By Rebecca Haines
In the development community, we typically interpret a government pushing for greater decentralisation as a positive step for governance reform and an opening for greater citizen participation and voice. Donors invest considerable funds in supporting the decentralisation processes of global governments, and NGOs focus energy and resources on preparing citizens to influence public decision-making as it comes closer to them.
On two recent deployments with CARE International I worked with colleagues in Bangladesh and Cambodia, where the current governments have each embraced an ambitious decentralisation agenda. Embedded in these decentralisation reform processes are mandated citizen consultations on local development plans and budgets, structured feedback mechanisms, and channels for citizen complaints and redress. For example, in Cambodia citizens are making use of Community Score Cards to score public healthcare and education services and feed those concerns into the annual planning of their local governments. In Bangladesh, local governments must invite citizens to budget consultation meetings each year, during which citizens can put forward their budget priorities for their locality. Local government bodies are even rewarded with budget top-ups for holding these consultations successfully.
In both cases, decentralisation processes are heavily supported by donor funding and civil society interventions. CARE’s interest is in supporting citizens to use these consultation spaces to greatest effect – to build more responsive development plans and to use public money to the benefit of the poor and those most neglected by development so far.
It’s natural to see these moves as a step in the direction of broad open society principles, one that contributes to strengthening the architecture of democracy. And this is the logic that development practitioners often use – no matter the overall state of governance in a particular context, decentralisation, coupled with greater space for local citizen participation, points to an increased openness to sharing power and resources more fairly in society.
Opening while Closing
However, a closer examination of the cases of Cambodia and Bangladesh quickly complicates that narrative. Whilst they have been making strides toward more robust decentralisation and local citizen participation models, the last few years have also seen the ruling parties of both countries consolidating power by limiting their main opposition.
The 2014 Bangladesh national elections were boycotted by most of the opposition, after the ruling party refused to allow the elections to be run by a neutral caretaker government. Consequently, the sitting parliament was elected with over half of its seats uncontested. Afterward the ruling party declared the leading opposition party a terrorist organisation and the courts ordered the arrest of its leader and others. In 2016, the government capitalised on a largely absent opposition to shift local elections to fielding candidates based on party affiliation, helping them install official party representatives across the country at local levels. Today, in what was once a hotly-contested two-party system, Bangladesh’s ruling party dominates at all levels and the most significant opposition parties are fully absent from national politics.
In Cambodia, ever since the surprise strong showing by the opposition in the national elections of 2013, reports of intimidation and violence against the opposition have increased, including attacks on MPs and activists. This year, the ruling party amended Cambodia’s law on political parties, making it easy for the government to dissolve a party deemed to ‘threaten national unity’, among other restrictions. The pressure leading up to the passing of the legislation caused the leader of the opposition to resign. With local elections scheduled for June of this year and the next national elections set to take place in 2018, the recently-passed amendments have threatened the funding and leadership of the opposition, and possibly their right to exist at all.
These moves may at first appear contradictory. What does it mean for a ruling party that is on the one hand consolidating power and targeting its opposition, to on the other hand pursue more robust decentralisation and strengthen its commitment to local citizen participation?
Giving with One Hand, Taking with the Other
The parties currently in power in Cambodia and Bangladesh have had relatively recent experiences with a show of strength from their main opposition. In Bangladesh, this has taken the form of a series of powerful and popular protest actions. In Cambodia, the opposition demonstrated its popularity by far exceeding expectations in the polls.
To counteract these trends, both parties have calculated that they must simultaneously expand their popular support while hemming in their opposition. In both cases, shoring up wide grassroots support requires winning the favour of a young population and a growing middle class. Getting citizens increasingly engaged with local government representatives might be an effective means of demonstrating increased responsiveness to the electorate, whilst drawing focus from the consolidation of control over major decision-making at the national level. And when the majority of local government representatives belong to the ruling party, a more vertically integrated ruling party can maintain control over the local level through party channels anyway.
In short, what if decentralised citizen engagement is an effective means of providing citizens with the feeling that their government is increasingly accountable, softening their reaction to a crackdown on more significant challenges to state power? Or put another way, are powerful ruling parties finding that atomised citizen participation, spread across many localities, strikes just the right balance: it can strengthen the party’s standing with a wide swathe of the population, while generating political cover for dealing a fatal blow to political opposition and organised civil society at the national level?
More Voices ≠ More Power
If that’s the case, donors and development practitioners need a response that demonstrates an awareness of what we are intervening in. Should we reconsider supporting decentralised participation mechanisms in contexts where they might be helping to bolster the democratic credentials of an increasingly authoritarian ruling party? Or should we theorise that mechanisms for citizen participation in local governance are a means of securing at least some forum for the voice of marginalised citizens in a time of decreasing civic space?
My view is that governance and development practitioners (and donors) should certainly continue working to make citizen participation spaces in these contexts meaningful and effective. For many people, engaging actively with government is only feasible when the process becomes highly local. A means for citizens to influence how public funds are used close to home can provide access to influence for many who otherwise would not be able to engage with government. Decentralised participation mechanisms can be an unparalleled opportunity for women, for minorities, and for people from poor households and communities. In that sense, they are democratic.
However, we cannot assume that making space for more citizen voices will necessarily culminate in more accountable government. We need to take a wide view of the state of contestation in a given context in order to better understand how decentralised governance programming might accommodate, or even assist, broader anti-democratic aims.
For example, perhaps retaining a model in which the voices of citizens remain highly individualised and diffused across many decentralised units of government might comply with the logic of an authoritarian state. But what if this approach were only the first step? Development practitioners need to commit to programming that identifies common issues raised by many people across time and space, invests in connecting them, supports them to organise, and links them to broader social movements. Only then can we rest assured that decentralised participation is good for citizen voice.
Rebecca Haines is CARE’s Senior Governance Advisor for the Asia and MENA regions. Prior to joining CARE, she has lived and worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan, focusing on governance and gender issues. She is currently based in London, UK.
 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-28/cambodian-refugee-politician-urges-australia-rethink-refugees/7455592; http://www.reuters.com/article/us-cambodia-politics-idUSKCN0SK16D20151026; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/23/world/asia/cambodia-kem-ley-killing-life-sentence.html?_r=0.