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Today I will consider the broader subject of devolution, local democracy, etc. and suggest that although over the years much may have changed a contemporary worrisome problematic need to be addressed. Last week I considered issues having to do with political representation of local views at the national level e.g. directly elected members of parliament (MPs) and political party nomination and control of those MPs. I concluded that the numbers of the former should be enlarged and party control of MPs should be severely restricted. This was recommended knowing full well that chances are that a more liberating approach to these matters will not easily be adopted by the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) or the People’s National Congress (PNC).
After all, greater accountability runs counter to the longstanding traditional Marxist/Leninist, democratic centralist orientation of the PPP and is an obstacle to that party’s goal of dominating the political space in Guyana. The PNC is less tied to the ideological and ethnic barnacles of the past: it has experimented and publicly committed itself to more liberating forms of governance. Although we should note that these experiments ceased as soon as they no longer suited the party oligarchs; the party’s schizophrenic approach suggests that it is more amenable to political accommodation.
This backdrop makes it important that the leadership of the PPP and PNC immediately present their reform positions to give the public sufficient space to discourse and mobilise. Any suggestion that the oligarchies of these parties are going to ‘the people’ before developing their positions is hogwash.
In 1955, a comprehensive Marshall Report on local government in Guyana was completed and accepted by the British government but its implementation was stymied by the struggle for political power that led to the removal of the PPP government and the installing of the PNC in power. It was not until after independence, in 1969, that a major attempt at local government reform resulting from the report was introduced that reflected the state centric view that is more-or-less still operational today (Marshall, A H (1955) Report on Local Government in British Guyana. London).
Regional and local governments were and notwithstanding the rhetoric, still are viewed as aids to the central government and cradles of national political management. For example, the 1945 Local Government Act, as repeatedly amended, states that: ‘The Minister shall have and may exercise in any village or country district any or all of the powers of a local authority whenever it appears to the Minister expedient so to do, and may exercise any or all of those powers in any of those districts, whether there is or is not a local authority thereof.’
In 1973, the regional system was introduced and regional ministers took the place of the all- powerful district commissioners. The Municipal and District Councils Act of 1969, as amended, is similarly restrictive of local democracy, and much of the quarrel between the City Council and the Ministry of Local Government is rooted in this highly centralised structure. The high- minded rhetoric of the 1980 reforms led nowhere and this state-centricity continued with the 2013 local government reforms.
In that year I argued that ‘If the Georgetown City Council was foreseeing the end of its personnel difficulties with the Ministry of Local Government by the replacement of the Municipal Service Commission with the new Local Government Commission, the manner in which the latter has finally been constituted has virtually put paid to that expectation! [And] the new financial arrangements do not appear to have made it much simpler for the council to be in a position to seek additional funds!’(Local government financial reforms: Some negative possibilities: SN: 11/09/2013.
Particularly in an ethnically and to some extent geographically bifurcated state such as Guyana, devolution should be underpinned by a much more liberating philosophical position and ‘subsidiarity’ guarantees the autonomy of lower organs. The origins of this principle of subsidiarity can be traced back to, inter alia, the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII, 1891), which states that a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a lower one but should support it to co-ordinate its activity always with a view to the common good.
The general aim of the principle of subsidiarity is to legally guarantee a degree of independence to a lower authority in relation to a higher body. In involves the sharing of power between local authority and central government. In the European Union, for example, the principle serves to regulate the exercise of the Union’s non-exclusive powers. It rules out Union intervention when an issue can be dealt with effectively by Member States. It is justiciable and the Union can defend exercising its powers only when Member States are unable to satisfactorily achieve the objectives of a proposed action. The principle is also enshrined in international law. The UN Charter stipulates that the Security Council shall, where appropriate, use such regional arrangements or agencies for enforcement action under its authority and ….Members … shall make every effort to achieve pacific settlement of local disputes through such regional arrangements or by such regional agencies before referring them to the Security Council.’
The principle of ‘subsidiarity’ should guide future reform efforts and then, among other things, one might be able to avoid taking power from a minister and giving it to a commission that in effect is controlled by the government in which the minister is ensconced! Although he also fell afoul of the state-centric view, perhaps this is what Desmond Hoyte meant in about 1980 when he pejoratively stated that previous efforts at local government reforms had been rooted in ‘local government per se,’ i.e. reforming local government for reform’s sake!