Letters & Opinion

All Development Is Local

By Clement Wulf-SoulageTHE preponderant view of the general population is that the weaknesses of the Saint Lucian state are particularly apparent at the local level and that promises of governance reform in the public sector have been mere palliatives. By any measure, the greatest failure of our governance system resides in the dysfunctional state of local government – an institution considered by many as the most fundamental form of grass-roots democracy and the lodestar of community welfare.

As far back as 1945, the West India Royal Commission wrote that “the improvement of the social conditions in these territories depends in a large measure on co-operation between the central administration and the people through properly constituted and well-conducted local authorities.” Even the renowned Jamaican scholar, the late Professor Rex Nettleford noted in 1998 that “local government is an investment in human capability for self-governance over the long haul in building a nation and a society.”

Not surprisingly, one of the things I’ve recognized about the political structure of progressive and successful economies around the world is their well-oiled local government machinery – a structure viewed as critically important to their productive economic development thrust. Besides, the conventional wisdom is that the institutions of local government are significant for the realization of people-centred development in developing nations. So what exactly is wrong with local government in Saint Lucia and why does it portend failure for the national economy?

Firstly and ironically, the question of how towns and villages are structured and governed to deliver services to their residents isn’t something our constitution specifically addresses. This of course is not the case in many European and Asian countries, where local government has been entrenched and strengthened as a full sphere of government in more recent constitutions.

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For too long, our efforts as a nation have been focussed on the performance and productive capacity of the national economy rather than the stability and strengthening of local economies. Despite the enormous role that local government has been proven to play in national development and democratic empowerment, town and village councils around the island continue to lack vigour and are poorly capacitated to undertake expansive administrative responsibilities and resource mobilization, whether it be in dealing with the perennial problems at the Soufriere Hospital or in addressing the dire need for reliable portable water supply in Dennery North.

As it stands, our communities are governed directly by the Saint Lucia Parliament without a system of local government to develop, administer, and maintain infrastructure and public facilities such as parochial roads, bridges, drains and gullies, etc. Most, if not all major decision-making authority rests in the hands of a concentrated group of leaders and decision makers in the parliament or legislature.

I’m sure you’re also asking, shouldn’t a vibrant democracy be giving more power back to the people at the local level where the economic and social impact are likely to be most pronounced? Today within the modern nation-state, government should operate at many different levels, ranging from villages to districts, towns and cities.

By now, through ordinary legislation, every single district on the island should have had elected mayors with executive and administrative functions, assisted by a town clerk and overseen by a district council comprising business owners, bankers and representatives of the clergy. This governance model, bolstered by a system of accountability, has been a winning formula to create vibrant and thriving communities, and has been proven to deliver economic results by getting government down to the grassroots and giving rural dwellers a sense of belonging. Critically, with the right checks and balances and due process policies, politicians can be prevented from carving out for themselves little pools of patronage and misusing funds for their own purposes.

Ever the avid promoter of good governance and community-led local development (CLLD) , the World Bank, through its local economic development (LED) initiatives, offers local governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and the local community the opportunity to work together to improve local economies. According to the global institution, “the aim of LED is to enhance competitiveness and thus encourage sustainable growth that is inclusive… LED is about communities continually improving their investment climate and business through an enabling environment to enhance their competitiveness, retain jobs and improve incomes. It is a process by which public, business and non-governmental sector partners work collectively to create better conditions for economic growth and employment generation.” Further, the bank believes that “most development – and most pro-poor public services that people rely on day to day – takes place at the local level, whether it is schools for children, health care for mothers and children, seeds and fertilizer for farmers, or access to clean water and sanitation.”

Alas, we have paid too much attention to the institutions and operations of central government and not enough to whether (and how) these efforts trickle down to local communities where the process of empowerment and transformation actually begins. Perhaps we should borrow a page from the Dominican Republic where the capital Santo Domingo and other municipalities have been given ample power to decide how to spend public money in their areas so they can meet the local people’s needs. In developing countries like Ghana and Nigeria, local government is the first door that people knock on when they need assistance from the government.

In more ways than one, the failure of decentralisation in Saint Lucia has impacted the way in which essential services are both delivered and accessed. I believe the time has come for us to look seriously at how powers, functions, responsibilities and resources can be effectively transferred from the capital city to local communities to ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of governmental services and processes, particularly in the face of increasing aggregate duties and pressures of central government. The rural-to-urban migration of people for educational, social and economic reasons has engendered a myriad of problems from urban congestion to social misery, further hampering the efforts of the authorities at supplying water, housing and health care. It’s now clear that our long-term success in addressing the aforementioned community issues hinges on our efforts to establish local government agencies that supply public needs. Life in our towns and villages can be made a lot more bearable and attractive by investing more in agriculture and horticulture, housing, recreational activities and public services.

In the quest to service the developmental needs of our people, we’ll need rational discourse at the town hall level so that communities can become sufficiently empowered to take responsibility for their own destiny.

I have little doubt that we can build and develop our nation’s human capital, social amenities and civil society if local governments from Gros Islet to Vieux-Fort are equipped and allowed to perform their fundamental roles with respect to public health, education, poverty eradication, issuance of licences, etc. Without effective local government, the authorities will remain isolated from the people they seek to represent and administer. Evidently, it still holds true that the closer a representative government is to the people, the better it works. In the final analysis, we can all appreciate that all development, like all politics, is local.

For comments, write to Clementwulf@hotmail.com – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.

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