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Municipal cooperation

Grassroots of democracy

by Peter Hauff

In brief

Bolivian women cleaning  the street in La Paz

Bolivian women cleaning the street in La Paz

Climate protection and human rights promotion need the helping hand of mayors and local organisations. The more democratic they are, the better. Intercontinental municipal partnerships can complete other development efforts by bringing people together and involving them directly.

Rarely has a natural disaster brought about such willingness to help in Germany as the tsunami that struck southeast Asia just after Christmas 2004 did. Some 300 aid projects were launched and are now considered completed. By the end of 2006, InWEnt had coordinated some 900 initiatives to assist the regions struck by the catastrophe. Along with individual citizens and schools, municipal authorities were the most important participants.

Although the tsunami has since disappeared from the public eye, a lot of municipalities are still in touch. For instance, InWEnt enabled the German town of Schwetzingen to construct an orphanage in Sri Lanka six years ago. Twenty-five children who lost their parents in the flood thus found a new home and go to school there too. Dramatic TV images are a thing of the past, but Schwetzingen plans to continue support for the orphanage long after federal support has expired. The city council has pledged financial assistance until 2016.

“Governmental development aid should be based on cooperation between municipalities far more,” says Helmut Müller, the mayor of Wiesbaden. He believes that elected members of municipal councils often act in a more sustainable way than central governments or foreign authorities can. Local officials, he argues, do not only have a statistical understanding of matters, but are used to thinking in local terms.

Similar tasks

Close links matter. At a conference on municipal development efforts, hosted by KfW Development Bank and the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Frankfurt in November, Müller explained: “If we are serious about democratic self-administration in foreign countries, then local people will have to take interest, get involved, stay in touch and send e-mails.” Natural disasters like the tsunami six years ago or this year’s earthquake in Haiti are not the only things that have local effects; civil wars or financial crises do so too.

A second crucial reason why municipal development partnerships make sense is that municipal tasks are similar all over the world. Mayors in Nicaragua have to tackle the same issues as their German or Italian counterparts. Topics typically include wastewater treatment, garbage, public transport, fire departments, schools and hospitals.

Sharinging expertise

Sharing experiences makes sense for all parties, Mayor Müller points out. He admits that there are some problems in Wiesbaden: “At the moment, for instance, the city does not have the money to meet the demand for day care.” Therefore, Hesse’s state capital is now considering how to “re-import” micro-finance schemes to fund childminders. Such schemes are implemented in developing countries with the assistance of development banks like the KfW, for instance in Ocotal, Wiesbaden’s Nicaraguan partner town.

Daviz Simango’s greatest wish is more local self-administration. He is the mayor of Mozambique’s second-largest city, Beira, and the founder of the Movement for Democracy in Mozambique (MDM), an opposition party at the national level. He argues that foreign budget support normally bypasses his city. Another complaint is that the national government systematically withholds information from opposition politicians. “I wish I had partners in a German city to discuss these matters,” he says.

One of Mozambique’s greatest problems, Simango says, is that only 43 municipalities in 128 districts have democratically elected mayors. The others are appointed by the central government. In Simango’s view, this means that donors are failing to rise to the opportunity of building capacity at the municipal level, which could help to fight corruption at its local roots. He considers “central-government egotism” one of the biggest obstacles on the path to well-operating democracy.

The German Association of Cities would be quite willing to export municipal expertise. Sabine Drees, the Association’s officer for foreign affairs, says that more local cooperation between twinned cities would give new momentum to international development efforts. She admits, however, that German municipalities unfortunately only start looking for specific exchange with developing countries as part of state projects. She appreciates the example of Cologne, a German city with trilateral twin cities in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

From global values to local visions

Mary Jane Ortega says that “cooperation makes sense even between poor cities”. Under her charismatic leadership, the city of San Fernando in the Philippines won prizes for good day care, transparent public administration and pioneering environmental programmes. Her election platform was based on clean air and healthy municipal water. Ortega’s key to success was convincing Filipinos of the vision of a botanical garden in the north of the country. Today, the Indian metro­polis of Hyderabad is benefiting from San Fernando’s experience in its attempts at recycling and the introduction of green zones, for instance.

Shortly after being elected mayor, Ortega took part in a seminar on public management which was run by the German Development Service (DED) in Berlin. “I came home as a new person,” she says. The seminar helped her to realise how much democratic work depends on finding inspiring the people. To promote her vision, Ortega even used a song about San Fernando as a garden city. It was broadcast by a local radio station she owns. “Of course, we depended on the good will of our national government to be able to cooperate with other municipalities. But above all, we needed a vision.”

Peter Hauff