this experiment in community participation had failed (see Marcus B Lane & Tony Corbett, "The Tyranny of Localism: Indigenous Participation in Community-Based Environmental Management", Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, 7/2, 2005). Among the reasons given was an overall lack of awareness of the existence of the fund among a group of people who were poorly educated and had little other connection to the state. Those who did know about it found the exercise complex and confusing. The presence of just fifteen facilitators for the whole of Australia seemed like a drop in the ocean; one facilitator told the researchers that environmental conservation was an insignificant priority for communities whose main priority was the business of daily survival.

The most persistent reason given, however, was politics: particularly the historical mistrust between the Australian state and many of its indigenous peoples. The facilitators were never given the right to decide whether funds should be allocated – they could merely recommend a project for funding. The final decision was to be made by an assessment committee made up of local actors. It didn't help that most committees barely had one indigenous member. Some had none.

One of the facilitators summed up the frustrations of the group as a whole: "We are only advisors. They (the committees) don't take our advice and they scrutinise indigenous projects more than non-indigenous projects." Another said he felt that the whole idea of the natural heritage trust was principally to subsidise Australia's farmers into staying on the land: "Any indigenous involvement is an afterthought."

Mistrust of the state also characterises the failure of the Ugandan example – though in most other respects it highlighted a different set of problems than the Australia case.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi investigated local involvement in healthcare provision in one Ugandan district (Mukono) in 1996. This was three years after political reforms in Uganda led to healthcare and education being devolved from the health ministry in Kampala to local communities in individual districts. Overseas aid had been allocated to building new health clinics and procuring supplies of new medicines, and the system was to be monitored by oversight committees composed of a mix of councillors and other local people. This was meant to be an example in bottom-up planning, in which providers of public services would be accountable to their users.

That was the theory. In practice, what Golooba Mutebi found is that oversight committees had failed to prevent corruption and absenteeism on an awesome scale (see Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, "When Popular Participation Won't Improve Service Provision: Primary Health Care in Uganda", Development Policy Review, 23/2, 2005). Some healthcare staff were found to be doing second jobs (often because salaries were not paid on time): as a result, patients "spent hours waiting outside closed health units for health workers to turn up and attend to them." Other staff were running a parallel market in selling medicines at triple the going rate, or attending to private patients during time being paid out of the public purse.

For their part, the healthcare oversight committees met irregularly, and when they did, took little action to prevent corruption. Patients felt that complaining would be wasting time, or even dangerous – as committee members were often powerful and influential people, who were part of a military government that not so long ago had terrorised the public without restraint.

The new system had collapsed to the extent that most patients had lost confidence in state healthcare and had returned to using unregulated private medicine – as they had been doing before democracy. Moreover, instead of feeling empowered, citizens who had been promised a new start were played a cruel trick by their state.

The lessons of such experiences go far beyond Australia and Uganda. Experiments in citizen participation could do better than to heed Golooba-Mutebi's conclusions: devolution and local participation (in any country) need a functioning state bureaucracy constrained by mechanisms of accountability. It also needs communities that have literacy, knowledge, skills and the confidence to make their participation meaningful. Some of this might indeed come by using participatory methods. But, at least where better healthcare, learning and skills are concerned, many "local-centred" initiatives will also need large doses of old-fashioned, top-down, state-directed support and monitoring.

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