Accountability and Democracy: Can the Grassroots Keep Local Governments Honest?
Ramón Daubón, Vice President for Programs at the Inter-American Foundation, along with Andrew Selee, Director of the Mexico Insitute at the Wilson Center, presented their view on holding this meeting with specialists and officials in local government: the importance of working with municipalities and the strengthening of the grassroots/local spaces in Latin America to enhance mobilization, citizenship, and development. Daubón also highlighted the need for a political agenda on governance and how to provide tools for citizen participation, key themes which will be discussed at the "Inter-American Conference on Mayors and Local Authorities" in Miami in June 2005.
Sergio Ernesto Zurano, one of the participants at the roundtable, shared perhaps the most notable and unprecedented cases in Argentina: the transformation of the municipality of Morón. Once "known for its corruption," Morón has become highly transparent in the course of five years. Zurano, who is head of the Department of Management and Anti-Corruption Office of this municipality, explained that at the beginning of this transformative project, there were corruption scandals and large debts left by previous administrations. Moreover, the Mayor and other local government officials lacked experience in the area and citizens were filled with distrust. The Mayor and his team convoked a "special commission" made up of all political blocs, and through (citizen) majority vote, named a defensor del pueblo (ombudsman). Other steps have included giving Morón townspeople the right to denounce anything that appears to be "illegitimate"; the creation of a commission to monitor public spending; the formation of a manual to outline the mission and responsibility assigned to each rank of public official; a notary public to review reports presented by local officials on their accomplishments; an evaluation of citizen participation; last but not least, public spending and local government transactions are posted on the municipal webpage. Zurano argued that through checks and balances not only are officials pressured to act more responsibly, but citizens of the grassroots have access to information and gain power to participate.
Another Argentine speaker, Adriana Clemente, who is Director of the Social Policy and Poverty Program and professor of Social Work at the University of Buenos Aires, spoke of the creation of municipal councils in Argentina, in part, a result of the economic and political crisis of 2001. Of the 2,200 municipalities in Argentina, 70% gathered in the formation of these councils, mainly consisting of volunteers. These councils played an active role in their respective municipalities, in ensuring the fair distribution of unemployment assistance. Councils served as a vehicle for local development, claimed Clemente, and were given the task of "watchdog" for local spending. The transferring of funds from municipalities to these councils was a means to provide subsidies to the impoverished and to aid in the crisis.
Clemente observed that lack of experience of volunteers and their minimal lobbying capacity, added to overwhelming administrative tasks, impeded the councils from having a significant impact. Another weakness was that the agenda of each council was not clearly defined; perhaps a reflection of the level of democracy in the country. Clemente recommended that if public authority does not provide accurate information, then the goal of having councils is defeated; the same is true with the crucial need for council's to plan a strategic agenda in order to have long-term impact.
Other guests highlighted recommendations and raised important questions. Enrique Gallichio, a sociologist from Uruguay, asked "How can we combat corruption and better accountability?" He pinpointed at civic participation, strategic planning in governance, the economy, and social capital, and the importance of evaluating the impact of this "trial and error" process of decentralization and democratization at large. Rodrigo Serrano of the World Bank, on the other hand, questioned the tension between government and civil society in "collaborating" and "controlling" one another in an arduous and "critical friendship."
Ramón Daubón of the IAF concluded by emphasizing that "the development of the grassroots is the key to development." To that he added that the discovery of a
common will/common good can only be realized through dialogue in what he coined a "civic process." A common obstacle in Latin America, believes Daubón, is that the idea of local government is not yet strong enough: Latin Americans often believe they have "one" government, the national one. Yet cases like the Municipality of Morón in Argentina are enlightening and may serve as an example to the region.