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McPherse Thompson | Hands-off approach to local government not the answer

Published:Thursday | November 3, 2016 | 11:00 AMMcPherse Thompson

Among the conversations repeated ad infinitum, and under discussion as I write this piece, is the lack of garbage collection in townships and other communities across Jamaica.

One of the reasons for decentralisation - the transfer of powers, authority, functions, responsibilities and the requisite resources from central government to local government - was the spread of multi-party political systems in many countries, which created demand for more local voice in the decision-making process.

In countries such as Africa, decentralisation was a response to pressures from regional and ethnic groups for more control and participation in the political process, a rationale which is not lost on the diverse social and economic groups in Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean.

Researchers have argued that local democracy not only provided greater opportunities for political participation but that it was an instrument of social inclusion. Others have suggested that those elected to national government are too far removed from local understanding to make effective decisions for a community.

Yet, empirical evidence suggests that many electors in Jamaica continue to take a hands-off approach where the vote for local government is concerned, allowing other people to make decisions about how things should be done and avoid, to their peril, becoming directly involved.

Some suggest that local government authorities have largely been usurped by central government and that councillors now engage in mere activism in their community and the wider constituency for their respective parties, and hence see no good reason to participate in the democratic process.

Anyone so inclined to think, however, should seek to make him or herself more aware of the rationale for local government and make the effort to hold their local representatives to account for the functions they have been mandated to undertake. For example, rather than moaning about paying more land taxes, which is not going to go away anytime soon, voters can ensure that their property taxes and other financing from central government which provide revenues for local authorities are used for the purposes for which they are intended.

 

THE BIGGEST IMPACT

 

Voters need to be reminded that their local government representatives are the individuals whom they can directly get to address community-related issues, and be mindful that members of parliament, including the prime minister, have been elected to make laws, rather than attending to the bread-and-butter political issues.

Some voters neglect the local polls although that's where individual votes can make the biggest impact on their community, the place where they have interests in common.

Consider also that while general elections are constitutionally due every five years, you have a chance to vote at the local elections every three years, notwithstanding deferments by respective administrations to use it as a test of their readiness for general elections.

So why should you should vote in the upcoming local elections? You should vote because local issues such as maintenance of public health and sanitation, water supply, minor roads, and markets and fire services for which parish councils are responsible affect individuals in one way or another on a relatively daily basis.

The recurring lack of garbage collection across sections of the island is a situation which leads the Ministry of Health to point out the obvious: it poses significant threat to health as it could lead to an outbreak of various illnesses, including leptospirosis, dengue and cholera if the garbage is not contained, a state today eerily reminiscent of the situation of years gone by.

It's our health to which the Ministry referred. Recall the outbreak of chikungunya virus, which can lead to dengue, and the more recent Zika virus, both spread through mosquito bites? They might very well have been bred in water settled in garbage piles and in blocked drains and gullies - some with stagnant water - for which councillors are also responsible.

It is the role and function of your councillor to aggressively represent the concerns of the citizens of his or her division and make representation to the parish council in such matters.

So many people fail to use their democratic rights, so much so that they may as well not have them. Think about the country you want to live in. Imagine what kind of issues in your community you want addressed. You have a good chance of making it all happen if you stay tuned to what's going on in your community. So when the local government elections are called, go out and vote.

- Mcpherse Thompson is Assistant Business Editor at The Gleaner and holds a PhD in Political Science. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and mcpherse.thompson