The Role of Local Governance in Postconflict Countries

After expounding upon problems facing postconflict countries, the time comes to begin digging out of the hole of failed policies and good intentions to more productive policies.  The role of local governance in postconflict countries has only limited scholarship to pick apart, with only asides or an anecdote or two about a local leader or town outperforming the rest of the country in most books and papers on reconstruction, development, democratization, and/or conflict resolution.  Most of the expertise exists among NGOs, who are inclined to work with grassroots and local government organizations but are short on scholarship.  Sadly, external actors tend to see local or informal organizations as too far “in the weeds” to understand or to be effective.

However popular movements and support are far more likely to come from the ground up than top-down by forming a concrete foundation for political accountability and popular representation.[18]  National government naturally involves abstractions that local governments can better avoid.  Most government services that affect the day-to-day lives of citizens and communities are (or can be) provided by local or district governments, such as education, health, police, justice, real estate, and road services.[19]  The difference is that local and district governments are stuck enforcing or implementing national policy.  The alternative is granting local governments with the power and the resources to decide policy as well as administer it.

Small-scale governance reforms and programs (sometimes called “small-g” programs) can better work with the grain of society, encouraging a participatory discourse that keeps citizens invested, informed, and involved in their communities’ deliverance of public goods.[20]  Brian Levy writes:

More participatory local governance, which may in turn promote greater accountability for the quality of local service provision…can, for one thing, show a society the benefits that come from choosing collaboration over conflict. As such, small-g programs may serve as steppingstones to a politics that centers on programs and the public interest rather than the jockeyings of cliques and clienteles. Nor should we underrate the degree to which progress at the small-g level can help to sustain the forward momentum of inclusive, labor-demanding economic growth.[21]

By keeping money, government, and projects local, supply is better matched to demand for government services, thus increasing flexibility, accountability, and service delivery.[22]  People can better see where their tax money is going and express their opinion (through town councils or elections) about whether money is being spent effectively on the right projects.

Local governance has particular benefits for postconflict countries.  Decentralization divides up power and resources throughout a country, which results in less contact and conflict among groups from different areas while also giving more groups a “piece of the pie” and thus incentive to accept the existing order rather than returning to violence.  Strengthening subnational sources of power can help to accommodate diverse local demands and different visions of the postconflict state while investing larger numbers of participants in the political system and enhancing responsiveness.  Because local government has better information about the specific nature of local conflict, they can do a better job preventing, managing, and solving problems through local norms. Finally, if local government can be more responsive to the constituents’ needs and give people recourse to voice their grievances, it will reduce the need for rebellion in the first place.[23]

However, local government does not exist in a vacuum.  Its effectiveness is highly influenced by its relationship with higher levels of government.  Poorly decentralized states create local governments that remain pawns of the national governments.  For example, if the national government cannot exert its power across the entire country, it may rely on local governments delivering the support and acquiesce of its populations to the national government in exchange for resources.  In this case, the decentralization is subject to national-government meddling and politicization that will undercut the benefits and effectiveness of local government.[24]  As such, local autonomy (of power and money) is necessary for decentralization to achieve its potential.

While efforts thus far have been rather limited and not well-publicized, there have been some important and illustrative successes.  Uganda and Somaliland have both exhibited relatively strong indigenous institutions at the local level.  While far from perfect societies or countries, such indigenous efforts have done better than their externally-sponsored efforts by focusing on social contracting and building substantive foundations.[25]  In Uganda, decentralization gave substantial power to local councils.  However, most funding was appropriated from the national government, undercutting local council autonomy and opening the councils up to national meddling and election tampering.  Projects that involved the population in a more active role had greater success: a community-monitoring program that provided residents in 50 communities how their village ranked in child mortality figures and informed citizens what health services to which they were entitled.  Within a year, child deaths declined 33%.[26]  The information allowed people to have a voice to demand more from their local councils and national government.

