Documents and Videos of the October 12th, 1999 Meeting of the 


Hall of the Americas, Organization of American States

video.jpg (1739 bytes)


A Brief Status Report: Strengthening Local Government
in the Hemisphere

Presentation by Dr. Allan Rosenbaum, Director of the Institute for Public Management and Community Service and, Professor, School of Policy and Management, College of Urban and Public Affairs,
Florida International University

I would like to begin by expressing my appreciation for your invitation for me to share some thoughts with you on the status of local governance in the hemisphere, especially as related to implementing the goals of the Summits of the Presidents and, in particular, those goals expressed in the Plan of Action that resulted from the 1998 Summit of the Presidents in Santiago, Chile. You will recall that the declaration of the presidents included four objectives or goals in terms of local and regional governance. These (in summary form) were:

  1. Strengthening of the mechanisms and processes for public participation in local governance;

  2. The enhancement of the financial capacity and strength of local governance throughout the hemisphere;

  3. The consideration of the transferring of additional functions and responsibilities to local government, and;

  4. The carrying out of various activities designed to share experiences regarding outstanding practices.

As you may know, the institute that I direct focuses very heavily upon issues of governance reform and democratization through out the world. However, in part because of our location and in part because of our history of work in the region, we do have a special interest and involvement in matters concerning local governance in Latin America. I shall speak briefly to these matters and then ask my colleague, Mrs. Cristina Rodriguez Acosta, the Deputy Director of the Institute, to make some further comments on them.

I would begin by suggesting that the various provisions included in the 1998 Summit Declaration regarding subnational government do represent a very important recognition of the significance of such government for the Hemisphere's development. They further reflect the fact that beginning in mid 1980's, the Hemisphere made great progress in terms of the strengthening and development of subnational governments and the encouraging of the increased involvement and participation of the citizenry in those governments. However, and perhaps somewhat ironically, it does seem apparent that the past few years have witnessed the beginning of a decline in both the growth of and the commitment to the building of strong, efficient and productive subnational governments throughout the Hemisphere.

While there have not been formal studies carried out demonstrate this, it is evident as one travels around the hemisphere that the considerable impetous and forward progress in terms of the strengthening of subnational government that characterized the period from the mid-1980's until the mid-1990's has, during the past couple of years, slowed down somewhat and perhaps even considerably. While time and space limitations preclude the detailing of specific situations, I do believe that most people familiar with the Hemisphere can certainly identify a number of examples that suggest that especially at the level of national governments, enthusiasm and commitment to the growth and enhancement of subnational government is at least somewhat less now than in the recent past.

Ironically, this has occurred not only in the aftermath of Latin America having received considerable worldwide recognition for its very substantial progress in the area since the mid 1980's, but also as other parts of the world are beginning to emulate the Latin American example. Eastern Europe, Africa, even China (where I am scheduled to deliver some lectures on decentralization as a guest of the national government in just a couple of months) are increasingly turning their attention to questions of decentralization and building the capacity of their subnational governments. In so doing, they are drawing inspiration from a Latin American model that, at least for the moment, appears to be running out of steam.

The obvious question is why has this change occurred and, even more significantly, what can be done to reinvigorate the movement to the strengthening of subnational governments in the Hemisphere. I would suggest the following four points in this regard:

  1. It is necessary to re-emphasize the very important linkage between the strengthening of subnational governments and the generation of economic development at the local level. Too often, the most recent discussions about subnational government are couched in the terms of building the political power and strength of local governance - with the implication being that the result of strengthening subnational governments will be the undercutting of national government strength. In so doing, people who make this point fail to understand that the actual reality is that the strengthening of one or another levels of government does not represent a zero sum game in the sense that if one level of government is enhanced, another will inevitably become weaker. Rather, past experience demonstrates clearly that, in the contemporary world, when one level of government strengthens, other existing levels of government will inevitably do the same. The result is that the overall society becomes a much stronger one.
  2. Beyond this issue however is an equally if not more important one and that is, as I noted above, the very direct linkage between the capacity of subnational government and the level of economic development of a region. The reason for this relationship is not surprising. Successful economic development requires locally focused and targeted support in terms of both establishing the necessary infrastructure and the creation of an economic development friendly environment. This is done much more readily by officials on the scene, who are located in the community and who posses the autonomy and the resources to respond to the legitimate development needs of the private sector.

    One readily sees this relationship as one examines the data on levels of subnational expenditure and employment on a regional basis around the world. In Europe, Japan and North America, the most economically developed regions of the world, 56% of all governmental expenditures and employment occur at the subnational level. In contrast, in Africa, the least economically developed region of the world, only 6 to 10 % of government employment and expenditures occur at the subnational level. The figures are approximately 20% for Latin America and 30% for Asia.

    Thus, it is not surprising that that country in Eastern Europe that is having the most economically successful transition is the same one that has devoted the most attention to the building and strengthening of the capacity of its subnational governments - Poland. Nor is it surprising that when the Swedish economy began to take a downturn a few years ago one of the major foci of Swedish reform efforts was the enhancing of the capacity of the Country's already very strong subnational governments.

