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McKinnon: Commonwealth Local Government Conference

27 March 2007, Tuesday
Rt Hon Don McKinnon, Commonwealth Secretary-General
Commonwealth Local Government Conference (‘Delivering Development through Leadership’)
Auckland, New Zealand

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and a very warm welcome to the fourth Commonwealth local government conference.

My sincere thanks to our conference partners in the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, in the Department of Internal Affairs which represents this country’s central government, in ‘Local Government New Zealand’ which represents all 85 local councils here, and of course to our hosts the City of Auckland.

Seven years ago in London we were 200 people; four years ago in Pretoria we were 400; two years ago in Aberdeen we were 500; and we are nearer 550 now in Auckland in 2007. Some 25 of you are Ministers; as many are mayors. Almost all of you are from Commonwealth countries, but we are pleased to welcome other countries too, like Liberia and Rwanda.

But all of you are experts; and all of you want to see local government that is first and foremost efficient, fair and transparent; but – beyond that – you want to see local government that – by its policies and actions – actively improves lives, and in many places does so for the disadvantaged people who need it most.

With 800 million people in the Commonwealth living on less than a dollar a day….. with two-thirds of the world’s HIV/AIDS sufferers in our midst….. with 30 million children who will never see the inside of a primary school and a further 40 million who will never experience secondary education….. ‘the disadvantaged’ are very much our Commonwealth concern.

I’d like to attempt four things in addressing you today.
- First, to tell you how we in the Commonwealth see local government.
- Second, to remind us all what has happened since we last met in Aberdeen.
- Third, to look at where democracy meets development: I shall lay down several big challenges to local government.
- And fourth, to turn to our specific conference theme, and to look at where leadership can deliver development – and indeed where it has already done so.

So, first, how do we see local government?

In our three Commonwealth local government conferences to date, we have established our commitment both to ‘partnership’ and to ‘principle’ in what we do.

In developed and developing countries alike, ‘Partnership’ is what comes from the sea-change in local government that has taken place in as little as 25 years. None of these trends is complete, but all are very well underway.

- Local government can no longer be about bureaucracy and a one-way process of administration: it must become an inclusive process of collaboration and trust.
- It can no longer be about officialdom versus the rest: it must increasingly be about administrators working alongside the private sector and civil society.
- It can no longer be about services for the few – it must be about services for all. Ladies and gentlemen, we are all ‘in this together’.

And we do what we do within the framework of those twelve Commonwealth ‘Principles’ of local government agreed to in Aberdeen. Let me summarise.

We said very clearly:
- that local democracy should be recognized in a country’s Constitution.
- that citizens should be able to elect their local representatives – and then participate in local decision-making.
- that national, regional and local government should act in partnership.
- that local government should be accountable to the people it serves, especially over how it spends their money.
- that local government is for all – all parts of a community, in all its diversity.
- and finally that local government needs to get better and better: staff need training.

So second I ask, what has come of the Aberdeen Agenda? How are we doing?

Nine months after Aberdeen, our Heads of Government endorsed those same Principles when they met in Malta in November 2005. I quote you chapter and verse from Article 7 of the final communiqué: ‘Effective, elected local government is an important foundation for democracy’.

So our stall is set out. Furthermore, business is brisk.

Of our Commonwealth members, I cite Sierra Leone, Lesotho, Uganda and Pakistan as the ones who have done most since 2005 to enact those Aberdeen Principles. Indeed, last July, Pakistan brought out a substantial document entitled ‘Aligning Pakistani local government with the Aberdeen Agenda’. And in Bangladesh, where I was last week, there is an intention to create a new local government structure ahead of a new National Assembly. That is proof positive of real intent.

I am often asked how good we are at local government in the Commonwealth. The long answer lies in the definitive and truly excellent publication that is the CLGF Yearbook. But the short answer is that inevitably we vary, depending on our history, traditions and circumstances.

Of our 53 member countries, some don’t even have systems of local government. For understandable reasons, that’s the case in some of our smaller states in the Pacific and the Caribbean, and in Asia in places like Brunei and the city-state of Singapore.

But those countries are not entirely representative. Half of our member countries have gone as far as to provide constitutional protection to local governments. For instance Swaziland did just that, very recently. And many countries – like Cyprus and Australia – have introduced compulsory voting in local government elections, showing just how highly their governments rate ‘grass roots’ democracy.

