Following the Constitutional Reform process in 1999-2000 (precipitated by violent street protests and ethnic violence by the PNC), the PPP and PNC instituted a Special Committee on Local Government Reform to devolve more autonomy than in the 1980 Constitutional adumbrations on Local Government. It took sixteen years for five new pieces of legislation — the Local Authorities (Elections) (Amendment) Act 2009, the Municipal and District Councils (Amendment) Act 2013, the Fiscal Transfers Act 2013, the Local Government Commission Act 2013, and the Local Government (Amendment) Act 2015 – to be enacted.
With local government elections held since 2016, we have some experience with our present legal framework for some opinions to be formed on realising the goals articulated for the process: greater powers placed in the hands of the people under the principle of subsidiarity. That is, in matters of governance, it is best that decisions be made at the lowest practical level.
This becomes more relevant because local government elections are supposed to be held by the end of this year. The essential question is whether, under the present system, people at the local level are making more decisions on matters that affect them. This is problematic because the framers still envisage local government only in terms of “decentralisation”. The challenge arises from the fact that power still emanates from a “centre”, from which it is expected to flow outwards – which almost occurs without Constitutional protection from the centre.
While most Guyanese are skeptical of the word “federalism” to describe the governance structure, because of a misguided call for “partition” back in the sixties and “federalism” is somehow associated with this backward notion, we need a mechanism to ensure that local power is not cannibalised by Central Government over time. Call it what you will, unless the powers or “competencies” of the local entities are constitutionally protected, and not subject to alteration unless by mutual agreement, the Central Government will inevitably poach and encroach.
Another possible change might be a pre-1980 reversion: for “local government” to go below the NDCs and start with the Village Councils – a unique Guyanese contribution to democracy. This is in consonance with the modern notion of “subsidiarity”. After the abolition of slavery, the freed Africans established several villages on their own initiative. They created Village Councils to run the affairs of their communities, and these Councils were the incubators of much of the leadership in the African community, forming their links to the county and national Governments. The Councils, through their various committees, such as drainage etc., were able to develop local expertise in managing organisations.
The Indians, by and large, remained on the sugar plantations for another century after slavery, and those who moved off mostly remained rural-bound. The new and massive housing schemes created by the sugar companies from the early fifties were all centred on the plantations, and the affairs of these communities were run by a Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Fund (SILWF), which perpetuated the paternalistic rule of the “big manager” of the plantation. The new Indian villages formed outside the ambit of the sugar plantations, on rented land, did not establish village councils, and so, to an extent far greater than the African community, they are deficient in the mechanics of running and organising their local affairs.
The Indigenous Peoples were always the most excluded from the running of their own affairs. Their traditional village structures were undermined by the Catholic Church, which, in a de facto manner, assumed administration over them. While there has been a resuscitation of the traditional village leadership, this also has been left wounded.
Any revival of the Village Movement in other parts of Guyana will have to be accompanied by an intensive non-political programme of education in the running of these bodies. The community will have to receive a new focus for several reasons, but primarily because it has been neglected by policymakers in not realising its role in the organisation of the activities of the citizenry through cooperation via the ties of affinity, rather than the coercive ethos of the state.