    Before concluding on this topic, I would also suggest that the strengthening of subnational governments (and in so doing the strengthening of local economic development capacity) also will be an important step in dealing with what I perceive to be the region's most potentially destabilizing development - the growing inequality that can be found throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and which is addressed so comprehensively in the recent Inter American Development Bank annual development report.

  3. A second problem which I feel has contributed to the slowdown in the strengthening of subnational government around the region has been the growing disinclination of those most concerned with promoting such reforms to continue to adequately and effectively engage national government in these efforts. My sense is that national governments were a good deal more committed to local government strengthening activities a decade ago than they are today. Perhaps what has happened is that as reformers, both at the national and local level, encouraged the strengthening of local government, and as these governments began to develop on their own, subsequent attention moved from being focused jointly on the national and local levels, to being focused principally upon the activities of local level officials. In so doing, I think we may have forgotten that in most places one cannot build subnational governments simply by working at the subnational level. This is especially true in countries which have long traditions of centralism - and, where political, economic and administrative power tends to be traditionally skewed toward the national level.
  4. This apparent tendency on the part of reformers to forget about the continuing need for an active national government role is in part a result of prior success. Most notable in this regard is the fact that local governments, and particularly large capital city local governments, have become important political bases in their own right. That reality however must not result in the neglecting of efforts to maintain sustained partnership between local and national officials in this effort. The reality is that the national government, in most instances, not only establishes the policy framework within which local government must function, but also exercises overwhelming control over the fiscal resources available to governments at all levels. Consequently, if progress is to continue in terms of the strengthening of subnational governments, renewed efforts must be made to encourage and engage national government leadership in these matters. This can be done, especially by focusing upon the economic development role of local governments.

  5. There has been failure to focus adequately on issues of sustainability. International organizations and donors must bear some portion of the responsibility in this regard. All too often, there is a strong tendency among donors to support short term reform projects which can produce a quick result. At the same time, there is a strong failure to recognize that serious systemic reform requires a great deal of time. Anyone at all familiar with my own country, the United States, can certainly understand this. In the United States, systematic efforts at encouraging local government reform and professionalization began in the 1880's and real success was not achieved on a wide spread basis until the 1950's. Likewise, efforts at professionalizing the civil service and eliminating patronage in the US has taken at least as long and, in fact, somewhat longer to achieve.

  6. In contrast, I would, if I may share a personal observation, note that I have had the experience in one Latin American city of, at the request of two separate Mayors, assisting in efforts to attempt to reform the budgetary and financial management procedures on two separate occasions. In each case the effort was supported by a different international donor and in each instance the results were the same. Short term assistance was provided, major reforms were instituted that rapidly enhanced management capacity and dramatically tightened executive control over agency spending and, in so doing, significantly improved local government. Then, the assistance was quickly ended by the donor. In each instance, very shortly thereafter, the reforms put in place evaporated in the face of the pressure of the great political and fiscal demands being placed upon the Municipal government.

    A complimentary problem in this regard has been the tendency of donors and international assistance agencies to focus principally upon short term training for local officials. There has been very little support of longer term professionalization as represented by the development of university based programs in professional local government management and the like. In this regard I am struck by the fact that, in other circumstances, and wearing a different hat, I have the privilege of chairing the International Education Committee of the US based National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration. I can tell you that we in the American public administration academic community have a great deal more contact with our colleagues in Eastern Europe, and even in Asia and Africa, than we do with our colleagues in Latin America. One way that that can be changed is for international donors to focus more of their efforts on the organizing of longer term initiatives, especially at the university level, rather than short term training, and, in so doing, begin to create a permanent culture of professionalism in so far as local government, and governance reform generally, is concerned.

  7. Finally, I would note that I think there is also a tendency on the part of those who support reform efforts (and here, again, I would particularly cite international organizations and donors) to forget that the kind of change that is needed goes well beyond administrative and fiscal and is, in fact, political as well. One consequence of this reality is that one does need to work with political leadership both nationally (as I've noted above) and locally to bring about important, meaningful and sustainable change. In part, I suspect, because much of international technical assistance and support is overseen by people who are themselves mid-level administrators and managers, there is a very strong inclination to keep most technical assistance efforts working at similar levels in the countries in which activities are being supported. I know, if I may again cite personal experience, that donor officials will publicly heap great praise on the results of projects in support of local government, while, at the same time, privately criticizing the project leader for having had too much contact with high level political officials and, as a consequence, assuming too high a profile. The reality is, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, that the kind of changes that are necessary to result in the successful implementation of the goals of the Summit Declaration requires the full involvement of top level political officials. Such involvement simply cannot be obtained if one ignores or avoids such officials in the process of seeking to introduce meaningful institutionalized reform.

Thank you very much for your attention and I will now turn to my colleague Mrs. Cristina Rodriguez-Acosta who will share with you some additional comments and recommendations.

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