So the good news will always jostle with the bad, and sometimes the two will even go side-by-side. Take two countries which I know well.

First New Zealand, which has as advanced a system of local government as anywhere in the world.

Recently, I re-read parts of the book ‘Decently and in Order’ by Dr Graham Bush of Auckland University. He quoted 19th century New Zealand legislation that defined local government as "the legal personification of the local community represented by a council, elected by, acting for, and responsible to the inhabitants". I can't think of a better definition – it’s a goal for us all.

Now in the 21st Century, legislation requires all of New Zealand’s 85 local authorities to prepare 10-year strategic ‘Council Community Plans’.

The system here is unique in the way that central government holds on to many of the core public services, like health, education and social security, while at the same letting go of some of the responsibility for job creation, youth services, housing and infrastructure – and in doing so, devolving much authority.

But why, then, is voter turnout so low in New Zealand local elections? Why do citizens fail to engage?

Or take the UK, and specifically London, where I have to accept that my colleagues don’t come in to the office early and leave late just to please me and to labour for the Commonwealth….. No, I know (and some of them even confess…) that they do it to beat the £8-a-day Traffic Congestion Charge in Central London.

Council Tax seems to rise inexorably in the UK – sometimes because they are concealing extra compliance charges imposed by central government, and always to cries of ‘Foul!’

But yet again, voter turnout and citizen engagement in the UK is very low, in a society that is in many ways presidential and personality-driven in its politics - rather than policy or even party-driven.

But for all the good news and the bad news, my postscript to that local government question is always the same. It’s simply that local government matters, very much.

For most people, it’s their first and perhaps only contact with the authorities in their country. It matters more, even, than national or regional governments.

If we’re being born, getting married or dying, in most Commonwealth countries we’re in local government’s hands. Its concerns are our daily concerns – roads, transport, water, sanitation, and in many places health, education and more. Conflict resolution, disaster management, promoting respect and understanding between different faiths, ethnicities and communities.

As former US Speaker of the House of Representatives Tip O’Neill once famously said, “all politics is local”.

And politics is about doing good. Six of the eight Millennium Development Goals, our markers for fighting the dollar-a-day poverty that is the wretched lot of 800 million of our Commonwealth citizens, are related to the basic services – of health, education, clean water and sanitation – most of which are provided by local governments.

And this kind of human development leads in turn to economic development, in the form of new jobs, new livelihoods, new investments.

In short, local government – particularly in developing countries – is about nothing less than ‘transforming societies’. Those two words will resonate very loudly with any student of CHOGM, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. ‘Transforming societies’ is to be the CHOGM theme in Kampala in November.

I have tried to show you that Democracy meets Development in local government. The two go hand-in-hand. And my third task tonight is to set down some of the main challenges for local government, everywhere. Here are five – four of which may sound familiar.

First, local government still has to codify its relationship with central government – ideally by law. The two have to demarcate roles, especially over the functions that are exclusive, those that are shared, and those that are discretionary. The best criterion is always that of subsidiarity – the job should be done as near as possible ‘to source’.

It is inevitable that there will be tension between the centre and the regions: what we have to ensure is that it’s ‘creative tension’. We would always suggest the use of language which recognises each as a ‘sphere’ of government, and not a ‘level’ of government or a ‘tier’ (that’s t-I-E-r).

Second, local government still has to be adequately funded by central government. There is no point in devolving responsibilities to local government unless there are funds to match – funds which are timely, predictable and based on agreed formulas, not whim. Some Commonwealth countries have now devised the formulas on which these transfers are based: others haven’t.

But where sometimes the need is for rules …. sometimes it’s for flexibility. That’s why local government should be allowed to make and amend its own Rules of Business, to allow it make and enforce bye-laws, to raise loans and even levy taxes, and to appoint staff.

Third, local government has to be representative: above all, it must involve women – both in its leadership, and in what it delivers. Half the world’s population should have more than its current share of representation.

Despite our best efforts, Commonwealth women suffer discrimination in education, health, business, and public life. Nearly three-quarters of our poorest people are women. That’s why we have set a target of 30% of women in national and local decision-making. The best results are to be seen in countries like India, Pakistan and Uganda, where one third of all council seats are reserved - by statute - for women. Elsewhere, we are failing to meet our target: we average just 15%.

Fourth, partnership (the theme of our first two CLGF conferences) must continue to be at the centre of 21st Century local government.

