LogoLink – Learning Network on Citizen Participation and Local Governance held the Partners’ Meeting on 22-25 September 2014 in New York City. In 2013, LogoLink undertook a review and analysis of policies and practices of citizen participation in local democratic governance as evolved in the past decade. This analysis suggested the need for a renewed discourse on citizen participation in different regions of the world in the changing context of democratic governance. Over the last year more than 500 organisations of civil society, academic institutions, local governments and their networks have been consulted in Asia, Africa and Latin America which resulted in the Global Charter on Right to Citizen Participation in Local Governance. A central message emerged from these consultations as the existing institutional spaces and mechanisms for citizen participation are inadequate to make participation meaningful and substantive. The decision making with regard to mobilisation and utilisation of public resources for common public good is still dominated by the elite groups in the society and polity across the world. The Global Charter, therefore, proposes a set of concrete actions for civil society, governments and donors. The Partners’ Meeting was an opportunity to deliberate on the emerging lessons on opportunities and challenges faced by civil society organisations across the world in promoting citizen participation in local governance institutions.The updates from various regions highlighted some common trends.
- Societies and economies across the globe are experiencing profound economic and demographic dynamics, characterised by increasing inequalities and concentration of wealth and power with handful people and corporations; the developing world is experiencing an increased urbanisation, often in an unplanned and unsustainable manner coupled with a tremendous bulge of young people with different aspirations.
- Despite decades of existence, the decentralisation of governance has remained uneven and incompletein many countries of the global south. Many observed that there is in fact a deeper tendency for recentralisationof governance and increased influence of corporate power over public policies.
- Despite significant progress in the past century, democratic models under stress. There is increased concentration of power and control in the state and political parties, undermining the practice of participatory citizenship; there seems to be a deeper crisis of representation, as citizens are losing trust in the political system.
- These trends of increasing centralisation, concentration of power, wealth and control and increasing inequalities are also being contested by citizens from the below as evidenced througheruptions of mass protests across developed and developing societies.
- Emergence of digital technology is impacting the society in a profound way. Societies and people are getting connected with common interests and issues. There are opportunities to relate to the state directly, but often these engagements are individualised and isolated which undermine the values and strengths of collective engagement. On the other hand state is also exerting a new form of control over the citizens through technology.
- The ‘deep-democracy’discourse is now equated with transparency and accountability. A major focus is on anti-corruption and making governments open. Many a times the global efforts (e.g. Open Government Partnership) are disconnected from the local civil society networks.
What do all these mean for citizen participation? The Partners’ Meeting explored this question vis-à-vis each major trend.
Uneven and incomplete decentralisation: In the last decade there have been proliferation of institutionalised spaces for citizen participation, however the question is how substantive are these spaces for substantive and meaningful changes, particularly that for the most marginalised and poor. As more often these spaces do not satisfy citizens’ needs and aspirations there is disillusion and disengagement from a large number of citizens. A new set of strategies must be in place to make these spaces inclusive and substantive and to transform the local governance institutions as schools for practicing participatory citizenship.
Stressed democratic models: The role of political parties and the nature of political system shape the nature of citizen participation and therefore cannot be ignored. In many contexts the local patronage networks determine the outcome of citizen participation. As the representative democratic institutions often fail to nurture citizen aspirations there have been a surge of mass protests by the citizens some of which also embrace violent expressions. However, such display of discontents also provides opportunities for harnessing greater assertion of rights and political expression by the citizens.
Digital technology: Technology holds great potential for re-engaging citizens and activating state response by linking locality and interest as basis for collective action. In recent times a lot of online civic engagement initiatives are enthusiastically being practiced; however there is also a hype associated with this technology at this moment. It must be acknowledged that apart from the uneven access to technology, the civic technology initiatives are also disconnected from one another. In addition, there is also limitation to enable ‘thick’ and collective engagement beyond ‘thin’ and individualized participation. However, with a thoughtful strategy, technology can create opportunities for linking these apparently unconnected initiatives for learning citizenship.
From democracy to transparency and accountability: In recent years there have been dramatic expansion and growth of social accountability practices. It offers useful tools for citizen engagement and institutionalises rights to information and participation to a great extent. However, many social accountability initiatives also promote a narrow focus on the use tools and not on politics which transforms power relationships. Its focus on monitoring of state performance to a large extent undermines the co-construction of development solutions by the state and citizens. Strategies must be in place to complement social accountability practices with other methods and practices of citizen participation.
The Partners’ Meeting calls for a renewed collective global action for promoting substantive citizen participation and identified three thematic areas, namely institutionalising spaces for citizen participation, urban governance and planning, and participatory development.
In the next phase of LogoLink, PRIA will assume the Global Coordination role with the help of an Executive Committee. LogoLink aspires to develop a new programme involving new actors and regions and invites like-minded civil society organisations, academic, local government officials, elected representatives and policy makers in this endeavour as partners and supporters.