Friday, 9 May 2008

Government stirs the pot at launch of report on democracy at local government level

Things are not good at local government level. That is, when measured against the requirements of good governance, according to a recently released report.

A network of NGOs, the Good Governance Learning Network (GGLN), launched its report yesterday in Johannesburg. The report follows eighteen months of research and is entitled ‘Local Democracy in Action: A civil society perspective of local governance in action’.

Based on the interplay of inputs from the presenter’s table, the launch was odd. This was so in the main because government caused a stir when it assumed the moral high ground and slammed the report for not being critical and provocative enough.

The presenter of the report, Terence Smith (who is also co-ordinator of the GGLN), made a number of key points arising from a substantial report that referred several times to the existence of a “crisis” at local government level.

Discussing democracy and participation, Smith noted that in many cases, participation (the obligation for community participation in local governance) was observed in the breach. The ward committee system – a key structure for citizen participation – was weak with these bodies lacking focus and meaningful decisionmaking power. Ward committees allow municipalities to meet formal obligations but “crowd out” more effective forms of participation, he noted. The Integrated Development Plans, although somewhat improved and lately “more credible”, remained a problematic area. According to Smith, the report asked whether IDPs had become too complex, and were a barrier to rather than an appropriate tool for community participation.

He referred to implementation of municipalities' indigent policy, observing that far too many deserving people are insufficiently aware of the benefits due to them. He stated further that local governments were generally doing poorly on local economic development, and that gains seemed to be generally confined to tourism-related initiatives.

Speaking as respondent, Idasa’s Steven Friedman, noted that reviews could either take a consultancy approach (“tweaking existing policies or approaches”) or a critical stance. He charged that the CGLN report was a good example of the consultancy orientation; it merely provided “helpful hints on how to tweak things”. However, he argued, the consultancy approach was ill-advised in a context where the existing policies were the cause of the governance problems and the crisis of confidence at local level. Friedman argued that NGOs should be far more critical and ought to be making full use of the relatively greater open political ‘space’ in South Africa today. Friedman criticised various aspects in the report: indigent policies (coupled with targeting and the means test) were demeaning and further marginalised the poorest; capacity building was not the answer to municipalities' skills problems - local goverment should simply do less; more effective citizen partipation will lead to better technical solutions.

Then government, through the Department of Provincial and Local Government Director-General, Ms Lindiwe Msengana-Ndlela, raised eyebrows when it questioned various aspects of the report. The director-general:
- observed that critical thought, coupled with alternative proposals, was necessary in debates about policy and practice.
- complained that the report did not highlight “best practice”.
- bemoaned that this report did not state “what should be discontinued”.
- said the report erred in devoting a major section to ‘service delivery’; this was a term government used -- NGOs should rather be talking more holistically about “development”.
- said she detected aspects of unfavourable agendas e.g. neo-liberalism and certain ideas from the past, and this caused her to scrawl “No, no” in pages in her copy of the report.
- lamented that the report was weighted in favour of “known issues”; she wanted a report that provide more new information.

There was limited discussion following the speakers’ presentation; it was, after all, a launch. But, over drinks, delegates mulled over the more provocative or, in the speakers’ own words, “impolite” comments that were left hanging in the air.

The government’s line at the launch was interesting. As one delegate to the launch noted: “It was if the government was saying: ‘These problems have nothing to do with us. Unless you can bring us a different report, a better or more critical report, we cannot even begin to consider or discuss what you think ought to be done by those in power’. In those terms, it was the neatest of tricks.

The launch featured a most unusual input by a government spokespersons at a function of partners and – even in the truncated discussion from the floor that followed – a remarkable avoidance of the pertinent issues at stake. Participants were left none the wiser about what is to be done about the report's stark judgement: that aside from local government elections, there is little by way of effective accountability, community participation and active citizen involvement in local governance taking place.

The launch was held at the Centre for Policy Studies. Participants in the network include CPS and various NGOs active in the field of local government issues.

The network’s criteria for good governance are:
- Democracy
- Responsibility
- Accountability
- Equitable service delivery and poverty reduction.

The GGLN receives backing from Mott Foundation, Ford Foundation and GTZ.

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