Democracy Delivers: Exploring the impact of participatory, responsive local governance on trust and legitimacy

By Sarah Jaber and Susan Kemp

January 23, 2024   |   0 comments

With 17 years of global democratic decline, how can international development practitioners support communities and local governance actors to partner in building responsive local governance ecosystems? And how does this impact broader perceptions of trust in and legitimacy of government?  

We explored these questions during a recent event co-hosted by Creative and VNG, drawing on our practical experiences across Burkina Faso, Mali, Ethiopia and elsewhere. 

These projects have taught us key lessons about the impact of improving public service delivery on increasing trust, legitimacy and accountability to create tangible results for peoples’ everyday lives. 

Burkina Faso 

Challenge — A gap between community needs/trust and government capacity 

Ongoing political uncertainty and insecurity in Burkina Faso have created severe gaps between community needs and the capacity of local governance actors to respond. 

Elected bodies were dissolved following the January 2022 coup, including local municipal councils. Transitional authorities appointed Special Delegations (DS) to govern local municipalities in the absence of elected councils.  

While DSs have the same roles and responsibilities as elected councils, they are generally not perceived as effective. There is also a lack of trust between citizens and these appointed government bodies.  

Approach — Improve local government transparency, efficiency and dialogue 

The USAID Inclusive Governance for Resilience (IGR) project works with local actors to catalyze solutions among government structures, civil society and individual citizens. 

One way IGR is working to help restore trust is to work with the Special Delegations to ensure their work is transparent, the community is consulted, and citizens’ needs and expectations are considered. IGR supports the participatory co-creation of roadmaps to resilience that facilitate collective action between local government and communities. 

IGR also helped build the skills of civil registry agents and secondary centers to speed up the issuance of civil status documents in response to citizen needs and concerns. The project supported a campaign to issue free copies of birth certificates and Burkina Faso national identity cards (CNIB) in 16 communes.  

IGR is also launching community radio programs in 16 communes to promote dialogue between CSO leaders and local authorities. 

Results — Identification papers for 50,000 people 

The campaign enabled 7,748 people to obtain birth certificates and 42,979 people to obtain their CNIB. Seeing local services work effectively is a key part in restoring trust in authorities and laying the groundwork for social cohesion. 


Challenge — Mistrust between communities and government 

Mali is a fragile state where conflict and violence have spread from the northern to central regions. This insecurity contributes to tensions and frayed relations within communities. There is both a lack of trust between citizens and local governments but also among different groups of society. This mistrust is compounded by top-down decision making in planning, which has been a main source of tension and fragility. 

Approach — Bringing citizens into the process of governing 

The USAID Mali Peacebuilding, Stabilization, and Reconciliation (PSR) program worked through a governance system lens to build the resilience of 43 communes to conflict and violent extremism.  

To build trust between local actors and strengthen state legitimacy, PSR strategically worked with Regional Development Agencies (ADRs), commune authorities, civil society, private sector, and traditional leaders to enable multi-actor participation, citizen voice and inclusive decision-making in commune development planning.  

PSR used the Plan de Développement Social, Economique et Culturel (PDSEC), a public policy and institutionalized local development planning tool, as a convening process to gather local actors around community priorities and as an entry point to facilitate local dialogue and problem-solving.  

Results — A historic first in participation 

Citizens participated in the process of crafting their local development plans for the first time in the history of the PDSEC. 

PSR findings indicate that when communities come together around shared interests and common priorities in an inclusive, participatory and transparent manner, citizens’ perceptions of government trustworthiness improve and citizen-state relationships and state legitimacy are strengthened, even if tangible improvements in service delivery have yet to materialize. Mali PSR’s training module on decentralization is now being used by the Centre de Formation des Collectivités Territoriales, Mali’s national center for community training.    


Challenge — Building trust and strengthening local government accountability  

As Ethiopia continues along its path to a participatory democracy and deals with conflict and regional and political instability, strengthening the social contract, trust and accountability between citizens and local governments is crucial.  

Approach — Social accountability for equitable, efficient services 

In Ethiopia, VNG has supported several iterations of social accountability programming, and is now partnering with Creative on the USAID Ethiopia Civic Engagement activity 

Through the Ethiopia Social Accountability Programme (ESAP) 2, VNG worked to strengthen the use of social accountability tools, approaches and mechanisms to make basic service delivery more equitable, effective, efficient, responsive and accountable.  

