Will 2018 be the year of democracy in the Middle East? As we stride into the New Year, protestors are taking to the streets in Iranian cities to demand better rights and living conditions from their hard line religious rulers. Nobody knows where the protests will lead and some fear that the same chaos that engulfed Syria and Libya will be the consequence.
“Democracy does not come in a neat box that can just be handed to people and the structures that have evolved in Europe and the United States may not be suitable for other cultures. “
Elsewhere, the march towards democracy is lower profile with important moves to decentralise power in Jordan and Iraq. Governments have come to understand that bringing decision making closer to local people and involving them in the process helps to build enduring civic institutions and makes the easy answers promised by extremists less tempting. This new confidence in democracy is bolstered by the ability to involve local experts, academics and representative groups in creating effective policies for their own communities.
Central government is usually untainted by corruption or incompetence and genuinely has the interests of citizens at its heart but it is still unlikely to understand the factors that influence different regional groups and there is great temptation to impose top down, one size fits all policies in the mistaken view that what is good for one community is good for everyone. Decentralisation of powers and budgets improves the quality of decision making.
It is ironic that whilst so much of the world is decentralising power, the European Union based in Brussels is intent on building super national institutions and subsuming nations into a United States of Europe.
Power to the People
Last year I had the privilege of working with politicians on their plans to decentralise power. The newly elected local councillors I met were filled with excitement. Fears of parochialism and inability to grasp complex policy arguments were largely unfounded. I found an inspiring enthusiasm to help their communities stand on their own feet by investing in transport infrastructure and developing thriving tourism, manufacturing and agricultural industries.
In an age of social media, councillors also understood the importance of good education and engaging with young people as well as encouraging more women to take up roles in politics.
A key feature of local democracy is that it is allowed to develop in its own way, guided not by central government but by the needs of local people. There is a great deal of valuable international support for these projects but some of it is inflexible. Democracy does not come in a neat box that can just be handed to people and the structures that have evolved in Europe and the United States may not be suitable for other cultures. I believe it is important to work with new councillors over time, offering advice but always remembering that not all of my own experience may work for them.
Learning from your own mistakes is good but learning from other peoples’ mistakes is even better.
Local politicians are likely to be better known to their electorate. They have a better understanding of the community’s needs and they know the key individuals – academics, union leaders, business owners and religious figures – who can provide advice and help to engage the public. In the longer term some of them will become very effective advocates when the case for more spending or greater powers has to be made to central government.
The London Experience
I was fortunate to be part of the new tier of government for London when it was first elected in 2000 and I have seen it develop and grow in confidence over four terms of office.
Initially it is fair to say that there were many doubts. Were these new politicians sufficiently competent to manage a great world city? Would we be too parochial and inward looking? Would we grasp the opportunities offered by the power to make our own decisions and take responsibility for 8 million residents, commuters and tourists?
We were lucky to have two Mayors in succession who were not afraid to challenge the boundaries set for the Greater London Authority and who used the initially limited powers imaginatively to achieve change. The introduction of a city wide congestion charge was a considerable challenge and national government had a poor record of implementing such complex projects on time and within budget, so the 2003 start of the scheme was a significant feather in the cap of the new authority.
Just two years later, in July 2005, London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Governments had tried and failed to win bids in the past but this time the successful cooperation between the Greater London Authority and the Government Department of Culture, Media and Sport was a deciding factor.
In 2007 the government decentralised further housing and planning powers to London and soon afterwards the London Overground rail network was handed over to the city.
Of course, there are more powers that London Government would like to have but the direction is positive and the successful hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games demonstrated once more the benefits of decentralising powers to our community. We now have a new Mayor in Sadiq Khan and it remains to be seen how he will build on the legacy of his distinguished predecessors.
Our experience in London is valuable but decentralisation will develop in different ways elsewhere. There is no ‘one size fits all’ model.
Some challenges appear to be common to decentralisation projects.
To start with, powers are always limited. Central government is reluctant to give up its powers and harbours genuine concerns that local politicians may not be able to shoulder serious responsibilities. Councillors should be imaginative about interpreting decentralisation laws and should seek to make the best use of powers they initially have, with an eye on powers they would like to take on in future.
Budgets are seen as insufficient and there are usually demands for more money. I advise councillors to scrutinise and understand their existing budgets before asking for more. Centrally imposed budgets contain administrative waste and spending on services which are not appropriate to local needs. Identifying this money and applying it to more beneficial services is key to sound financial management. Government is more likely to provide extra cash when they are reassured that it will be invested effectively.
Public expectations also need to be managed. It is tempting for candidates to make promises they cannot deliver but the first year of office will actually be spent learning about the services and the budget they are responsible for. Realistically, major change is going to take several years to implement.
Nevertheless, it is very heartening to see the enthusiasm for decentralisation in the Middle East. In London the development of a new municipal authority has been on occasions frustrating, but more often exciting and rewarding. Elsewhere, the journey will be just as exciting.