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Governance at the local level: Empowerment and Involvement

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As we approach the Christmas season and the New Year, the impact of the COVID -19 pandemic is still the biggest challenge facing countries big and small, rich and poor, developed and underdeveloped. Currently the focus is still very much on the ravages of the disease and consequently, the desperate, almost indecent haste to deploy vaccines to combat it, with many questioning whether all the necessary safety precautions are being observed.

A new concern, about accessibility of poorer countries, and within countries, the poorer people, to the vaccine has been raised quite validly. A small group of rich nations are already cornering supplies of those vaccines being given approval for delivery to their own populations. Fortunately, not only has an international coalition, aimed at securing supplies for the less fortunate, come into being, but aside from the ‘Big Three’- Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, other countries are developing their own vaccines. These include China, Russia and Cuba, within our own hemisphere, providing alternative sources of supply.

While we continue to observe the safety measures and to keep our fingers crossed about access to vaccines, we still have to live with the social and economic effects of the virus. It has had a devastating effect on our tourism with some hotels only able to continue operations because they host persons forced to be in 5-day quarantine.
The pre-Christmas season is normally a bumper one for travel, with our Nine Mornings Festival a major attraction, but there is a forced climb-down this year. The restricted business opportunities and reduced employment is damaging spending during the biggest consumer splurge, and the customary and temporary “Christmas jobs” are few and far-between this year. That is our reality.

The lasting and perhaps worst effects will be felt in 2021. In addition to the damage both to the local economy and to the international and regional environments in which it operates, Government will be hamstrung in dealing with these challenges. The forced economic decline has resulted in falling revenues, at a time when the pandemic necessitates increased spending, both in health as in social programmes to cushion its worst effects on the poor and vulnerable. Many ambitious programmes and capital spending may have to be reviewed. It will be interesting to see how the 2021 Budget will prioritize spending.

The November election and its aftermath have reduced preparation time for the new Budget, but this is nothing new to us for it has happened after three successive general elections. It means that once again the opportunity for pre-budget dialogue and possible input into the official process is limited. It is a pity that one of the better, more democratic policy initiatives of the government, post-2001, has suffered for more reasons than one.

The pre-budget dialogue with “stakeholders” is a very valuable tool of state-community interaction. Along with the now abandoned partnership with civil society, legitimized by Parliament in the creation of the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDEC), the pre-Budget dialogue laid a basis for solid cooperation between the state, private sector and civil society. It needs to be revisited and made the core of and key to social partnership.
Another valuable and neglected opportunity was that for involving people at the community level in governance at the local level. Up until 1973, there was a system of local government inherited from colonialism which became more and more enmeshed in partisan political rivalry until it had to be abandoned because of conflicts between local authorities controlled by one party and the central government controlled by a rival party.

Clearly that system has become outmoded but for almost four decades we have done nothing about a replacement. We had a grand Commission of Inquiry into the operation of the Kingstown Board (1975) but that produced little guidance for any appropriate local government structures. More recently, both the opposition NDP, when in power, and then this governing ULP, have attempted to grapple with local government reform. There is little tangible to show from these failed attempts and local government “authorities’ are but appointees of the central government without any community legitimacy.

We have to find a way out of this mess, out of this over-reliance on Cabinet government which is stifling the creativity of our people and denying them the right to participate in governance at the community level. Yes, there are challenges, but we must remind ourselves, that a poor country like ours found the means to build a billion-dollar international airport, so why can’t we devise a suitable form of local government? Democracy and accountability cannot just remain at the top, it must be practised at all levels, starting with our local communities.

There has been some talk of a “bi-partisan” approach to national issues in this new Parliament. Local government can be one of those issues, only that it must not be left ONLY up to the two parties, it is an excellent opportunity to involve and empower the people.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.