Local Government Reform and Decentralisation in The Gambia Putting the enabling legislation and institutional processes into motion
Friday, June 27, 2008
The Gambia adopted decentralization in accordance with sections 193 and 194 of the constitution of the Republic (1997). The constitution provides for local government spheres, running along side the central government in the state.
At section 193 (1) it says: local government administration in the Gambia shall be based on a system of democratically elected councils with a high degree of local autonomy. Section 194(1) states; an Act of the national assembly shall make provision for functions, powers and duties of local government authorities.
The constitution prescribes organic roles and functions for local government authorities in accordance with the rule of law, and it provides directives for the identification, devolution and implementation of competences from central to local government territories. Further at section 214 (3) dealing with the directive principles of state policy, the constitution says: The state shall be guided by the principle of decentralisation and devolution of government functions and powers to the people at appropriate levels of control to facilitate democratic governance.
In the 1997 Policy Framework Document (Vision 2020) it states...."To encourage participatory government and balanced development, government shall pursue an intensive political and institutional decentralisation process. This will contribute to poverty alleviation and diffuse the different socio-economic tensions.."
With the constitutional provisions above, the directives provided in Vision 2020, the promulgation of the local government Act 2002 and the finance and audit Act 2004, the holding of local government elections and reconstitution of democratic local government authorities all based on wide consultations with all sections of society, The Gambia has now established a common arrangement for the viability of decentralization.
The local government Act 2002 and the local government finance and audit Act 2004 provide together the legislative framework for the regulation and implementation of local government. They present the main frame for good local governance and the enabling institutional and local democratic environment towards poverty alleviation and the achievement of the MDGs in the Gambia.
1.2 Issues and constraints
Much progress has been achieved in the Gambia's decentralisation process particularly in the areas of legislative and institutional reforms. Up to now however, some of the legislative policies and institutional arrangements prescribed in the local government Act 2002 and the finance and audit Act 2004 remain to be fully defined, established and operational, while the hand over of authority to the local councils is being pursued, albeit gradually in an environment characterized by low levels of human, financial and institutional resources in the councils.
The enabling accounting policies and procedures for them to operate are not yet in place and the transfer of full responsibility for financial management may pose problems and strain local capacity in the short run. The country financial accountability assessment (2005) had actually highlighted management gaps in many cases at council level with unrealistic budgeting, cash based transactions and delays in the preparation of accounts etc.
For the councils to be able to achieve an acceptable level of accountability and transparency they will have to face the challenge of understanding and tackling these issues individually. In the past few years, government established a policy outline for decentralization, and in addition to the basic legal frame work, strategies have were formulated in the establishment of multi disciplinary facilitation teams (MDFTs) regional development funds, local government service commissions.
The local government service scheme and pension policies, a communication and public sensitization plan, the identification and rationalisation of local government sector competencies, local government capacity building, the strategy for decentralized planning and development, fiscal decentralization and a system for the monitoring and evaluation of decentralization.
Translating broad policy and the enabling legislation into practical results on the ground may be the most task now facing the process of decentralisation in the Gambia. The local government Act 2002 provides for the establishment of local government territories, functions, powers, responsibilities, compositions of local government authorities and the eligibility criteria for the selection, nomination and election of functionaries of local government bodies.
The finance and audit Act 2004 provides the authority to councils for the allocation, disbursement and reporting of local, national and international public funds for the administration of local government and the implementation of local government projects. In a nutshell this Act prescribes the financial powers and responsibilities of councils. The exact implication of the prescribed authority for the transfer of financial affairs to the councils from central government however may not be fully understood by all, and also presently individual councils may not be fully prepared for the additional responsibility in the short run.
2.1 The Way forward
To help the transition proceed smoothly, much of the enabling legislation may need to be converted from general principles into more precise guidelines that are understood by all including other government agencies, NGOs, civil society organisations and local communities. The capacities of councils and stakeholders need to be enhanced and central government roles and functions need to be transferred to give meaning to the constitutional prescriptions on decentralization.
A consolidated plan of Action on decentralization needs to be developed with the participation of all stakeholders. The administrative procedures for the implementation of the provisions of the finance and audit Act (eg, budget approval, government subventions, personnel management and pensions etc) need to be clarified.
An accounting policy and manual of accounting procedures, based on the provisions of the prescribed finance and audit Act and consistent with international accounting standards is required. This should take into account the observations in the country financial accountability assessment. (CFAA) with the aim to set out in clear terms the responsibilities of the centre and the periphery in relation to the requirements of the law and proscribe, inter alia, the steps for budget preparation and approval, central government subventions; and auditing.
In the context of the provisions on planning and development for example, multi-disciplinary facilitation teams (MDFTs) were proposed as an out reach strategy for mobilising and guiding extension resources at Ward and Village levels. They have been given an important role in the training of the village development committees and ward development committees in the participatory planning and development process.
In decentralisation practice however, the idea of MDFTs proposes a horizontal approach to extension and outreach and it requires extension workers of all sector and thematic agencies in the field to adopt the methodology. For the approach to be coherent and efficient, line departments of state may have to decentralise and allow their field units and agents to come under local management.
This obviously may take some time before it can be realised however attractive the concept may be. There is also the need to consider the cost effectiveness and efficiency of the MDFT approach itself. In view of the apparent high cost of maintenance of the teams in relation to available local resources, they may not be sustainable in the longer term without the appropriate transfer of resources from central government to councils. The establishment of MDFTs need to be consistent with the human and financial resource bases of the councils.
2.4 Service scheme, commissions and pension schemes
Local government authorities are autonomous and are responsible for their own staff. The local government Act 2002 provides for a local government service scheme but each council is expected to constitute its own pension scheme and public service commission. These legal provisions constitute significant characteristics of the process of decentralisation itself.
There is need therefore for them to be formulated into operational strategies based on a mechanism which is both consistent and in line with the resource bases of councils. In managing this transition a number of concrete issues are likely to emerge. There are genuine concerns that establishing more formal bodies in the councils may be onerous both financially and in terms of the human resource capacity for the councils.
It may not be easy to cater for staff mobility within the system, as people move between councils for jobs with councils operating different pension schemes. It may not be easy also to find a suitable arrangement which can be put in place for managing the pension liabilities of current staff. Perhaps more critically, given the extra and specialised administrative task, individual councils may realistically not be able to manage staff pension funds on their own? The enabling legislation and the implementation arrangements on these issues will need to be understood and shared.
Kemo Conteh is a Senior partner specialised on Governance Development and Management Services.
To be continued
Author: by Kemo Conteh