Clark: Local governance critical for achieving development goals

Mar 16, 2011


Rt Hon Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator
Key note Speech to the Commonwealth Local Government Conference 2011
on The Role of Local Government in Achieving Development Goals

Cardiff, UK, Wednesday 16 March 9:30am

I am delighted to join you this morning in Cardiff for the Sixth Commonwealth Local Government Conference.

I acknowledge our hosts, the Cardiff City Council and the Welsh Assembly Government, which are both progressive in energising local economies – the very theme of this conference.

Here in Cardiff representatives of local and national government from developing and developed countries alike have come to share experiences on how to use the leadership role and convening power of local government for economic development. 

In 2007, as Prime Minister of New Zealand, I had the pleasure of welcoming the Fourth Conference of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum to my home city, Auckland. In my opening remarks there, I said that the theme of that Conference, ‘Local Leadership for Development’, told us that local government was about much more than “roads, rates, and rubbish” - important as these are for local citizens.

Now four years later, as head of UNDP, one of the world’s largest development organizations, I am pleased to repeat those words. The role of local government does go, and must increasingly go, beyond its traditional service delivery, and seek to provide the kind of strategic leadership which is needed to energise local economies and communities. The potential of local governments in developing countries to contribute to achieving the Millennium Development Goals and other national and internationally agreed development goals must also be recognized, and their role to that end will be the subject of my address today.

As the level of government closest to the community, local government bears direct witness to the persistent and extreme poverty and chronic hunger which still beset so many countries; to the damage caused by natural disasters and environmental degradation; to the impact of the global recession and of high food and fuel prices on local people; and to the effects of discrimination and social exclusion. In tackling such problems, local governments must be seen as critical components of integrated systems of governance.

I am keen to see UNDP and our associated programme, the UN Capital Development Fund, work ever more closely with the Commonwealth Local Government Forum. We have a shared vision for maximizing the potential of local government, and together we can support local government in many ways to develop its full capacity. I am open to discussing a more formal partnership to enable us to do this more effectively. Already :

  • in the Pacific, we have worked together to engage traditional leadership in local governance
  • in Asia, our work helps to increase the participation of women in city governments
  • in Africa, our joint efforts help to promote and advance decentralised governance.

CLGF also contributed substantially to last year’s Global Forum on Local Development, organised by UNCDF and UNDP in Kampala.

From that conference came the Kampala Call to Action seeking to coordinate development partners, national and local governments, civil society, and the private sector in fostering local development. Adopted by the six hundred delegates present, the declaration called on development stakeholders to work to “empower local governments and their associations to realize fully their potential as key agents of change and development”. 

I believe that if communities are denied opportunity, justice, and inclusion, then inevitably the stability and peace needed for development progress is undermined.

What greater demonstration of that could there be than the remarkable events which have been taking place in the Arab states region. In the same breath, people have been calling for both political and economic inclusion. They want decent work, an end to corruption and abuse, better services, and government which is responsive and accountable. They are driven by revulsion of injustice, poverty, and repression. They want change which addresses fundamental deficits in human development in their countries. These sentiments are not confined to North Africa and the Middle East.

Democratic governance for human development

It is now 20 years since UNDP launched its first Human Development Report and embraced the human development approach pioneered by two sons of the Commonwealth, Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen. That approach sees human development as being about expanding people’s choices and freedoms and increasing their ability to live long, and healthy lives, to be educated, and to enjoy a decent standard of living.

Democratic governance expands people’s freedoms and choices and is intrinsic to the pursuit of this broad concept of human development. Open, accountable, and responsive local government has a key role to play in this respect.

In keeping with its human development mandate, UNDP supports countries’ efforts to strengthen their democratic institutions through free and fair elections, and to establish an environment in which political parties, vibrant civil society, and free and ethical media can flourish. Responding to countries’ requests for assistance to build democratic governance is an important area of UNDP’s work, utilizing more than one third of our resources and reaching 132 countries.

Local governance for MDG and human development progress

Within our democratic governance portfolio itself, support for local governance and decentralization is the largest area of work. UNDP and UNCDF work to

  • promote and support decentralization of governance
  • support democratic systems of local governance
  • develop the capacity of local governments to raise revenue and deliver services; and
  • advance local and regional economic development in an environmentally sustainable way.

We promote democratic governance both as an end in itself, and for its potential to contribute to broadly based development. The concept is every bit as relevant to local government as it is to central government.

When the Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York last year called for accelerated action to achieve the Goals, it explicitly recognized the importance of local actors. The outcome document requested “national governments to foster greater levels of co-ordination between the national and local institutions responsible for development”.

Ahead of the Summit, UNDP undertook an International Assessment of what it would take to achieve the MDGs. By drawing on evidence from more than fifty case studies, we identified key drivers of MDG progress. They were largely incorporated within the Summit‘s action plan, and a number have particular relevance to the role which local government can play in achieving the MDGs.

1.  The importance of nationally and locally owned development strategies.

Local governments, with clear mandates, adequate financing, and sufficient capacity are critical to generating such ownership. Through participatory processes to develop local strategies, a broad based consensus on the way forward can be sought - and hopefully achieved.

Critical to the theme of this conference on energising local economies, local governments can use their convening power to bring together public, private, and non-governmental stakeholders - helping them to identify the values and priorities they share, and serving as an interface with higher tiers of government.