Local government must be responsive to its citizens and citizens must have the ability to voice their approval or disapproval of various policies.  In postconflict countries, this is best done in a non-confrontational approach that encourages effective, legitimate rule rather than destabilizing the community.  For example, a Timor-Leste community monitoring program included a forum for citizens and local officials to review and discuss findings, providing feedback on the integrity and quality of services while giving officials the opportunity to respond and make changes.[27]  Feedback and governance mechanisms need not be a part of a formal institution so long as it has enough societal support that local officials cannot simply disregard it without consequence.  Informal linkages can provide flexibility when necessary, present an alternative when formal authority disappoints, and encourage better institutional performance.  Even if local officials are appointed, accountability can work through complaint adjudication boards, citizen report cards, or local civil society groups.[28]

Resource constraints are a common problem for local governments; national politicians have little incentive to give money to local governments.  But without sufficient funds or autonomy the potential for development will be undercut and decentralization efforts will largely be symbolic.[29]  As such, aid (at both the national and subnational) levels should be tailored to reinforce taxation.  Taxes perform an important role in democracies—by “buying-in,” citizens have a motivation to care how the government spends its money.  States that do not depend on taxation (funding itself through resources like oil, for example) do not need their citizens for money or approval, encouraging autocracy.  Postconflict states have a similar predicament—aid makes them dependent on the international community, not their citizens, for approval and money.[30]  Money should be given on a matching basis, encouraging the nation to develop capacities to levy, collect, and manage taxes so that indigenous countries remain dependent on their own people for financial support.  Aid and tax money that is intended for local programs or costs should be raised or given at the local level, reducing its vulnerability to corruption, mismanagement, political power plays, and overhead costs.

While this section has encouraged the primacy of local governance mechanisms, this is not to say that the national government is unnecessary or unimportant.  A dysfunctional or too-weak national government will inhibit local governance’s success.  First of all, the national government must be strong enough to counter and/or remove a local leader or government that becomes parasitic, corrupt, or authoritarian.  Likewise, it must enforce the constitution and other national laws that the local governments work within, including protecting civil liberties and human rights.[31]  The national government must be able to guard the border and provide external security (with international assistance, if necessary), pursue international negotiation when needed, and can provide an information clearinghouse of best practices across the nation.

Finally, part of the promise of local governance is its reliance on indigenous solutions in self-government.  Nations cannot be fundamentally changed from outside—they must rely on their indigenous population to be sustainable.  Robert Kaplan argues:

International action should be first and foremost about facilitating local processes, about leveraging local capacities, and about complementing local actions, so that local citizens can create governance systems appropriate to their surroundings.  States work effectively when they are a logical reflection of their underlying sociopolitical, historical, geographical, human resource, and economic environments, and when they are deeply integrated with the societies they purport to represent, able to harness the informal institution and loyalties of their citizens….Countries must be built bottom-up, for they will rarely succeed top-down…Helping underdeveloped countries should not be about propping up the state, but rather about connecting it—and making it accountable where possible—to its surrounding society.[32]

Reliance on indigenous solutions requires a greater amount of trust and faith in postconflict countries than the international community’s paternalistic attitude and policies have demonstrated, but it is necessary for indigenous self-reliance.

The Unlikely Success Story of Local Governance in Somaliland

The territory of Somaliland has everything against it. Yet it found an endogenous solution to common postconflict problems.  Meanwhile, between 1991 and 1995 there were seventeen foreign-led efforts at national reconciliation—none were successful[33]—“the world’s foremost graveyard of externally sponsored state-building initiatives.”[34]  While the internationally-supported transitional government in Mogadishu (TNG) cannot exercise authority over more than a few neighborhoods of the city, other areas of Somalia are pushing for more autonomy and self-government.  These regions, and Somaliland in particular, consolidated alternate governance and largely disregarded the internationally-recognized government in Mogadishu.

When Major General Siad Barre’s authoritarian regime collapsed in 1991, the formerly British protectorate Somaliland declared independence.  Upon secession, the Somali National Movement and Council of Elders handed power over to a civilian administration and facilitated a consensus-based and inclusive process of dialogue.  Conferences were organized and paid for by local and diaspora Somalilanders.  Composed of elders representing all of the main Somaliland clans and concluding on January 26, 1991, the conference announced a cease fire between three rebel organizations, declared independence from Somalia, and established a set of principles to avoid future conflict.[35]  The agreement dictated that each clan was responsible for policing its own area, returning prisoners and undamaged property, and “forgetting” grievances from the war.[36]  The conferences and dialogue continued throughout the fits and starts of conflict that lasted through 1996, when the new administration took power with widespread support and legitimacy.[37]  It was initiated and led by Somalilanders and ignored by the international intervention and the rest of Somalia.  No country, then or now, has recognized Somaliland as an independent state.[38]