, Volume 58, Issue 2, pp 333–340

Participatory Local Democracy: Key to community-led rural development


DOI: 10.1057/s41301-016-0008-2

Cite this article as:
Coonrod, J. Development (2015) 58: 333. doi:10.1057/s41301-016-0008-2


According to a recent study funded by the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF), countries are decentralizing governance, moving resources and decision-making closer to citizens, and establishing public forums where people hold government accountable for public services. These steps accelerate economic and social progress, yet are largely ignored at the global policy level.


rural development local governance participatory democracy SDGs 

Introduction: participatory local democracy and the SDGs

Three little words hold tremendous potential for rural transformation. As agreed by the United Nations Member States when endorsing the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (UN, 2015) call for the world community to:
  • 16.6 Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels

  • 16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels

Those three little words, ‘at all levels’, encapsulate the ground-level experience and highest hopes of thousands of scholars, activists and progressive local government representatives who see the importance of participatory local democracy to development. Yet supporters of local democracy were frustrated by the fact that the past Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were never ‘localized’.

The SDGs express strong optimism about the possibility of achieving bold and urgent priorities for people and the planet by 2030. Much of that optimism is based on witnessing rapid progress in reducing hunger and extreme poverty in Brazil and a number of other countries. Brazil’s Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) programme during the eight years of the Lula presidency (2002-2010) shows the impact of a comprehensive strategy of decentralized public action (Da Silva, 2011).

What admirers of Fome Zero often fail to appreciate, however, is that the possibility for this programme emerged as a result of one of the most dramatic social and political transformations in our lifetime. Brazil went from being one of the world’s most autocratic and centralized societies in 1985 to one of the most highly decentralized and vibrantly participatory democracies a decade later (Baiocchi et al., 2011). Other examples of rapid progress in human development include Thailand and Vietnam (IFPRI, 2014) as well as recent advances in Ethiopia (NPR, 2014) and Niger (WHO, 2014).

Even China, where remarkable economic growth is often considered evidence for central control, is actually an example of successful pressure for policy reform by millions of small-scale farmers (Zhou, 1996).

What emerges is an inspiring and largely untold story of bottom up social transformation – political changes that have unleashed tremendous innovation and productivity across the world.

If the world is going to achieve the SDGs by 2030, we will need to understand how to foster this revolution – from autocracy to participatory local democracy.

It was this recognition that led The Hunger Project in 2011 to propose a two-year project with the UN Democracy Fund to cultivate a global community of practice on participatory local democracy. The goal of this project was advocacy: how could we elevate the importance of this issue on the national and international agenda?

Taking a page from the UNICEF playbook (Grant, 1981), and through consultations on five continents, we concluded that we needed (a) a globally comparable index of participatory local governance and (b) an annual State of Participatory Democracy Report, the first two editions of which were launched during the UN General Assemblies of 2013 and 2014 (Hunger Project, 2013, 2014).

Why is participatory local democracy so important?

The issue of local governance is one of the most important – and most neglected – issues in development. Virtually every issue of critical importance to people’s lives – water, sanitation, primary health, primary education, public safety, access to markets and nutritious food, livelihood opportunities, natural resource management and protection of human rights – requires local solutions and local public action. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said ‘like all politics, all development is local’ (UN, 2013).

In order to develop a globally agreed and relevant framework for a Participatory Local Democracy Index, we conducted consultations in Washington DC, Mexico City, New Delhi, Rome and Cape Town. The meetings were held from late 2012 through early 2013, in partnership with institutes long involved in this issue.

An interesting side note: what should we call ourselves as activists committed to participatory local democracy? Decentralists? Devolutionaries? The Mexico City consultation was fairly clear about this – we are Localistas.

Some of the primary reasons cited by localistas for the importance of democratic decentralization include the following:
  • Empowering women and marginalized groups It is far easier for people to organize and demand their rights at the local level where government is within walking distance;

  • Community mobilization Participatory local government can best mobilize mass action campaigns for road repairs, sanitation, behaviour change and other ‘people-power’ solutions to achieving community priorities;

  • Resolving regional differences A decentralized system can reduce regional, language, religious and ethnic conflicts by better responding to diverse local aspirations. Civil society has begun deploying tools such as ‘citizen juries’ to resolve disputes (Smith and Wales, 2000);

  • Social accountability When leaders live close to the people, it is far easier for people to demand transparency and accountability. Laws are beginning to establish mandatory public forums, such as the gram sabha (village assemblies) of India, where priorities and budgets can be set directly by the people;

  • Deepening democracy So many new democracies are, in reality, electoral autocracies where neither the government nor the people have internalized democratic values. Participatory local democracy is an arena where these values can be made real;

  • Effective public services The logistical challenges of providing access to primary health, primary education, water, sanitation and public safety require local solutions.

