Mobilising citizens as active participants in the budget-making process

Thursday, 5 April 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

“A representative democracy such as ours does not expect an active citizen. Participation is only expected in selecting their representatives to the governing bodies,” observes Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda. “It is only within the framework of neoliberal democracy that the concept of continued citizens’ participation has been analysed,” said the senior academic from Colombo University.

These critical remarks were reinforced over and over again in the sharing by leaders of citizens’ forums from four districts on 22 March during the first stakeholder consultation of the Active Citizens for Development Network.

In addition to the four partner organisations: the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR), Law & Society Trust (LST), National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) and the Uva Community Development Centre (UCDC); other participants including academics, former senior civil servants, researchers, representatives of national and international Non-Government Organisations and media personnel.

In under a year and amidst many challenges and constraints, especially in the north and east, hundreds of men and women have been organised into village and district-level citizens’ forums in Ampara, Badulla, Colombo, Jaffna, Kalutara, Kegalle, Mannar, Monaragala and Trincomalee to become active citizens in budget-monitoring in their pradeshiya sabhas.

Dysfunctional Pradeshiya Sabhas

Members of citizens’ forums from the north and east highlighted the dysfunction of pradeshiya sabhas and breakdown of local government bodies through irregular elections and dangerous environment of decades of war.

“Both the people and their elected representatives do not know the role and function of Local Government bodies,” admitted the Chairman of Valikamam North pradeshiya sabha.

Even though many development activities are conducted by local government, most of them do not meet the needs and wishes of the people. Citizens feel excluded from the development process and alienated from their local government authorities. The reason is plain, according to Raheem Nana from Trincomalee, there is no structured and ongoing dialogue between the local people and their representatives.

“If the committees of the pradeshiya sabhas are willing to receive submissions from the people; and if the meetings of the pradeshiya sabha itself can be observed by citizens through mechanisms such as ‘public galleries,’” said Nana, “then the distance between the people and local government can be bridged somewhat while people-oriented development policies are taken forward”.

Development must be an inclusive process

“People, having chosen their representatives at local level, have an equal right to participate at decision-making processes despite diversities of caste, class or creed,” stated Nishantha Kumara Marasinghe, of the Kegalle Citizens’ Forum.

He went on to explain how communities from the pottery caste and estate Tamils in Kegalle are discriminated and prevented from participating in any collective organisation to lobby their issues. Through the inclusive process of Citizens’ Forums, they have been able to communicate with the relevant local government officials to obtain material benefits and social equity.

Mixed experiences

Reports from participants illustrated that some local authorities appeared to be more willing to encourage people’s participation reflecting the mixed experience of citizens forums across the country.

“We have been able to open the public gallery of Passara Pradeshiya Sabha and four members from the Citizens’ Forums have been able to participate at the public committees. Further, we have been able to observe and monitor sessions of Passara and Lunugala Pradeshiya Sabhas,” said Nandani Rajapaksha, a Citizens’ Forum member from Badulla.

Consequently, members of Citizen Forums have been able to develop networks with members of pradeshiya sabha and national and local level stakeholders to lobby their issues, submit proposals and monitor programmes for the benefit of the masses in the relevant areas.

Sharing the experience of Transparency International Sri Lanka, Nauli Wimalarathne said, “We encourage people’s participation as well as local government officials through knowledge empowerment which assists to reduce bribery and corruption and promote good governance.”

Speaking with over five decades of experience in public administration, former senior civil servant and diplomat Lionel Fernando accepted that “there is a great need for a bottom-up development process for the benefit of the masses”.

Local Government subordinated to central Government

“Although the pradeshiya sabha is presumed to be the bridge between people and central government, the assistance of the bureaucrats and government officials functioning at local level in the villages are sought after by the masses to resolve problems. People do not seek the help of their elected representatives. The pradeshiya sabha is not seen as a useful body for reasons such as lack of resources and the consequent limitations in service provision,” argued Jayadeva Uyangoda.

He underlined that the central government itself views local government institutions as subordinate bodies.

“We need ‘home-grown’ frameworks for citizens’ participation in governance processes which focus primarily on achieving social equity and justice; concepts which are inadequately represented in current projects on participation processes targeting the masses,” said the governance expert to the agreement of the representatives of the citizens forums.