Public basic service providers delivered improved basic services in education, health, agriculture, water, sanitation and rural roads in response to community needs.  

These service delivery improvements, identified through citizen and civil society organization engagement, were supported through grants and technical assistance to local governments to ensure improved basic service delivery and the ongoing monitoring and accountability efforts of communities.  

Results — Big strides in education and other service delivery 

Citizens, service providers and local government actors developed more than 250 joint action plans for improved service delivery. 

In the education sector alone, ESAP2 supported the construction of 153 additional classrooms, the provision of more than 45,000 textbooks to students, the recruitment of 269 additional qualified teachers and the construction of 67 toilets at school facilities.  

These efforts have improved partnerships between communities and local government officials and increased trust as citizens see more responsiveness and better basic services.  

Currently ESAP3 is being implemented by 75 CSOs, organized in 26 consortiums, in 416 woredas throughout Ethiopia. ESAP3 focuses on five pro-poor sectors, namely education, health, rural roads, agriculture, water and sanitation and other identified sectors fundamental for delivering these primary sectors, such as electricity.  

Four lessons and recommendations  

  1. Recognize the link between strengthening inclusive, local governance and stabilization 

Our projects in Mali and Burkina Faso have theories of change that posit strengthening local governance is crucial to building community stabilization and resilience to violent extremism.  

IGR’s approach focuses on supporting a system that reorganizes relationships between and among state and non-state actors to ensure inclusive participation and responsive service delivery. It also equips citizens with the skills and resources to hold governments to account and strengthens the social contract between local governments and citizens to collectively stop the infiltration of violent extremist groups.  

  1. Strengthen capacity in tandem with social and resource mobilization 

Drawing on Creative’s local governance work in similar low-resource, conflict environments, including Mali PSR, IGR is prioritizing the implementation of participatory roadmaps to resilience and supporting commune officials in revenue mobilization strategies to equip local governments to meet the needs of citizens.  

Participatory processes, while crucial, can be counterproductive for building trust and legitimacy in the longer term if the corresponding capacity and financial resources are not in place to deliver in response to citizen priorities.  

  1. Balance planning and flexibility in fluid contexts 

The rapidly evolving security and political environments in Mali and Burkina Faso and conflict dynamics in Ethiopia have required an approach that balances longer-term governance goals with short-term, visible results and flexible, adaptive response mechanisms based on emerging needs and challenges.  

While IGR’s initial analysis was valuable for building trust and buy-in with local communities and understanding their needs, the fluid context requires ongoing analysis and adaptations to stay responsive to shifting conditions and needs.  

  1. Build and maintain authorizing support

Initially, IGR struggled to obtain and maintain the support of local authorities and influential individuals whose commitment and buy-in was essential for activities.  

By involving these local actors throughout capacity strengthening and roadmap to resilience co-creation processes, IGR was able to instill a sense of commitment and responsibility among local leaders, motivating their continued involvement and leadership in the work.  

To ensure both national and local relevance, IGR also worked to align the roadmaps with local transition plans and annual plans required by the national government. This led to IGR efforts directly contributing to making local strategic planning more inclusive, data-driven, participatory and focused on local needs and priorities, and helped save time and resources for the municipalities.  

Improving services and safety through good governance 

Democracy and long-term stability are more attainable when local governments deliver on their commitments to provide effective, inclusive and citizen-responsive services and when citizens can meaningly participate.  

This improves state-citizen relationships and reduces the potential for violent extremist organizations to exploit local cleavages. 

Concluding the recent Democracy Delivers event, Barry Reed, Chief of Party for the Vietnam Local Capacity Development Program highlighted that “there’s a ripple effect of each activity that you undertake. It ripples out and impacts other things.”  

From participatory co-creation of community plans based on citizen needs and political realities (while managing expectations and ensuring that resources align), to drawing on existing tools and structures and working within the system to promote sustainability, the discussion reinforced the interconnectedness of local governance programming efforts to deliver tangible results for communities and to strengthen trust and legitimacy within diverse, fluid contexts. 

We will continue to explore these interconnected topics through our ongoing learning series. A forthcoming discussion will focus on lessons and good practices for advancing localization and inclusion in local governance programming. 


Comments are closed.