Why does local government fail?

Realizing the advantages of democratic decentralization is an uphill battle; centralized authorities and entrenched special interests are loath to give up real power. Here are the key challenges faced by localistas:
  • Financial resources Upper-income countries often allocate 20–40 percent of public resources to the hands of local government; for the lowest income countries, this may be only 2 percent. Local governments may lack clearly distinguished tax revenue sources, and local taxing power may prove politically impossible;

  • Lack of autonomy Central government officers see local governments as the bottom of their command and control hierarchy, rather than as autonomous ‘little republics’. In some countries, government officers can override democratic local decisions and remove elected representatives;

  • Political interference Many local government systems are ostensibly non-partisan, yet are unable to overcome partisan pressures for favouritism;

  • Corruption Low levels of transparency may persist, accompanied by vague delineation of accountability between local and central responsibilities;

  • Lack of guidelines Locally elected representatives and line-ministry officers may have little understanding as to how to work with one another;

  • Lack of capacity and training Elected representatives may have low educational levels, and no access to training to fulfil (or even fully understand) their responsibilities;

  • Lack of active citizenry Dysfunction may be so long-standing and entrenched that citizens have resigned themselves to powerlessness, and are unaware of opportunities to take direct action to improve their lives;

  • Disparities in devolution While health and education services may be decentralized, local government may have no clear way to monitor and hold those services to account;

  • Structural barriers to planning Local bodies may have terms that are too short, or top-down revenue disbursements that are too slow, to enable them to properly plan and implement development projects.

Patriarchy versus democracy

Why have we ignored this issue? Perhaps because it is one more expression of a deeply entrenched patriarchal mind-set that seeks top-down control and top-down solutions, treating people as subjects rather than citizens, as ‘the problem’ rather than the solution. To call these prevailing top-down power structures feudal actually does a disservice to historic feudalism, which was far more democratic than many situations today (Pernoud, 2000). The same patriarchal mind-set, that grants impunity to rapists, ravages the natural environment, and justifies religious extremism, finds natural expression in autocratic government systems.

On the day he was assassinated, Mahatma Gandhi left behind a written message which has become known as his ‘talisman’. He recommends that we think of the face of the poorest person we have ever seen, and ask ourselves whether the action we are contemplating will mean anything to them – will it restore people to controlover their own lives and destiny – will it bring swaraj [self-government] to the spiritually starving millions (Gandhi, 1948).

Notice that Gandhi focuses on self-governance, not on meeting survival needs. This is consistent with a more humanistic view of development espoused by writers (Freire, 1970), (Rahman, 1993) who emphasize that survival needs are not fundamentally human needs. Every creature has survival needs. What is fundamental to our human nature is to be the principal author of our own development.

In the early twentieth century, as the industrial revolution and colonialism reached their peak in an unprecedented concentration of wealth and destructive power, the German Catholic theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning identified a principle on how human institutions should be organized to be consistent with, rather than destroy, human dignity: the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity requires that decision-making should occur as close to people as possible. Communities should make the decisions relevant to their activities, the district should only address those issues that cross community lines, and so on upwards to the global level.

That principle was enshrined in Catholic social teaching by the Pope Pius Xi (1931), and is also at the heart of the Treaty Establishing the European Community (EU, 1997).

Dimensions of participatory local democracy

The existing literature on decentralization has focused on three dimensions: administrative, fiscal and political (Schneider and Aaron, 2003). These dimensions can apply to decentralizing an autocracy as well as a democracy. An index of participatory local democracy must begin by measuring active citizenry.

In our Mexico City consultation, it was evident that a particular challenge for most rural governments was planning. In Mexico, for example, local governments have only a 3-year term of office and Mexico’s constitution prohibits any elected official from being re-elected. Obviously, effective long-term planning requires a multi-stakeholder process, involving citizen groups, government and the private sector.

Finally, it was apparent in all the meetings that there is a tremendous gap between what it says in the legal framework, and what is actually being implemented. Local elections are often arbitrarily postponed, unelected bureaucrats often overturn the decisions of democratic bodies, and ‘mandatory’ public forums for social accountability are never held. So, for each of the five dimensions, we need to measure both the legal provisions and the perceptions of their implementation.

Through the consultations, we generated alignment on a framework of key elements within each major dimension. The framework can then be treated somewhat like a roadmap of best practices for participatory local democracy.

