Realising the rights of marginalised citizens in decentralisation policy: Lessons from León

By Ross Wain

In urban local governance marginalised citizens’ human rights are realised by achieving greater accountability and participation in governance, through increasing these citizens’ power in decision-making processes. Decentralisation policy must go beyond procedural democracy that simply creates institutional structures, to be designed with an explicit normative goal of ensuring that marginal groups become independent political actors with the ability to compete for resources (Luckham et al. 2000). Nicaragua’s Healthy Municipality Initiative is a decentralisation process piloted in the city of León. The context that made it so successful can be understood counterfactually to instruct a human rights approach to decentralisation policy when such a context does not exist. 

For marginalised citizens’ human rights in governance to be realised, there must be capacity within civil society to participate in decision-making fora at the local level. Such capacity was extant in León. The presence of the Movimiento Comunal, a large urban social movement, meant that marginalised citizens were able to exploit the political space opened through decentralisation by organising assemblies which transmitted popular policies to local government using the Movimiento Comunal’s power and capacity. Accompanying this meso-level context of an organised civil society manifested in a social movement, there is a micro-level context with regard to capacity in the form of an understanding of democratic rights. This understanding was present In León due to a history of political participation in the city. Local communities participated in popular local government and service provision when the state was incapacitated during the political unrest of the 1970s and 1980s. 

Notwithstanding, urban decentralisation is often not implemented in a context of a capacitated citizenry, neither in terms of a developed civil society nor the political awareness which are both exemplified in the León case. Factors inhibiting political participation include literacy, income, geographical and social isolation, and information asymmetry with more powerful local actors. This leads to a deficit of political capital, which can be defined as a lack of understanding of political and democratic norms and rights. 

Without knowledge on which to base decisions, citizens cannot act in politics (Merrifield 2002). The type of knowledge required is not a technical understanding of politics but ‘information shortcuts’ (Popkin & Dimock 1999:17) which are manifested in an understanding of how government and politics function, and are acquired through experience. The state therefore has a vital role in realising human rights in governance by designing policy that ensures marginalised citizens can participate in local governance and develop political capital through experiential learning, in what Fung and Wright (2001:17) term a ‘virtuous circle of reciprocal reinforcement’. 

This is achieved by the state creating political space with an ideological commitment to the participation of marginalised citizens. Gaventa (2004) delineates three types of political space; closed space where there is no political will to broaden participation; invited space where there is political will to broaden participation; and created space where citizens use their own agency to claim space from the centre. For decentralisation to realise the human rights of marginalised citizens there must be invited space constructed by the state capacitating and incentivising citizens, and this leads to created space produced by citizens engaging in political activity. 

To construct invited space, decentralisation policy should seek to circumvent traditional power structures. Breaking knowledge barriers is vital to this, achieved through ‘paraprofessional training’ in political engagement (Fung & Wright 2001:29), such as the mandated participation of marginalised groups in political fora. Along with this capacitation there must also be incentivisation. Local units must be empowered so that citizens’ inputs will result in favourable outputs, for example through fiscal decentralisation. Marginalised groups are found in political environments where entrenched elites and burgeoning entrepreneurial elites seek to exploit decentralised decision making power. Therefore centrally coordinated vertical accountability is vital to prevent elites capturing power. Policy should engage what Evans (2002) terms an ecology of agents which may include other decentralised units, local political parties, the media, NGOs, CSOs, and GROs.

Such processes will only be implemented by a state with an ideological commitment to increasing grassroots democratisation though institutional reform. The state must be aware of the environment in which it is decentralising power in order to create synergy with marginalised groups through a decentralisation process which is designed to foster participation, representation, accountability and capacity building at the local level. The role of marginalised citizens in realising their human rights in governance by occupying political space is vital, however the level of capacity for this as seen in the León case is not the norm. Thus, iterative decentralisation policy must incorporate the counterfactual from the León case and make specific commitments to creating political space for marginalised citizens. 

About the Author:
Ross Wain graduated from The University of Manchester in 2011 with an MA in International Development: Politics and Governance. Ross’ research interests concern human rights and governance, particularly in the Latin America and Caribbean region, working with organisations including The Peru Support Group and the International Institute for Environment and Development.

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