All Politics Is Local: Building Grassroots Democracy from the Bottom Up

Nations can allocate budgets and launch national programs, but actually getting basic public services to work requires good local government.
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The old saying that "All politics is local" is especially true when it comes to overcoming poverty and hunger. Issues of good nutrition, primary education, primary health care, water and sanitation, skills training, preserving the environment and ensuring public safety are all local issues. Nations can allocate budgets and launch national programs, but actually getting basic public services to work requires good local government.

The global quest to cut hunger and poverty in half by 2015 through achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals has largely ignored local government. Yet now, as the world community considers how to finish the job of ending poverty in the Post-2015 era, it is beginning to "think local."

Local governments in many of the poorest countries are in bad shape. As a senior Indian politician once told me, "The British created a system to enslave us, and we have carefully preserved it ever since." By this, he refers to the highly centralized top-down bureaucracies that called the shots in most post-colonial countries. In a situation where teachers and health workers are accountable only to far-distant bureaucrats and not to local communities, you find classrooms and health centers where teachers and health workers simply don't bother to show up to work.

Rajwanti Singh refused to accept a lesser status in life. Now, after attending Hunger Project trainings, this Indian woman is a highly respected elected leader in her community and has big plans for the future. Hear (and share!) her amazing story. Learn more about The Hunger Project's work in India.

Local government often lacks resources and decision-making power. In rich countries, local governments may control 20% or more of public monies - in poor countries, they may have only 2%, and the bureaucracy may completely control how they spend it.

The good news is that this is changing. More and more countries are seeing the wisdom of decentralization. They not only discover that "small is beautiful" - they see that it works. Local control of local programs can be more economical, more flexible in meeting local conditions, more responsive in meeting local needs, and better able to mobilize public support. Local control can help resolve regional and ethnic grievances by empowering these groups to achieve their aspirations.

Decentralization is not easy, however. Bureaucrats do not easily relinquish power. The skill levels in impoverished communities can be very low: In Burkina Faso, for example, 90 percent of local elected representatives are illiterate. And, in countries where democracy has been established in a top-down manner, a feudal mindset may still prevail; both the government and the people may not be aware that government should be accountable to the people - not the other way around. Real investments are required to "deepen" democracy - to develop an active citizenry that knows its rights and is able to organize and demand accountability.

The most important feature of good local governance is participation. People not only vote every few years; they have direct voice in decision-making and governance through public forums, citizen committees and voluntary action campaigns.

A revolution in Participatory Local Democracy is underway in many parts of the world.

We at The Hunger Project have just completed a global study of this phenomenon for the UN Democracy Fund, surveying activists in more than 90 countries, and profiling 35 countries. We highlight some very exciting innovations:

  • The systems of Participatory Budgeting pioneered in the Kerala state of India and Porto Alegre Brazil that are now being adopted in areas as diverse as New York City and Cameroon;
  • The new "County Government" constitution that is just entering force in Kenya, a country long torn by tribal conflict;
  • Success in improving health care in Thailand through decentralization
  • Various quota systems for guaranteeing women and marginalized groups real voice in decisions that affect their lives;
  • Reinvention of school systems in the Philippines;
  • Building citizen groups from the bottom-up, and engaging them in governance in Bangladesh and Mexico.

We also found a glaring gap between first-rate legal provisions for participatory local democracy in a number of countries, and weak implementation on the ground. Certainly, the lack of international attention on this issue doesn't help close the gap.

The Hunger Project's experience in more than 20,000 villages around the world has taught us that poor people are not the problem; they are the solution. When people have the opportunity to take charge of their own lives and destiny, and exert control over a fair share of public resources, they can rapidly and dramatically improve their lives.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction around the United Nations General Assembly's 68th session and its general debate on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), "Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage" (September 24-October 2, 2013). The session will feature world leaders discussing progress made on the MDGs and what should replace them when they expire in 2015. To read all the posts in the series, click here; to follow the conversation on Twitter, find the hashtag #No1Behind. For more information about InterAction, click here.

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