Dimension 1: active citizenry and the empowerment of women

At the core of democracy is the citizen. Beyond voting in elections, citizens must be guaranteed their right to directly participate in governance. This is especially important for women. In many areas, more than half the population is effectively excluded from political leadership. Many countries have successfully established quotas in local government for women and for marginalized groups.
  • Aware Are citizens knowledgeable about their rights and informed of government decisions?

  • Inclusive Are there effective mechanisms that guarantee women and minorities a meaningful voice in decision-making processes?

  • Organized Unity is strength. Are women, the poor and other like-minded groups able to organize and negotiate collectively to ensure their issues are being addressed?

  • Participating Is active citizenship actually happening? Are public forums organized in ways that actually facilitate people participating?

Dimension 2: political mandate

Participatory Local Democracy can only occur in a legal framework that devolves specific powers, responsibilities, and mechanisms for direct citizen participation. Often, local governments are simply appointed by ministries, with no local democratic process.
  • Democratic Do citizens elect their local representatives? Does every citizen have the right to run for office, or only those selected by parties or the government?

  • Autonomous Do local governments have the freedom to evaluate, decide and implement local solutions to achieve local priorities?

  • Accountable Are citizens able to hold local government to account, and intervene in cases of corruption and abuse of power?

  • Transparent Are there laws that guarantee citizens’ Right to Information (RTI), and mechanisms that provide requested information in a timely manner?

Dimension 3: administrative decentralization

The key responsibility of government administration is the delivery of public services, and it has been the experience of many countries that moving service personnel closer to the people—and giving them flexibility in how they respond to local needs—is critical.
  • Decentralized Do all key public services have personnel at the local level, and can these local personnel adapt their programmes to meet local needs?

  • Trained Are local government representatives trained to provide proper oversight of public services?

  • Effective Are local service delivery programmes working, and can local government take corrective action as needed?

Dimension 4: fiscal decentralization

Some countries have decentralized the responsibility without the means to pay for it, either through reliable transfers or local taxing authority.
  • Support Do local governments have sufficient resources to pursue local priorities? Do they have their own revenue sources or an assured and transparent allocation of central resources?

  • Independence Do local governments have sufficient autonomy to efficiently and effectively manage and implement local priorities? Too often local budgets are restricted by centralized fiscal systems.

Dimension 5: multi-stakeholder planning

Planning is perhaps the most important and most challenging role of participatory local democracy. Many elected local representatives lack planning skills and may serve terms that are too short for meaningful long-term planning. The ideal situation is for the community to do its planning and elect officials to implement it, rather than the other way round. Many local authorities in Europe and elsewhere have pioneered multi-sectoral, participatory Local Economic Development Authorities (LEDAs) to perform this function (UNDCF, 2012).
  • Capacity Do local governments have the human resource capabilities and accurate data to ensure adequate long-term planning?

  • Deliberative Are there formal, inclusive and mandatory mechanisms in place that bring together citizens groups, government agencies and the private sector to create a widely shared plan?

Surveying the world

We created (and reviewed with experts) survey instruments to assess each dimension and sub-dimension, the full text of which are available in the two annual State of Participatory Democracy Reports. We had hoped to follow the example of other global index creators and base our index on existing secondary research data, but we learned that there are no global databases on this issue, and only a few relevant questions available within other studies.

During 2013, in partnership with our host organizations and other advisors, we reached out to thousands of individual development practitioners in 92 countries, in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese, with more than 1000 responses. Reviewing the data, we felt that the data were sufficient in 35 countries for inclusion in the report.

We divided our 2013 survey in two parts: one designed for people knowledgeable in the legal provisions of local governance, and one focused on perceptions of implementation by general development practitioners.

Two process lessons we learned from the 2013 survey: 1) respondents generally found doing the survey to be an educative and illuminating experience, and 2) across both groups, most respondents did not have ready access to all the information required to complete the survey. In addition, although we pre-tested and attempted to make the survey as objective as possible, there were a number of questions that seemed ambiguous, unclear or subject to interpretation.

Following a round of post-survey discussions, we concluded that a better approach would be to invite civil society organizations in each country to host multi-stakeholder focus groups, involving representatives from women’s groups, civil society, local businesses, academia, central government, local government and, where appropriate, the international community. The group would then work through the survey together and deliver a consensus finding.

We also streamlined the survey instrument into one survey, making the questions more objective and more transparently tied to the index framework.

During 2014, we were able to facilitate 34 organizations hosting discussions across 32 countries, in English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic, with an additional 20 countries submitting findings from individual practitioners.

