9 Nov 2009

Bora kujenga daraja

Hi,

Welcome to my new blog, covering the ideas and work of Daraja, a innovative new organisation working to make local government more responsive to the community in rural Tanzania.

The idea of the blog is partly to encourage wider discussion of the kind of issues Daraja is tackling and the challenges we face in doing so, partly as a form of newsletter for keeping Daraja's friends and supporters up to date on our work, and partly a quick and simple way of floating new ideas. It's therefore a bit of a mixed bag, a bit rough and ready, but hopefully will have enough of a common thread to make sense.

I'll leave discussion of the big issues of good governance, decentralisation for another post, but for the moment, a few words about why a group of us felt there was a need to create Daraja.

Local government in Tanzania theoretically has a major role to play in delivering public services and alleviating poverty. Rural water supply, schools, primary health care facilities, rural roads and agricultural extension services are all overseen by local government authorities, accountable to an elected local council. The potential of this decntralised system to deliver services in line with genuine local needs and priorities is huge, but ten years since the system was put in place, its potential remains unfulfilled.

Why? Well, as with most things, there is no one single simple answer. But we can identify some contributory factors.

1. There's very little pressure on local officials to listen to local voices and take the community's interests into account when making decisions. Councils are weak and councillors are themselves under little pressure to represent their constituents effectively: there's usually no viable opposition and very little news of councillors' activities gets back to the community. Local media is almost entirely non-existent, and civil society hardly represents the majority.

2. Central government and donors main claim to support decentralisation, but in practice they're often reluctant to let local government make its own decisions. This leaves local officials with little room to take local priorities into account and local citizens with little to gain from trying to influence decisions.

3. Governance practices and culture works against responsive government. Transparency is the exception rather than the norm, and mismanagement and poor performance are widespread, expected and even accepted by the community. The rights of citizens to ask questions, to raise their voices, to challenge corrupt officials, etc, are often far from being accepted by government in practice, and even by society as a whole.

These are the kind of issues Daraja will be developing innovative ways to address. Creating opportunities for citizens to make their voices heard, putting local government officials under pressure to take the community's interests into account and to raise their performance, finding ways for donors and national government to support rather than undermine local responsiveness, working to improve access to information, etc, etc.

When I introduce these ideas to people, I usually get one of two possible responses: that it's work that's desperately needed, and that we should expect to face a fair bit of resistance from people with vested interests in the status quo. I take both views as a sign that we're on the right track.

I reckon that's plenty. Let me leave it there for now.

Best wishes,
Ben