The UNDP and the Ministry of Home Affairs held a press conference today at the UN building in Malé to discuss the government’s proposed decentralisation bill.
Opposition to the bill resulted in a bitter parliamentary stand-off between the MDP and DRP during parliament’s final sittings last year. This culminated in protests outside parliament between the two parties on 30 December.
Speaking at the conference today was Jens Peter Christensen, senior advisor in local government in his home country of Denmark.
Christensen started his presentation by saying that “Denmark is a good example of decentralisation—probably the most decentralised country in the world.” He said it provides a clear view on “transparency and participation” of government entities and civil society.
The slow process of decentralisation
Christensen stated that decentralisation is “the most difficult public sector reform you can make,” adding that “a lot can go wrong,” but it’s a “part of modern nation-building.”
He said the process of decentralisation is “time-consuming” and mentioned that in Denmark it has taken about 25 years for the decentralisation of government to take full effect.
In other countries, like Bhutan, the process of government decentralisation began in the early 1980s. They held their first local government elections in 2002, and have continued to hold them every three years.
Bhutan “faces some of the same challenges [as the Maldives] in dealing with remote communities,” said Christensen, and added that the Maldives could learn from Bhutan in the “cooperation between government and international donors supporting decentralisation.”
Cooperation between local government and the community
Christensen said one of the main benefits of decentralisation is “empowering local governments” and “build[ing] on the resources that are available” to each island, atoll or province.
He listed a local government’s basic functions as being primary education, health services (including care of the elderly), waste management, social welfare, public utilities, local infrastructure and promoting local economic development.
Christensen said “in developing countries [there is] usually a very weak local government,” which is why Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and the media have “a very important role in government reform”.
“This was particularly true when dealing with transparency in the government, and acting as a ‘watch-dog’ to make sure the momentum of the reform doesn’t die down. The media have a big responsibility to the community.”
Expanding on the media’s role in a situation where the government is undergoing a major reform, Christensen said they must be aware of distributing information fairly to the public, and must look for adverse consequences.
“There will always be resistance to reform; not everybody will be in favour.”
To combat resistance and the inevitable challenges, Christensen suggested finding “a common vision” and “exploring synergies” between local government and the community.
Participation needs to be facilitated, he said, so the community isn’t left out and the government knows what is needed the most.
Reform within the reform
One of the reasons decentralisation has worked so favourably in Denmark has been its ‘Access to Information’ laws.
“You cannot expect people to become involved in government if they don’t have access to information,” says Christensen, adding that it is mandatory for every local government in Denmark to have a webpage where they publish any information concerning the government and the community.
Each local government in Denmark also has a “press officer to specifically talk to the media” and holds “regular meetings with journalists” to discuss public issues.
There is a proposed new rights to information bill in the government’s decentralisation plan, which would include similar reforms in ministries (ie having one specifically trained media officer for each ministry and local government).
Issues with proposed decentralisation bill
The main issue Christensen found with the Maldives’ decentralisation bill was there was no costing information submitted to parliament.
“What will it cost to implement [this bill]?” he asked, noting that in some situations, the task proposed can be too much for the country’s economy to undertake.
“Funding is always an issue, and lack of capacity is sometimes used as an excuse not to decentralise.”
He also warned that the proposed availability for local governments to take out loans could create big debt, and was something that needed to be watched carefully.
A word from the Ministry of Home Affairs
From the Ministry of Home Affairs, Mohamed Shareef said he had done some costing earlier, but still found that “there won’t be sufficient funds for everyone,” since “not all local councils will be able to raise their own revenue immediately.”
He also said that under the new reform, with each of the twenty atolls having at least two constituent seats in government, “the power is with the people”.
Shareef also said there will be an independent commission for the local governments, to establish a platform of communication between central and local governments. This was also one of Christensen’s main concerns regarding the decentralisation plan.
Christensen has worked extensively in policy formulation, planning and capacity development for central and local governments, and has worked with NGOs, including the UNDP.