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Decentralization and local capacities

HIROSHIMA, Japan—A decentralized government is a working concept long desired by many. Most developed countries have embraced it, having in mind that it could lead to a more welfare-driven government sensitive to the plight of the grassroots and capable of balancing development across the state.

Local governments being the closest to the people, they are the ones that can understand local or regional needs, and effectively address the same. When empowered, local governments can maximize this closeness and give flesh to the primary reason governments exist: the promotion of the people’s wellbeing through policies and mechanisms that allow them to live productive lives—of course, in exchange for their taxes.

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In the Philippines, President Duterte’s call for a shift to the federal system of government—a decentralizing measure—has gotten much traction. With the resources of the state seen to be appropriated by “Imperial Manila,” many political analysts claim that Mr. Duterte was elected president because he had won the hearts of those at the peripheries of development—those far from the center and longing to partake of state resources that seem to constantly be poured into Metro Manila and neighboring regions.

But while the idea of greater self-rule and fiscal autonomy sounds pleasing and convenient for local governments, there are many social hurdles to overcome. The devolution of power that follows the process of decentralization creates more questions than answers, mostly concerning the capacities of the people in the local government to carry out the demands and responsibilities that will be delegated to them.

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Can the local governments actually provide for the basic needs of their constituents? How to ensure that the delivery of basic services will not be subjected to private interest cloaked in the guise of public interest? How to do away with the patronage system—a stumbling block to an equitable and just government—which pervades even the local governments?

Much of the literature acknowledges that a strong and efficient local government can lead to the perception of an effective government in general. But that can be possible only if the national government has the political will to demand that the local governments shape up and serve according to their mandate.

President Duterte seems to personify this character—a national executive resolved to make the government effective down to the grassroots. His main selling points during the election campaign were his accomplishments as a mayor of Davao City—lessening crime and making the local government work for the people. Such efficiency caught the public imagination, as made evident by the 16-million buy-in.

Since the President has spent most of his political life in a local government, he understands the maze of local governance and recognizes the typical challenges that bar local officials from delivering the basic services that the residents need.

However, before we rush to pass a decentralization measure, it is essential that local governments be strengthened through development efforts that will transform the consciousness of civil servants from the provincial down to the barangay level. It is imperative that a conducive atmosphere be created to promote public welfare—through well-thought-out policies and mechanisms that will make local officials loyal, not to private interest, but to their public mandate.

We need to prepare the soil before we plant.

More importantly, if we want an effective and transparent local government to work, institutional accountability must be localized. The scope of operations of the Office of the Ombudsman and the Sandiganbayan seems to be detached from the local level. We must come up with ways through which local administrators (both elected and appointed) will function with the idea that they could be held accountable for their deeds.

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I hope the President works this out and finds ways through which local governments nationwide can be made more efficient. The expectations of 91 percent of the populace weigh on his shoulders.

Lastly, an effective government is one that has a base of engaged, politically-mobilized, and development-driven people. The people of Japan have proved this. Immediately after World War II, they worked hard to rebuild by consolidating their social capital and putting up a government that would work for them. Hiroshima, 70 years after the dropping of the infamous atomic bomb that decimated much of the city, has risen from the ashes through the collaborative efforts of the citizens and their government, who were driven by the desire to overcome hardship.  Now, it is a progressive city setting an example for the world: that effective governance and utmost participation from the people can lead to progress.

In the end, more than the question of devolution and decentralization, the real challenge for a sustainable and effective government is the institutionalization of an engaged public down to the local levels—a public that works to protect public interest through its private capacities. We cannot rely solely on government efforts. We must work with the government to institutionalize the change that we want. It is only then that we can say, “Indeed, change has come.”

Jesse Angelo L. Altez teaches at Mindanao State University in General Santos City. He is undergoing the Hiroshima Essential Training, which is part of the Global Hiroshima Project to Enhance Peace-Building Human Resource Development, for the Bangsamoro government in Mindanao.

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TAGS: decentralization, federalism, Rodrigo Duterte
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