During the last decade, the EU has been supporting decentralisation reforms across the developing world, mobilising a growing amount of funds and making use of different ‘entry points’ (e.g. support to national policies, bottom-up initiatives, etc.) and instruments (e.g. budget support or projects). There has also been a steady intensification of relations with local authorities and their associations. In 2012, a major thematic evaluation was concluded on the relevance and impact of EU support to decentralisation and local governance. While the evaluation recognised the added value of many EU-supported programmes, it clearly stressed the need for the EU to embed its actions in a much more coherent, integrated and politically savvy strategy in order to ensure greater impact and sustainability.
In this context, the EU is currently taking several initiatives to further develop its policy framework and response capacity in the field. A new Communication on Local Authorities has recently been issued (15 May 2013). It calls upon the EU for integrating and supporting local authorities as key actors in dialogue and cooperation processes with a view to achieve more effective and sustainable development and governance outcomes in decentralising contexts.
In order to translate this global vision at regional/country level, DEVCO B2 is planning a set of regional exchange seminars with EU delegations on decentralisation and local governance. The first of these took place for the Latin American, Central American and Caribbean region between the 10 – 13 June 2013 in Quito (Ecuador). The next seminar is planned for Anglophone and Lusophone Africa In Kenya (November 2013).
The seminar in Quito was attended by EU Delegations from the three regions (LA, CA, Caribbean), international/regional experts on decentralisation and local governance as well as “frontline actors” –who have been engaged in “doing things” at local level such as mayors, local authority staff, national associations or capacity development experts. Other donors (GIZ, AECID, UNDP) also participated.
The objective of the seminar was to jointly reflect on how decentralisation and local governance could be better used to foster key EU development and governance priorities (as reflected in the Agenda for Change), building on lessons learnt in the past three decades while taking into account current societal dynamics in the region as well as the “differentiation” policies that the EU will now apply (only 6 countries in the region will retain bilateral aid).
Core questions on the agenda were:
Participants recognised that there are plenty of promising development and governance dynamics at local level in the region. These seek to address burning challenges such as security, economic development, employment, equitable management of natural resources, climate change, and food security.
Issues all need to be firmly anchored at local level, if sustainable impact is to be achieved. In this local ambit, local authorities are increasingly assuming their role as “catalyst” of local development processes. Yet this remains an uphill struggle as many powers oppose the emergence of strong, legitimate and effective local authorities and seek to keep them under control (partly by blocking further decentralisation reforms).
Against this background, the challenge for donor agencies is to be an ally of these reformist forces at local level (and their supporters at national/regional levels) in order to empower them to pursue their positive role in the delivery of development and governance outcomes. It was recognised that this entails a more “instrumental approach” to decentralisation (as opposed to the more normative good governance approach used so far by EU and other donors) and above all a willingness of the EU to “think and act more politically”. Indeed, empowering local authorities (and their associations) or pushing for more “development-oriented” decentralisation processes at national level, are not technical challenges. They relate to power structures, access to resources, interests, incentives, bargaining processes between different actors for better policies, etc.
IF the EU wants to engage meaningfully in these highly political arenas, it should also strengthen its capacity to be a “politically smart actor”.
Jean Bossuyt is ECDPM’s Head of Strategy.
This blog post features the author’s personal view and does not represent the view of ECDPM.