One of the three objectives of Trócaire’s new Governance and Human Rights programme (2011-2014) is “to increase the effective participation of citizens, especially women, the poor and marginalised, in local government decision and policy-making processes.” (Trócaire, 2011b: 11). As a first step towards this objective, this research aimed at investigating the effectiveness of and opportunities for citizen participation within the country’s evolving decentralisation process. The research was conducted over the period May-September, 2011 with a feedback workshop presenting preliminary findings held with programme partners in Bujumbura in September.
Research findings are presented and analysed in three principle sections. The first section draws from a wide range of studies conducted on decentralisation processes elsewhere in Africa to identify the benefits of the process and draw lessons from experiments in decentralisation elsewhere. The potential benefits of the process are identified as increasing local government responsibility and accountability to citizens; increasing local government flexibility to address diverse needs of citizens; reducing corruption through enhanced oversight; and fostering the dispersal of power across citizens and communities. These benefits are thought to lead to greater social and political stability while affording citizens a greater voice in both overseeing an influencing local government. The lessons on the ground from decentralisation experiments elsewhere reveal that these benefits are not guaranteed however. Key lessons include the fact that decentralisation is a long-term process, not a short-term solution and that, in the absence of active citizen engagement, can result in negative outcomes. Studies of processes elsewhere reveal that legal and political frameworks on their own are not enough; the importation of Western structures and institutions without due recognition of local structures results in failure; state commitment is key, as is fiscal and financial transparency at a local level; and that citizen participation is by no means guaranteed with widespread public distrust of and disaffection from political structures and processes mitigating against such participation.
A brief section on the history of decentralisation in Burundi reveals that, although the current process and procedures are new, decentralisation has had a long history in the country dating back to the colonial period. Contrary to the policy and procedures currently in place, decentralisation in the past has been implemented in a top-down manner, with accountability running upward from citizens to political authorities rather than downward resulting in a depletion of local resources and the political and social exclusion of citizens. Examining the government’s relevant legislative and policy texts for decentralisation today, it becomes clear that the government’s aim is now to reverse this exclusion with policy and procedures aimed at the active participation of citizens in planning and decision-making on developmental priorities within their local areas. The different opportunities for citizen participation in local processes together with local government accountability mechanisms are set out in this section.
Having examined the theory and policy of decentralisation, the second main findings section draws from field research in eight communes across the country to analyse how decentralisation works in practice. This section builds on comprehensive studies carried out on the process to date (see OAG, 2007, 2009, 2010; ABELO, 2009; Baltissan and Sentamba, 2011; Sentamba, 2011), to focus on an as yet understudied area – levels of citizen participation and local government accountability on the ground. The principle finding is that although locally elected officials at commune level demonstrate a good understanding and knowledge of the ethos, procedures and mechanisms for local accountability and citizen participation, local citizens themselves remain largely unaware of these. At hill level it is found that both hill council members and citizens are aware of just one of the three principle functions of hill councils. Consequently, as there is little incentive or pressure to operationalise these procedures, valuable opportunities for citizen participation are being overlooked, and local processes at present are falling short of the outcomes and results set out in government policy.
The third section discusses research findings in more detail to explore why this is the case. Four key issues pertinent to the roll-out of Trócaire’s GHR programme are identified. First, the importance of political history and culture are underlined and it is argued that, in the past, Burundi’s people have been treated more as subjects than citizens, with echoes of this past filtering through into contemporary political and social relations. Second, it is argued that, contrary to many other donor and NGO interventions in this area, the key obstacle may not be local capacity but rather local willingness to go against the grain and engage in the radical transformation of political and social relations required by the process. Third, given the enormity of the task in challenging these relations, it is argued that information provision / awareness raising / sensibilisation techniques alone will be insufficient. An intensive accompaniment of citizens in participating in the various structures is proposed. Fourth, and finally, a key challenge identified is overcoming both widespread (and understandable) disaffection with political life and the active exclusion – by both the state but also by family, friends and neighbours – of certain groups (notably women and members of the Batwa community) from public life.
The final section of the report re-sets the decentralisation process within the broader context of Burundi’s difficult past. Acknowledging that Trócaire’s partners face a formidable task in supporting citizens in their active and sustained participation within local structures, it is argued that the comprehensive and robust framework in place at local level for citizen participation offers a real opportunity to transform the inherently inequitable and oppressive system of the past. Failure to do so, it is argued, will lead only to frustration, anger and more conflict and it is clear that there is no appetite for more conflict and devastation on hills and within communes across the country. In this context a series of recommendations are made aimed at a coordinated, inclusive and intensive support to the process in targeted areas leading to tangible, meaningful and transformative outcomes for government and citizens alike.