In both cases, we weighted each sub-component equally, normalizing each of the major dimensions on a scale 0 (all questions with adverse responses) to 100 (all questions with positive responses). In other words, we created an absolute, not relative scale. We then computed a simple average across the five dimensions, and produced ratings.

To compliment the survey findings, we created a one-page Country Profile on the overall structure of participatory local democracy for each reporting country.

Findings: optimism, innovation and frustration

Overall, the surveys found many examples of recent moves by central governments to decentralize.

Perhaps surprisingly, sub-Saharan African countries took top spots in the 2014 survey. Africa had a first wave of decentralization largely imposed under the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 1990s. Now, a more generally democratic Africa is initiating its own second wave of decentralization, recognizing the advantages for itself.

New initiatives in participatory local democracy are underway in the Middle East, Western Asia and Latin America, and civil society has high hopes for these moves.

At the same time, citizens in earlier decentralizers such as India, South Africa and Brazil, have expressed frustrations about the gaps between legal provisions and the felt reality on the ground. This gap between law and implementation is often surprising to those living in long-standing democracies where the power of both government and citizens to ensure implementation of laws is a given. This gap is commonplace in newer democracies, and it erodes people’s confidence in the democratic process.

Case studies

In addition to the index and Country Profiles, we commissioned 16 short ‘Profiles in Practice’ for each report, to put a spotlight on examples of how the Participatory Local Democracy revolution is expressing itself in various countries. These include examples of how this revolution took place in the past (Brazil, Indonesia, Kerala), the impact this has had in various sectors (Thailand, Philippines) and how it is being implemented today (Bolivia, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Malawi, Morocco, Senegal) and particularly how civil society can effectively accelerate the process (Bangladesh, Mexico).

Growing the localista movement

The 2000 Millennium Declaration that led to the Millennium Development Goals make no mention of local government (UN, 2000). In 2005, the independent UN Millennium Project developed strategy recommendations to the Secretary-General that include strong recommendations for decentralization and local capacity building, but there was neither the UN machinery nor other powerful movement to make this happen.

Since 2000, however, new initiatives have been launched that are organizing greater commitment to good local government.
  • ALDA-Europe – the Association of Local Democracy Agencies – was established in 1999, in particular to support new democracies in the European neighbourhood;

  • LogoLink – a learning network committed to deepening democracy through participation – was launched in 2000 by IDS with support from the Ford Foundation;

  • The World Movement for Democracy held sessions on local governance in 2000, and launched a Global Network on Local Governance at ISS in New Delhi;

  • In 2004, the United Cities and Local and Regional Governments was launched, UCLG, which today includes more than 1000 cities;

  • To negotiate collectively for greater focus on local governance in the SDGs, UCLG and others formed a Global Task Force of Local and Regional Governments for the Post-2015 Agenda Towards Habitat III in 2016.

Most of these associations have a markedly urban focus, as do the UN Habitat Conferences. As in all other aspects of political life, cities have more power than the rural areas. Those of us committed to a vibrant, participatory, democratic future for rural communities would be well advised to partner with these associations, encouraging them at every step to focus more broadly on ‘local governance’ than on city governance.

Recently, UNDP and UN-Habitat, on behalf of the UN Development Group, together with the Global Task Force, worked together to co-lead a consultation on localizing the SDGs hosted by the City of Turin, Italy. Their Turin Communiqué (UCLG, 2014) call on governments to give priority to local action and the creation of indicators that are relevant to local contexts.

Conclusion: what we can do together for rural transformation

We are fortunate to live in an era when the deeply entrenched patriarchal mind-set that oppresses women, ravages the environment and obstructs the full realization of citizenship by all people is being transformed. Yet we were raised, educated and shaped by a world where patriarchy predominates. Those who fail to recognize this mind-set are doomed to reinforce it.

We can start with ourselves – catching and correcting our own top-down tendencies, hopefully with some compassion and humour. We can build on these insights to develop the skills of inclusive democratic practice and transformative leadership.

Most importantly, we can advocate in solidarity with the millions of women, men and youth improving their rural communities. The prevailing development discourse still focuses on top-down economic growth, technical innovation and it is increasingly (and not surprisingly) focusing on issues of urbanization. The truth remains that the majority of those struggling to overcome extreme poverty are rural. We can best reduce urban migration and restore our natural environment by loudly and intentionally reminding people of this truth and promote policies and programs that put real power into the hands of rural people.

Our community of practice for participatory local democracy is committed to support this effort. Its work would not be possible without the thoughtful contributions by the scores of organizations and hard work of my Hunger Project colleagues and volunteer student interns, who are listed in our reports and on our website

Copyright information

© Society for International Development 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Hunger ProjectWashingtonUSA