Local Governance: Strategic Level of Democratic Governance
The Notes du jeudi (Thursday Notes) recently dealt with the French conception of governance.  One of the important orientations of this strategy concerns the articulation among different levels of governance, in which the local level takes on particular importance. Far from being a “luxury” for countries with few capacities and financial resources, local governance is one of the conditions of development, at the intersection of democracy, the supply of public services and economic progress.
The local level is today considered to be a central issue for the success of development policies and the fight against poverty. It is an integral part of the democratic governance strategies of France, the European Commission and other donors (World Bank, UNDP).
I - Local Governance and Reform of the State
1 - A Necessary Additional Link
The State is often the level of governance that has experienced the deepest disturbances these last few years, both structural and historical. Structural adjustment policies, by favoring credit-worthiness alone, have reduced its area of intervention and its prestige. More fundamentally, the State is able to form a relatively artificial social space that does not necessarily reflect the historical construction of a will to live together. It does not always correspond to a viable economic space or to the organization of a highly structured national economy. Finally, it often artificially cuts off cross-border human and commercial flows.
For all these reasons, and beyond reform of administrations and public sectors and support for democratization processes and construction of the rule of law, local governance has gradually become vital to any reform that aims to deal with the problems of democratic transition and development, as demonstrated by the very general movement towards decentralization observed over the past few decades, including in Africa. Today, in numerous countries, the legal and institutional framework is in place. Local elections are held. This development is an incontestable asset for local democracy.
For all that, in numerous countries the results are mixed, in view of the increase in poverty, insecurity and institutional instability. Interactions between the local and national levels are frequently marked by distrust. Local actors sometimes perceive the transfer of authority as a means for the State to rid itself of areas for which it does not have the means to be responsible. State actors often feel that the local level is a threat or competitor. In the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP), it is sometimes noted that the reality of decentralization is not yet integrated into the central level of States. These weaknesses accentuate the perception that public institutions and their policies lack legitimacy and effectiveness. The establishment of new regulations and plans of action is not sufficient to overcome these handicaps.
2 - Relegitimation of Public Action
In this context, an essential objective is to encourage complementarity between the State and the local level as a factor for restoring the legitimacy and effectiveness of public policy by relying on the articulation among the different levels (local, national, regional, global). The local level contributes to the processes of reforming public policy and defending the general interest as well as participation and citizen responsibility.
The local level is, in fact, likely to provide complementary responses as an application of the principle of subsidiarity. Next to the central administrations, local communities and civil society are called on to assert themselves as major actors. They act as foundations for local development, on the one hand, and participatory and local democracy, on the other hand.
Support for the construction of municipal authority (elections, municipal council, strengthening of capacities, civil society information...) and the consistency of decentralization policies for issues at the national level are essential. From this point of view, decentralization can contribute, where it is possible in terms of human and financial resources, to maintaining the articulation between different levels of authority and territorial cohesion, particularly between urban and rural locations.
3 - From the Appropriation of Public Policies to Negotiated Public Policies
At the local level, the impact of bad governance on the population and on its confidence in public institutions is direct.
Local territory, living space, citizenship training, concrete confrontation of different interests and legitimacies, cohabitation of different ethnic groups, management of relations between the society and its environment, and space for numerous economic processes should all be considered as the basic level that must be consolidated and organized in mobilizing actors for governance.
The number of actors involved in the decision-making process and the legitimacy of the decision are factors for distinguishing between governance and government. With governance, the processes of working-out the decision are as important as the decision (the result) itself. Its conceptualization and implementation require agreement by the actors concerned.
Attention should be focused not only on the structures, but also, above all, on the interaction of the actors, on the interest groups and their interactions. The object of the change is not limited to institutions, rules, and the competences of each level of authority. It also concerns the articulations between the different levels of governance.
However, one should be wary of considering the local level as exempt by nature from the excesses of the central authority. Also it is particularly important to fight against practices such as corruption that have a direct negative effect on the delivery of essential services and citizenship (taxation in particular) and have a particularly demobilizing impact. The fight against corruption at the local level is, however, only one of the numerous aspects of constructing local policy.
4 - Decentralization
Among the different means existing to develop local governance, the decentralizing option, which is generally part of a highly urbanized context, is often presented as the most appropriate solution to the problems of a failing State. Decentralization implies sharing power, resources and responsibilities and ought to make it possible geographically to create connections among different parts of the population to facilitate participation in decision-making. In this context, the role of the public actor changes: rather than acting for the community, the role of municipal officials consists in being, as much as possible, a catalyst of citizen action, by providing assistance or by facilitating the interaction between actors. That requires constantly being in touch with initiatives, expectations and plans. It is a question of renouncing political action imposed from above.
This change also implies that the concept of general interest remain at the center of local action. The elected representatives are the guarantee of that. However, it ought to be examined as a function of local realities and adapted to the specific situations of each country. To accomplish that, French development policies deal with decentralization in two directions: the will for democratic renewal and the search for a new path to development.
