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


Hall of the Americas, Organization of American States

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Strengthening Municipal and Regional Administrations

United States Agency for International Development

Responsible Coordinator for Strengthening Municipal and Sub-national Administrations

Remarks to the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States

Special Committee on Inter-American Summits Management

October 12, 1999

Margaret J. Sarles

At the Santiago Summit, the US government was given the task of being the "responsible coordinator"—along with Honduras and Chile--for a new initiative not found in the first Miami Summit of 1995: to strengthen municipal and regional administrations. As the head of Democracy and Human Rights for the Latin American Bureau of the Agency for International Development, it is my pleasure to report on the progress made towards fulfilling the plan of action in this area. I am particularly gratified to have the opportunity to address not only the Special Committee on Inter-American Summits Management of the OAS today, but also the civil society organizations who have shown real dedication to the goals of the Summit and who ensure that citizens participate in them not only through their governments, but through non-governmental avenues as well.

First, let me say that there is a reason that in Santiago, for the first time, governments pledged to strengthen sub-national governments and improve citizen participation at the local level. We are now seeing clearly that national governments are transforming themselves and modernizing, and that democracy is taking strong root. In those processes of modernization and the consolidation of democracy, power and decision-making are increasingly being shared by governments at all levels. In this decade, electoral reform has led in many cases to the first direct and separate elections for mayors and councilmen, and, with it, real accountability to the citizens at the local level. New national leadership is developing from local roots. Furthermore, we are aware that local governments bring great strengths to the political system: they are closer to citizens and can respond quickly and more effectively, and they can often mobilize new resources for development. As never before, civil society has the opportunity -- and the impetus -- to influence and be part of government decision-making and programs. This is the context of this new initiative and Plan of Action.

I would like to divide these brief remarks into three sections. First, to summarize the commitment made by national governments to support local government last year. Second, to describe succinctly some of the work that the US government and other donors have underway to fulfill the Plan of Action. Finally, and most important, to touch on some of the critical reforms and innovations being carried out by governments in Latin America and the Caribbean that should lead to success in fulfilling the Summit Plan of Action. As you will see, without the participation of non-governmental organizations, the goals of the initiative cannot be reached.

The Action Plan adopted in Santiago calls on member states to undertake four kinds of activities:

  • First, to strengthen the participation of civil society in local government decision-making and promote transparency in finance operations--speaking to participation and openness.

  • Second, to provide financing mechanisms to improve the delivery of services and promote training opportunities to increase the autonomy of local governments--speaking to increasing the capabilities of local government.

  • Third, to study the transfer of public sector functions to local government--speaking to increasing the responsibilities of local government.

  • Finally, to share donor experiences and information on local government and decentralization programs to facilitate the implementation of this initiative--mobilizing not only governments but donors as well.

What progress has been made?

The US government, through the Agency for International Development, has increased its long-standing commitment to democratic local government. We now have twelve local government programs in Latin America and programs in many other sectors, such as health and environment, which also seek to strengthen sub-national governments. This is the fastest growing sector of the democracy portfolio, and now accounts for more than twenty per cent of our democracy budget--over $20 million a year. Citizen participation is at the heart of our programming. For example, in Bolivia, USAID is working with the Popular Participation Law, and has as set as a goal "broader and more effective civil society participation in and oversight of local government." In El Salvador, similarly, USAID will look at the success of its program in terms of "increased participation in strengthened local government."

Speaking directly to the last action item in the Plan of Action, over the last year we have helped establish a permanent International Forum for Cooperation on Local Government in Latin American and the Caribbean. The IDB hosted the first Forum meeting in June of 1999, and the second will be held in New Orleans in March 2000. The UNDP, OAS, World Bank, IDB, the EC and at least six bilateral donors are now participants in this forum, and both FEMICA and IULA-CELCADEL are important charter members of it. This forum is much more than an information exchange among donors. It will identify priority areas for research and development, further encourage donor support, and promote innovative and successful practices as we learn from one another, particularly in the areas of training and financial sustainability.  This is a substantial early step in donor cooperation.

Both the World Bank and the IDB, as well as the OAS and bilateral donors, have concluded that strong local government is a key element in the modernization of the state in the Americas. The international community is increasing its funding to local government and local development. One visible example since the Summit has been the consensus among donors following Hurricanes Mitch and George that for relief and reconstruction efforts to be successful, local governments must be full partners in that effort. With total donor pledges that reach $9 billion over the next several years, we have an opportunity not merely to rebuild, but to transform and create new institutional capacity for local governments.

USAID has now signed agreements with two critical Latin American institutions to help implement Summit recommendations -- FEMICA (the Federation of Municipalities of the Central American Isthmus, in Guatemala) and IULA-CELCADEL (The Latin American Chapter of IULA, in Ecuador), and with a US-based institution, the ICMA (International City/County Management Association). These agreements now total more than $4 million in AID financing. FEMICA is working directly with national municipal associations in Central America to improve their capacity to represent local governments at the national level and to support local governments' efforts to reform and grow. IULA-CELCADEL and ICMA are now developing a measure to evaluate the availability and effectiveness of the many and massive local training programs, with the intention of developing recommendations for both donors and countries on how best to provide training for local governments.

Finally, we cannot emphasize enough that the Summit objective itself, and the donor resources brought to it, are actually the result of national governments' own commitment to strengthening sub-national governments. New decentralization laws now mandate that more funds be funneled directly to local governments. Local governments are now being included as partners in health, education, and other areas. Every week, there is evidence of this trend. Recently in Mexico, for example, local governments took on new policing and security functions. In Bolivia, municipal governments are joining together in supra-municipal "mancomunidades" to promote economic development. Local governments have become the crucible of innovation practices to include citizens, on water boards and school oversight committees, in public meetings, and in local priority-setting of governmental goals.

As we continue our efforts to improve democratic local governance, civil society organizations of all kinds -- interest groups, professional associations, advocacy groups, and others -- will have the opportunity to affect government as never before. As partners and as citizen advocates, their role will be critical to developing capable, responsive government at the local level. Thank you.

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