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Middle East

Foundations for a new state

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is introducing new planning models with more civic participation in local policy-making. People’s expectations are high, and their attitude is changing. They used to be mere supplicants, but are now becoming responsible, pro-active citizens. Progress is hampered, however, by scant re­sources and an unfavourable political environment.

Political, administrative and fiscal decentralisation features prominently among the priorities defined in the Palestinian Authority’s National Development Plan for 2011 to 2013. Strengthening subnational authorities and involving the public in local government decisions are considered essential. At present, however, neither the PA nor the people in general have a clear idea of the decentralisation strategy.  

The uncertain political environment (see box) obviously presents major obstacles for business and community development. From 1999 to 2009, the average income in the Palestinian territories dropped by more than a third. According to official estimates, one in five Palestinians is unemployed. Towns and village municipalities, many of which have existed for centuries, form the backbone of public administration in the West Bank. Municipal authorities are in charge of providing basic public services, but often they are barely able to deliver. Local economies are stagnating, and the people have little trust in public institutions. Many citizens are neither willing nor able to pay taxes and fees. As a result, municipal budgets lack funding.

There is neither a systematic transfer of financial resources from the national level to the local one, nor a legal framework for collecting local taxes. Local authorities lack pretty much everything. More­over, the distribution of responsibilities and re­sources between governorates and ministries remains unclear, and the supervision of local authorities is often felt to be restrictive.

At present, local administrations only involve citizens in planning and decisions selectively and unsystematically. This is one of the reasons why Palestinians traditionally identify more strongly with their clan than with the locality they live in.  

Overstretched authorities

About 74 % of the 4.1 million population of the Palestinian Territories live in 134 cities and municipalities. About one quarter lives in tiny hamlets that have no formal status, and one percent is Bedouin nomads.

Local authorities are supposed to meet 27 legally defined core responsibilities. Most of them, however, are not up to those tasks. The majority of the municipalities are quite small, with fewer than 25,000 people. Even so, 80 % of the municipalities handle waste disposal, electricity and water supply as well as road maintenance. Only 50 %, however, are providing street lights, building schools, planning urban development and managing traffic. Particularly neglected issues are sewerage, local public transport, social services, fire safety and public parks. On average, only 10 % of a municipal budget is available for investment purposes.   

In a nationwide survey in 2010, half of the randomly selected sample of people said they were satisfied with municipal performance. However, more than two-thirds were not informed about local charges and fees, taxes, budget data or current investment.

Nonetheless, civic self-awareness is changing in the West Bank. People increasingly see themselves less as supplicants, and more as citizens who are entitled to services. Municipal one-stop-shops are promoting this change. They are supported by the GIZ’s Local Governance Programme, which is being implemented on behalf of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in 23 municipalities. Waiting times for business licences have been reduced from two weeks to three days, for ex­ample, after procedures were streamlined, staff trained, software standardised and transparent fees were introduced. In Qabbatia, it now takes two instead of previously seven days to install new connections to the municipal water pipes.  

The scarcer public funds are, the greater the need becomes for efficient, demand-based use of resources. In 2009, the PA introduced a guideline for local strategic development and investment planning. It demands that public projects must be geared to civic needs. The GIZ’s Local Governance Programme has supported the introduction of strategic development and investment planning (SDIP) in pilot schemes. Core elements of SDIP are representative civic participation, participative strategy development and implementation and diligent budget planning. In the pilot phase from 2008 to 2012, employees of 117 local authorities were trained for the preparation of municipal development plans.

Today, the first generation of new development plans shows a clear structural shift in resource allocation. Thanks to SDIP, the percentage of municipal funds consumed by infrastructure projects has fallen from 50 % to 27 %. At the same time, resources earmarked for social services have doubled.

Developments like these are proof of cultural change. The people involved confirm that local administrations are paying more attention to citizens’ needs, and that citizens’ understanding of local authorities’ difficulties has improved. The participative planning process has raised the expectations of citizens and civil-society organisations. At the same time, it has boosted people’s willingness to work for the community in voluntary capacities.

Success reasons

In 2011, the Local Governance Programme was assessed by an independent evaluator, who identified a number of issues that make success more likely:  

  • It makes sense to analyse the local social setting thoroughly at the start, in order to get a solid baseline as well as a clear picture of the composition of the various stakeholder groups. Good data pave the way to meaningful participation.
  • Motivation for civic participation was significantly lower where democratically elected mayors had been replaced by government-appointed function­aries. This was the case in roughly 50 % of the municipalities at the end of the local councils’ term late last year.
  • Every subdivision of a locality should have at least one representative in the planning process.
  • Citizens need to have a say in who represents them, and they should define the scope of participation in cooperation with the local administration. It is counterproductive for municipal authorities to decide exactly who they want to start dialogue with.
  • The more scope municipal leaders and administrations give to participation, the more citizens become actively engaged. If office holders show a bias towards certain interest groups, however, the momentum slows down.
  • Wide-ranging participative planning requires a great deal of time and preparation. It also requires funds for external specialists and qualified administrative staff.
  • Local authorities need to engage in active PR work to encourage widespread participation by neighbourhood groups, youth representatives, schools, universities and social centres.

Women and young people

At present, a persistent challenge is that women’s participation generally remains quite weak. They account for only 19 % of the members of municipal councils. Their share in working groups is 24 %. The highest female participation rate – 40 % – is found in working groups that focus on social services. Though contracts are frequently awarded to women engineers, plans and project selection take virtually no account of gender aspects so far.

More also needs to be done to reach out to young people. More than 50 % of the population of the Palestinian territories is under 16 years old, so youngsters are an important stakeholder group. But they are hardly ever involved in decision-making – even in places where youth organisations and youth councils exist. Palestinian culture traditionally emphasises seniority and is not changing fast. In the future, planning manuals and training courses will have to address gender and age-group matters more specifically. Separate working groups for women and young people have already been proposed.

Another challenge is that the funding needs of scheduled projects almost always exceed municipal investment budgets. The municipalities concerned can only provide all funding needed in three percent of all cases. Right at the beginning of the planning process, it is important to invest sufficient time and expertise in raising additional funds.  

In cooperation with the PA’s Ministry of Local Government, the Municipal Development and Lending Fund (MDLF) is supposed to provide municipalities with substantive, financial and human resources support for the preparation and implementation of plans. The MDLF, line ministries and international development partners such as GIZ and KfW are currently the principal financiers. However, local authorities cannot remain dependent on international donors and central government forever. For the sake of sustainability, they must do more to raise funds locally and intensify cooperation with the private sector in the future.

Over-ambitious development plans can result in disappointment and frustration. It is important not to undermine the motivation of all concerned, including citizens, local bureaucrats and politicians. If a stable Palestinian state is to be established, it will have to rely on strong municipal authorities. So far, however, the fragile state-building dynamics and the Israeli occupation are making it difficult to foster citizen-driven development at the local level.


Kristin Hentschel has been working as a technical advisor for the GIZ‘s Local Governance Programme in the Palestinian Territories since 2008.  

Ulrich Nitschke heads the same GIZ programme, which is run on behalf of Germany‘s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. In this essay, however,
both authors express their personal opinions.