Local government the engine of national growth
Omar Francis, Guest Columnist
The issue of local government, what many Jamaicans identify as their parish council, has long been debated in Jamaica. It gets little to no respect within the political landscape, mostly because of its fragile foundations and the competing relevance it holds when compared to active or inactive members of parliament.
It is frequently referred to as a tool for political mileage used by our two dominant parties to solidify popularity within localities, passing off an image of control and preference within the power grid of politics, telling the people within constituencies which party is a better option come general election based on the perceived control and policy output from their parish councils.
Local government, however, has way more potential than that which it is currently rendered. The institution holds an important, if not the most important role to play in leading contemporary Jamaican society to a greater developmental existence based on the current developmental trends, theories and even its comparative success in other countries.
Our Constitution renders the institution that is local government very little accord. It can easily be disbanded, silenced and made politically impotent at the whim of a prime minister. It has traditionally been employed in an administrative capacity, its relevance built on its ability to implement policies passed down to it by central government, ensuring that campaign promises are fulfilled, overseeing projects and showing its prowess at following instructions.
The notion of local government described above is not necessarily a bad thing, as societies, especially within government institutions with a multiplicity of demands and issues to tackle, need a reliable outlet that will guarantee procedural competence in response to social demands. The varied literature on state management and political manoeuvring, however, suggests that these types of institutions are now obsolete. Such institutions would have been thought of as novelties and social miracles within the latter part of the 19 century to the mid-20th century. The age of administration, they say, is all but over, while procedures and process still matter. State institutions at all levels now operate in a more dynamic, complex and high-demand environment.
Development, as an 'end' in itself, has been built on two pillars throughout modern and civil societies. At the turn of the 20th century, development was perceived as an event, one that would occur and be achieved if those in pursuit of it followed certain rules and procedures. This was the dawn of the administrative State. That State, however, has lost its relevance in a globalised world. Development has, thus, evolved in meaning. It now requires an agile, responsive, proactive, and highly sensitive State. It requires an institution that can offer all these dimensions without compromising the democratic fabric of the State.
The paradigm now dominating the developmental agenda is that of the managerial state. Development is now regarded as a process that must be managed, where its ideals can be achieved through proactive engagement of its elements. In such an environment, our current local government entities are very much archaic and must be reformed to reflect the demands of the current political climate. Local government, despite its present debacle, is poised as the sole State entity that can effectively change the developmental landscape of Jamaica.
Local government is the most reformative and adaptable state institution that can both effect managerialism and true representativeness within democratic societies that are pluralistic in nature. The main characteristics possessed by local government that make it ideal include:
1. Local government is democratic. The makeup of our local governing institutions are made up of elected councils that embody the legitimacy required to be representative government.
2 Local government is local. The institutions are the closest representative bodies to the electorate, who have specific demands which reflect the immediate environment from which such demands arise.
3 Local government has responsive potential. The closeness of the institution to its demanding public means it can optimise on the pillars of good government. They can be thus be efficient, taking far less time to address problems as they arise.
4 Local government can manage collective-action efforts most effectively. This notion follows the ideals of the renowned author Moncur Olson, who posits, "Unless the number of individuals is quite small ... rational self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests". One of the greatest challenges of the 21st century has been controlling the issue of 'Free-riding and Moral Hazard'. The more localised the organising body, the fewer the number of persons who can free-ride on already sparse resources. Thus, local government provides an incentive for local power groups to contribute to decision making and the implementation of policies that will affect their environment, as opposed to being worried that their contributions will be watered down because of far-fetched national polices that do not cater to their local needs.
5. Local government has a rich history of success in the most recognisable societies on the IMF and World Bank's list of best-performing economies. Countries such as Canada, Switzerland, Denmark, The Netherlands, Iceland, and even the United States all have highly active, constitutionally embedded and greatly empowered local government institutions.
Local government thus has the potential to not only be important to national development, but more so, to be the engine of national development. It must be empowered to take the reins of the process and lead us closer to the promised land.
Omar Francis is communications officer at the Caribbean Policy Research Institute; president of the NGO Crawle's Advancement through Education and Sustainable Development; and vice-president of Community, Action, Reform and Empowerment. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.