Those of us honoured to work with the rural poor recognize the truth of Tip O’Neill’s famous saying: “All Politics is Local.” If you are a mother carrying a baby on your back and travelling everywhere by foot, unless your government is within 10km, it simply doesn’t exist.
The world community, however, has paid scant attention to this truth. In the year 2000, world leaders created the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – eight time-bound goals to significantly cut poverty in all its forms. MDGs such as access to pre-school, primary education, good nutrition, safe water and sanitation all require effective local governance. Yet very little was done to “localize” the MDGs.
Now the world is focused on creating bold new goals for the period 2015-2030. The UN Secretary-General has launched history’s most inclusive policy process, and local government associations have demanded a voice, establishing a Global Task Force devoted to this task. The first milestone in this process is the report of the High-Level Panel, launched on May 30, and its report mentions local authorities ten times.
The Panel points out: “Local authorities form a vital bridge between national governments, communities and citizens…” and “have a critical role in setting priorities, executing plans, monitoring results and engaging with local firms and communities.”
My organization, The Hunger Project, focuses on rural areas where the vast majority of the world’s poor live. From my perspective, here are ten priority actions the world community can take to ensure that the Post-2015 agenda adheres to the principles of “Local First.”
- Invest in grassroots civil society. Women, youth and small-scale farmers in general need an organized voice to demand the resources that too-rarely reach them. Local associations are also critical for mobilizing the “people power” that can overcome local challenges.
- Have a serious rollout strategy. The UN has been brilliant in reaching out to individuals in creating the Post-2015 Agenda – it must be equally brilliant in getting locally governments on board. Government, the UN System and civil society must work together to ensure that every village council engages with the goals and plans to achieve them.
- Guarantee women’s voice. No country has achieved significant representation of women in government without establishing systems of quotas.
- Guarantee revenues. In countries where poverty persists, local government may spend as little as two percent of public resources, a far cry from the 20% typical of developed countries as reported in the 1993 UN Human Development Report.
- Guarantee transparency and social accountability. There must be mechanisms that ensure that local governments hold public forums at which they report to the people, and hear people’s priorities. Many governments have legal mandates for such public assemblies, yet they are rarely implemented.
- Devolve Service Delivery. Higher tiers of government often control health and education services with no local accountability, resulting in schools with absent teachers and health centers with absent nurses. The level of government closest to the people needs either direct control or regulatory oversight of local services in order to ensure they are accountable to local people.
- Invest in capacity building. Local representatives are elected, but lack access to the basic information on how to fulfill their responsibilities. For example, if the UN system would produce a simple language Post-2015 handbook for local governments, it would be well received.
- Localize Targets. Communities need to know how they are doing. Mortality-based targets such as the maternal mortality rate are not statistically meaningful at the local level. The Post-2015 framework should create locally meaningful targets, such as pre-natal visits and attended births, which can be directly tied to local awareness, behavior change and action.
- Aggregating Data is even better than Disaggregating. The High-Level Panel has called for a “data revolution” and also for disaggregated progress data. With near universal access now to mobile technology, Post-2015 data should be universally and directly collected locally at points of service, and aggregated upward, rather than basing it only on top-down household surveys.
- Facilitate Bottom-up Planning and Budgeting. Local government must be able to do multi-stakeholder long-term planning, and many lack the in-house skills. Brazil, Kerala and other areas have “gone to scale” to mobilize facilitators for effective planning processes, and all local government should have access to this kind of support.
These women and men are not the problem; they are the solution. If the steps outlined above were taken, their skills, hard work and creative intelligence can be unleashed in a rapid acceleration of progress. People have a right to development, and participatory local governance is the only way to ensure that right.
This article was also published on the Local First blog. Local First is an approach to international development that prioritises the views and leadership of people and organisations in the countries affected, over those of outsiders from the international community.