Local councils for empowerment not opportunism

Kua Kia Soong

Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser

In the absence of local government elections, the periodic appointment of new councillors has become a jostle for places by component parties of political coalitions as well as by some NGO activists with political ambitions. While this is expected of careerist politicians in the ruling coalition of the state, since when has it become acceptable for NGO activists to vie for such local council seats which are not elected by the people?

Human rights activists empower the poor

Human rights NGO activists are expected to be the champions of people power. If there are to be quotas for any sectors in need, these should be for the poor and the marginalized, NOT for NGOs. Since when did NGOs acquire special privileges for political positions? Since when did “professionals” acquire any priority over the “masses” in becoming peoples’ representatives in local councils?

Human rights NGOs have been set up by socially conscious activists to empower local people, especially the poor in their engagement with the state, public services, markets and the political system. Their empowerment requires participation and accountability in local governance and decision-making. It is opportunistic to use one’s position in an NGO to become a councilor by using this contrived ‘NGO quota’. It is crystal clear that appointments to the local councils and other state government institutions have become a way in which the political parties co-opt NGO activists into the ruling state government.

Local government a key opportunity for empowerment

Through participation in local governments, poor people can have a voice in more transparent planning, budgeting processes and resource allocation. Capacity development can also help promote leadership, communication and advocacy among communities and citizens. The local level is where development policy becomes reality through implementation. Poor people face obstacles such as limited access to basic social services and economic opportunities. Thus, social and political empowerment at local level can be a means to overcome these obstacles.

Marginalised people become empowered from organising themselves into groups in order to use their collective bargaining power to greater effect. Poor people need to be informed and empowered to participate in a policy-making process that is accountable to them. They need to have the tools and opportunities to participate in, and influence, the decisions that are made at local level, and which impact on their daily lives. Participating in local government budget discussions is not enough if the existing powers are drafting the budget proposals and setting the agenda for the debate. This is the role that NGO activists can play by helping to empower the poor and marginalized.

Local government institutions need to be accountable to the poor while effective participation and accountability mechanisms require the direct involvement of poor and other excluded communities including, women, religious minorities, ethnic and indigenous groups as well as neglected villagers. Special measures such as quotas on local elected bodies or in community groups can lead to greater representation of marginalised groups.

Making the local budget accountable to citizens by opening up local governments’ fiscal processes to local citizens can lead to real changes in resource allocations. In successful cases citizens’ participation can lead to greater empowerment of people living poverty. The inclusion of participatory budgeting in local government officials’ job descriptions, and greater openness of the budget in legal and administrative systems is important to promote processes that pay attention to the budget.

Grassroots democracy can be promoted through citizens’ general assemblies; determining priorities for the use of the municipal budget; social justice through an allocation formula aimed at helping lagging areas to catch up and a cadre of activists bringing technical capacity to citizens’ analysis and scrutiny and linking up with the marginalised.

Such strengthened local government systems incorporating fiscal decentralisation and mandatory participation and accountability processes can encourage active citizenship. So does strengthening the statutory local government processes that provide accountability and allow for the participation of marginalised groups.

Ultimately, we want elected local councils

Only elected local councils have the mandate and potential to demand accountability, represent citizens and target their support for citizen. Effective elected local councils can hold local government to account and serve as an avenue for redress by disempowered groups. The priority of local governments is to focus on poverty, exclusion and empowerment. Strengthening capacity at all levels to implement more inclusive participation and accountability processes is ultimately to empower citizens not self-professed “professionals”.