That means partnership with the private sector, which I myself have seen so impressively in public/private partnerships in areas like water supply in Dhaka (that’s Bangladesh), and solid waste management in places in Accra and Singapore.

But perhaps above all it means partnership with civil society: the newest arrivals on the local government scene…. but some of the most effective.

Look no further for evidence than the BRAC in Bangladesh, or the 25,000 new Citizen Community Boards in Pakistan, who receive 25% of local government funds to identify, execute and monitor projects. That is civil society at its most effective in local government.

India, too, has seen the remarkable way that NGOs have worked with the Municipal Corporations in Mumbai to shift thousands of squatter families into new Government-built cooperatives. Conversely, we have seen how local government has suffered where civil society has not been included: I came across that phenomenon recently in a crime prevention project in Papua New Guinea.

Civil society is the intermediary between a government and its people. It’s the guarantor that citizens are indeed civil and that they assume their responsibilities in society. It is central to everything that we believe in the Commonwealth – that same Commonwealth which is, of course, an alliance of governments and of peoples.

A local government, like a central government, that ignores civil society in its policy formulation will increasingly see those policies doomed to fail.

Let me add a fifth challenge, and a rather newer one.

Last year, the world crossed a rubicon: more of its people now live in cities than in rural areas. And the reality of ‘cities’ is so often another word: ‘slums’. We now calculate that 330 million people in the Commonwealth, that’s 1 in 6 of us, live in slums.

At school, they taught me John Masefield: "Not for us content, and quiet piece of mind, for we go seeking cities that we shall never find". And still those dreams are spoiled, because slums compound and compress every human challenge in health, education and the very coherence of the way people do, or don’t, live together. And it’s local government’s job to govern slums. I know that they will add urgency to your leadership debates these coming days.

So my fourth and final task this morning is to refer to the conference question of how we ‘lead’ – on these challenges, and on delivering development?

Here, I readily defer to the seminal discussion paper prepared for this conference by Mike Geddes and Helen Sullivan – an excellent starter for your discussions, and my thanks to them.

I like the way the paper looks at leadership in terms of identifying priorities, orchestrating the way those priorities are met, and all-the-while involving citizens in the work that is being done for them and with them.

I like the way it looks at building up the leadership capacity of the local civil servants who are actually delivering local government – those at the very top, and their lieutenants beneath.

I like the way it looks at leadership as the key to creating partnerships with those – largely in the private sector or in civil society – who are so often better placed to deliver on local services than local government itself.

I like the way it recognises the role of other types of local leadership – from voluntary and community-based organisations, faith-based organisations, schools and more. It talks of strengthening those groups’ own leadership capacity, and of strengthening their relationships with local government itself.

And I also like the way it addresses the fact that leaders can lead in the wrong direction, for the wrong reasons and it is their prerogative to do so. So it looks at issues of accountability and corruption.

So your challenge here in Auckland is to put flesh on these bones.

In doing so, take heart from the leadership roles already being shown across the Commonwealth.

Which local government leaders do we lionize? Is it those we know best – the New York mayors of this world like Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani – or the thousands of local mayors, councilors and staffers who never hit the headlines, and who bind and water the soil of local community?

Our local heroes and leaders are like the local headman I once met in the village of Jos in Northern Nigeria, who spent his time negotiating between the local population and Fulani tribesmen – resolving disputes at the local level. Helping people get on with their lives. Again, being the bridge between people, communities, regions.

I salute the way that the CLGF and the Secretariat have worked so effectively together: for instance in election observer missions like those for the Pakistan local elections in August 2005, or the joint workshops for local government officials we have held over the last two years in the Caribbean, the Pacific, Asia twice, and Africa.

I’m particularly pleased with our cooperation in Jamaica over the new Caribbean Forum for Ministers of Local Government, and in Suva in a new project to strengthen local government and governance across the Pacific – especially in areas that couldn’t otherwise attract sufficient donor support, like freedom of information, anti-corruption, and land development.

I take heart, too, from the local government successes I see on my own travels in developing countries, some of which I have mentioned. I’m especially inspired here and in Australia by local government councils which are starting to work internationally, across other Pacific countries.

The Commonwealth prizes local government. This conference has come a long way since London in 2000, even since Aberdeen in 2005. I hope I have shown that in most of the Commonwealth, democracy must show development dividends and, of course, the importance of leadership. The test of this conference is to ensure that local government has the tools, the people and the support to do the job.


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