De­cen­tralise lo­cal gov­ern­ment power

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION & COMMENTARY - Peter Espeut is a so­ci­ol­o­gist and ru­ral de­vel­op­ment sci­en­tist. Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­

BE­CAUSE POWER tends to cor­rupt, and ab­so­lute power cor­rupts ab­so­lutely (so said Lord Ac­ton), it is of the ut­most im­por­tance to en­sure that our politi­cians never have ab­so­lute power. This is why the prin­ci­ple of sub­sidiar­ity is of such great value.

Sub­sidiar­ity is the idea that a cen­tral au­thor­ity should per­form only those tasks that can­not be per­formed ef­fec­tively at a lower level. If a cen­tral au­thor­ity re­serves to it­self the re­spon­si­bil­ity to take de­ci­sions which could com­pe­tently be taken at a more lo­cal level, power be­comes con­cen­trated at the top, and we head to­wards tyranny and to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism.

Sub­sidiar­ity is the man­age­ment prin­ci­ple that gov­erns power-shar­ing in any fed­eral sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, and is in­te­gral to the oper­a­tions of the Euro­pean Union. It is also an im­por­tant com­po­nent in the logic of the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, es­sen­tial to avoid­ing pro­found con­flicts of in­ter­est.

For me, this is the most pow­er­ful rea­son Ja­maica needs strong lo­cal gov­ern­ment, for with­out par­ish coun­cil­lors, all power will re­side in the hands of mem­bers of par­lia­ment (MP). When it comes to gov­er­nance, we need all the checks and bal­ances we can get.


In three months, I will cel­e­brate 25 years writ­ing this col­umn, and one of my per­sis­tent themes over the years has been the im­por­tance of lo­cal gov­ern­ment. And just as per­sis­tently, the edi­tor of The Gleaner con­tin­ues to ar­gue for the abo­li­tion of par­ish coun­cils as an un­nec­es­sary layer of gov­er­nance. For ex­am­ple, two Satur­days ago, The Gleaner edi­tor wrote, in­ter alia:

“This news­pa­per has not, for a long time, been in sup­port of the main­te­nance of the par­ish coun­cils. They have, which­ever party is in con­trol of them, largely been in­com­pe­tently man­aged and used as a con­duit through which small-scale pa­tron­age is fun­nelled to the po­lit­i­cal hard core, the 30 per cent of the elec­torate who gen­er­ally vote.” (5 Novem­ber 2016).

I sub­mit that mis­man­age­ment and po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age are not re­stricted to lo­cal gov­ern­ment alone; in fact, over the years, cen­tral gov­ern­ment has been bet­ter at mis­man­age­ment and cor­rup­tion. Would The Gleaner edi­tor wish to abol­ish cen­tral gov­ern­ment also?

One of the prob­lems with so­called ‘lo­cal gov­ern­ment re­form’ over the years is that it treats par­ish coun­cils in iso­la­tion from cen­tral gov­ern­ment. It is im­pos­si­ble to re­form lo­cal gov­ern­ment with­out, at the same time, re­form­ing cen­tral gov­ern­ment.

Here is the cen­tral prob­lem: the Cabi­net, the ex­ec­u­tive arm of gov­ern­ment, has usurped the role of the leg­isla­tive arm by tak­ing con­trol of the law­mak­ing process. When last has a par­lia­men­tar­ian in­tro­duced an act or any piece of leg­is­la­tion in the House that has gone the dis­tance? They mostly seem to fall off the Or­der Pa­per, pushed out by leg­is­la­tion orig­i­nat­ing from Cabi­net. Our so-called leg­is­la­tors are re­duced to be­ing bench-thumpers.


With very lit­tle leg­is­lat­ing to do, our MPs have turned around and usurped the role of par­ish coun­cil­lors, get­ting in­volved in all sorts of lo­cal is­sues which are not their con­sti­tu­tional re­mit. And that is why lo­cal gov­ern­ment looks so use­less: be­cause MPs who are part of cen­tral gov­ern­ment daily tres­pass in their ter­ri­tory, sub­vert­ing the pow­ers of the par­ish coun­cil­lor, mak­ing them look re­dun­dant.

It’s a power grab: the Cabi­net grab­bing at the power of Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, and the MPs grab­bing at the power of par­ish coun­cil­lors.

This is why I have called for clear and un­am­bigu­ous job de­scrip­tions for MPs and coun­cil­lors to pre­vent over­lap. Re­form­ing lo­cal gov­ern­ment will not take place un­til the power of MPs is cur­tailed, which calls for the si­mul­ta­ne­ous re­form of cen­tral gov­ern­ment as well. One will not take place with­out the other.

Some lo­cal de­ci­sions just can­not be taken ef­fi­ciently by cen­tral gov­ern­ment.

The over­all re­sult will be a de­vo­lu­tion of real power to the parishes, and, there­fore, to ru­ral ar­eas, on lo­cal mat­ters, which can lead to gen­uine ru­ral de­vel­op­ment. Gen­uine lo­cal gov­ern­ment means that stake­hold­ers at the com­mu­nity level can par­tic­i­pate in a mean­ing­ful way in the gov­er­nance of their lo­cal af­fairs.

The way things are now, lo­cal de­vel­op­ment plan­ning is not done well, be­cause nei­ther MPs nor coun­cil­lors feel they are the ones em­pow­ered to drive it. Where are the lo­cal de­vel­op­ment plans – dis­trict by dis­trict – which will lead to ru­ral de­vel­op­ment? Is it re­ally the Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion that has the re­spon­si­bil­ity for ru­ral de­vel­op­ment? Does ru­ral de­vel­op­ment mean mak­ing an area more ur­ban?

Ja­maica needs a par­a­digm shift in gov­er­nance that will lead to more ef­fec­tive lo­cal de­vel­op­ment plan­ning and pros­per­ity. Let this be last lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tion that will sim­ply per­pet­u­ate the con­cen­tra­tion of power at the top.

Peter Espeut

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