UNDP and UNCDF support local authorities in this role. UNDP is poised, for example, to step up its initiative to help local authorities in Egypt identify ways to engage young people in decision-making.

Local government’s proximity to constituents makes it relatively more difficult to obscure shortcomings in the services they provide, or to excuse poor performance. They tend, therefore, to be more responsive to demand and can be more easily held to account by empowered citizens.

2.  The importance of inclusive economic growth

The history of MDG progress presented to delegates at last year’s MDG Summit had a clear and familiar story line. The world has made considerable progress on many of the Goals. Yet, progress on many others has been too slow and uneven, both between and within countries.

Where economies have been growing, many people have not been able to benefit from the progress their countries have made - particularly women, ethnic and religious minorities, indigenous people, the disabled, the rural poor, and others who literally or metaphorically are at the end of the road. This suggests that while economic growth is important for development, inclusive and equitable approaches are needed for its benefits to be widely shared.

As the background paper for this conference makes clear, local economic development offers opportunities for more inclusive development. Local governments can help grow jobs and expand incomes by, for example, removing the red tape which traps micro businesses in the informal sector, and through targeted development strategies which remove gaps in infrastructure and look for partnerships which can build on a locality’s potential.

National governments need to provide local government with an enabling framework for doing that, not least by giving local government the power to respond to the needs of its communities as it sees fit.

We in the development community can also help to strengthen the capacity of local authorities, as UNCDF does in Least Developed Countries. In Uganda, for example, UNCDF has been helping the national government to implement its District Development Programme, including through the introduction of performance-based grants for local economic development.

3.  Empowering and expanding the opportunities available to women and girls

The evidence shows that children born to women with some formal education are more likely to survive to their fifth birthday, receive adequate nutrition, and be immunized and enrolled in school. At UNDP and UNCDF, we strive to advance gender equality through all areas of our work.

Women are often the catalysts of change in their communities and districts, and we work to support their participation in local government. In Pakistan, for example, UNDP-supported training programmes have thus far, reached 27,000 locally elected women councillors. 

I am pleased to note that UNDP and the CLGF have been involved in collating information about the representation of women in local government in the Asia-Pacific and in Eastern and Southern Africa. In the Asia-Pacific, countries with quotas for women’s representation in sub-national governments, like Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, or with other affirmative action policies, like Vietnam, have the highest rates. In my view, quotas for women’s representation should be considered if other measures of promoting higher levels of representation fail.

There is evidence to suggest that where women have a strong presence on local councils, they are likely to use their weight to prioritize investments in areas like water and sanitation which are so critical to human health and development.

4.  Indeed another key driver of MDG progress is investing in basic services such as water and sanitation. These areas are generally a core responsibility for local governments.

UNDP and UNCDF have many initiatives aimed at developing the capacity of local authorities to manage their investments in such infrastructure well, and to encourage citizen feedback, transparency, and accountability.

In Bondo, Kenya, for example, UNDP brought consumer representatives together with their local water provider to discuss service delivery. As a result, the theft and vandalism of water pipes, which had plagued the community dropped, and there was also a reduction in unaccounted for water. The local consumers in turn gained confidence from the dialogue that their concerns about access to safe water were being recognized and addressed.

5.  Energy access is a powerful driver of MDG progress, and one where local government is often a planner, if not also a provider.

In this climate-stressed age, generating energy which is clean is also a huge priority. Local government can be a promoter of that – and can lead by example in making its own operations carbon neutral.

More broadly, adapting to and mitigating climate change falls well within the province of local government. The first line of civil defence and emergency response is at the community level. Disaster risk management now must take more frequent and severe climate-related events into account, and plan for greater resilience. This will often require coordinated effort by local and national actors.

Local governments in the Commonwealth are helping to pioneer a joint UNDP-UN Environment Programme initiative - “Down to Earth: a Territorial Approach to Climate Change” - in Mbale Uganda, together with the Welsh Assembly Government, the Waterloo Foundation, and Britain’s and Denmark’s development agencies.

In that particular initiative, Mbale is piloting schemes to help coffee farmers adapt to the negative impacts of climate change. This initiative brings local authorities together to exchange ideas and learn about new methods of adaptation, climate specific scenario-building, and accessing carbon finance.

Going forward

In summary, local government has a lot to offer in accelerating MDG progress and energising development overall. The MDGs can and should be localized, so that local government can be clear about the role it can play and the targets to be achieved.

There is now a joint UNDP-UNCDF programme on “Scaling Up Support to the MDGs at the Local Level”, focusing on how to replicate development successes. Gathering evidence of what works is central to these efforts, and CLGF’s partnership with us would be very welcome.

Local approaches have a big role to play in achieving development goals. UNDP and UNCDF are committed to helping local governments fulfill their potential as agents of change and development, including through energising local economies. We work with national governments to support them with decentralization plans which shift functions and resources to the appropriate levels. Part of that shift must be a commitment to capacity building and to producing access to sufficient resources so that local government can carry out its functions effectively. An old bone of contention between central and local levels of government is that the former devolves responsibilities and functions to the latter without providing means of funding!

In our endeavours, we look forward to ongoing collaboration with the Commonwealth Local Government Forum and its constituent organizations. Our shared vision is to maximise the potential of local government to contribute to the economic and social well-being of its peoples.

That noble goal is what this conference will unite around this week. I wish you well in your deliberations and in producing an outcome which will help guide local governments throughout the Commonwealth to energise development in their communities.


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