II - The Axes of French Assistance Strategy
1 - Orientations
We are in a “transition” phase today, where political decisions initiating decentralization are often already made, but the local development resulting from this decentralization has not yet begun. Our aid is thus designed to create and support the emergence of this orientation. It is organized around a set of support policies for: decentralization and devolution policies carried out by States, associations of local elected officials, the strengthening of local communities, mobilization of human and financial resources, improving living conditions for citizens through access to basic services and the satisfaction of fundamental needs, sustainable economic development by mobilization of local actors and processes, democratization, respect for the rule of law, and participation of citizens. All these dimensions encourage, moreover, settling conflicts of interest and disputes, be they local or cross-border.
The approach followed by French assistance encompasses the various levels involved:
the level of States, through support for ministries responsible for decentralization, in order, particularly, to facilitate transfers of competences and means and undertake the adaptation and modernization of the central and devolved administrations concerned;
the level of national associations of local elected officials, whose capacities for expertise are often weak. These associations have an important role to play in structuring the municipal movement of countries. They are also the natural and indispensable interlocutors of the State concerning regulation;
the level of local communities, through strengthening the capacities for administrative, financial and technical services that are as essential as improving local finances and capacities for acting as the contracting authority. Decentralized assistance and organizations for international solidarity have an important role to play in this regard;
the level of civil society: local governance implies the mobilization and articulation of all strong forces and the establishment of true local coalitions to carry out the changes necessary to improve the living conditions of the population;
the regional level, both continental and international, particularly through support for MDP (Municipal Development Partnership) programs. This organization  assists the countries of West and Central Africa to establish their decentralization policy. The emergence of a continental organization, United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLGA)  , which is working for the recognition of the African municipal movement before regional and continental bodies, and technical and financial partners for development should also be supported.
Likewise, the project for creating a world research institute for local governance and decentralization in partnership with UCLG, UNITAR (United Nations Institute for Training and Research) and UN-HABITAT as well as a training program that aims at equipping local communities with a greater capacity for managing public affairs should be supported.
2 - Strengthening Capacities
At all these levels, the strengthening of capacities is a major issue. Strengthening capacities is part of the course of improving decision-making processes while taking into account the various actors in those processes. It aims at consolidating the legitimacy and competences of public institutions, on the one hand, and the possibility for a real exercise of the citizen’s freedoms, on the other.
The strengthening of capacities concerns both the human and institutional levels and results from the formation and support of public spaces of dialogue between actors. Within the context of its support for local governance and reform of the State, France supports the formation of local alliances between recently created local communities and multiple actors from civil society who have long been active in numerous areas.
It is appropriate then to:
strengthen and train all actors so that they can interact;
create or strengthen the public spaces in which these interactions can develop, places of dialogue and alliances.
3 - Financial Resources
It is indispensable to put communities in a position to act. In order to do that, it is important that they be able to draw on financial resources for investment, which is not often the case given the limited resources at their disposal, allowing for exceptions. The sheer size of communities’ needs for equipment and maintenance leads one to suppose that recourse to borrowing for investment in the cities will gradually become essential. But this solution is not possible everywhere.
Some serious reflection is necessary then. The solution cannot come solely from budgetary transfers from the center to local communities, in many cases impractical given the impecuniousness of numerous States. Beyond the assistance that international donors could be led to provide to local governments, it is indeed the problem of developing local resources and local taxation that is of central concern. The DGCID (Direction générale de la coopération internationale et du développement - Directorate General for International Co-operation and Development) takes part in research in this area.
Governance does not mean less State, but a reformed State, guarantor and arbiter of the general interest. This concept makes it possible to take into account the challenge to the traditional boundaries of the State by opening the latter to other actors and encouraging its interaction with them, particularly with citizens and different levels of authority. The examples of the initiatives of cross-border populations in Africa for peace, stability and development are revealing of the importance of the sociological, local and concrete foundation of regional integration.
Local governance is going to give rise to new initiatives in French assistance in the months to come. The first FSP  project, concerning the promotion of democratic governance in Africa, will include a section for promoting the local agenda at the regional level and in relation to the African Union. Furthermore, within the framework of the 7th World Forum of the United Nations (the theme of which will be “strengthening confidence in government”) to be held in Vienna in June 2007, a workshop will be held on strengthening capacities for decentralization and local governance, in partnership with the Alliance for Rebuilding Governance in Africa and the MDP.
 See Note du jeudi nº 63 of 12 October 2006.
 The Municipal Development Partnership (MDP) is an association based in Cotonou that acts in support of local governance in the countries of West and Central Africa. Its members are the presidents of national associations of local elected officials of these two sub-regions. Its objectives are directed at promoting decentralization, facilitating dialogue between governments and local communities, structuring the municipal movement, developing local democracy, strengthening the competences of local communities, supporting local development, supporting regional integration and proposing tools and approaches for successful local governance. The MDP is mainly financed by France and Canada, since the World Bank has withdrawn its support.
 This is a world organization, of which the African branch is the most recent.
 Fonds de solidarité prioritaire (Priority Solidarity Funds — PSF) is the project aid instrument of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its purpose is to finance, solely by gifts, the support provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to countries in the Priority Solidarity Zone -PSZ — (Zone de solidarité prioritaire - ZSP) concerning institutional, social, and cultural development and research.