Let us cut to the chase. Even with the decade long in-the-making reforms that will soon be passed in the National Assembly, local government will remain marginalized, stagnated and ineffectual.
The legislation before Guyana’s National Assembly will not modernize the system of local government. Even if it did, it would still be ineffective because the communities in Guyana are at a stage of development characterized by dependence, something from which no legislation can liberate them. These communities need a strong dose of central government investment. They need to be nursed to maturity before any attempt is made to “liberate” them through local government elections.
Such liberation will however have to involve the reconfiguration of the existing system along completely different lines to that which is presently envisaged. It is useless having a formula for the transfer of funds when such transfers, however equitable, will not impact the capacity of local organs to administer their assigned communities or, for that matter, be ever sufficient to meet their needs.
Historically, local government in Guyana has lacked the resources to undertake the infrastructure needed to transform communities. Because they lack this capacity, they end up maintaining the status quo of dependence in central government financing.
Most of Guyana’s communities lie along the coast and were designed to keep persons tied to the plantations. When the plantations needed to release water, they did so into the drainage canals that ran through the villages, wreaking untold misfortune on the inhabitants. No amount of taxes collected were ever sufficient to deal with this and the myriad other problems that these communities encountered as surrogates of the plantations.
And the collecting taxes has always been a bugbear. First of all, there are always problems with the rate of tax collections in communities. This rate has historically been poor. In short if people can delay not paying, they do not pay and this is why when you examine rates and taxes within the system you do not only find that it is abysmally low in relation to the services to be provided but the collection rate is low. In short, even the little that people have to pay, they are reluctant to pay.
Modernizing the local government system would have to involve granting the local authorities the power to levy on the assets on rate payers, including seizing property for non-payment of rates and taxes. But this will never pass muster in a country in which the political parties believe that patronage involves ignoring the civil duties of citizens.
On top of this, for a small country that inherited a local government system that was highly dependent on central government, Guyana has distorted the system further by instituting many layers of local authorities. These were intended to mimic the system in Cuba but have ended up becoming highly burdensome.
So there is a layer known as the NDC which is really much too small a unit to be viable; then there are municipalities which tend to be larger but which are highly politicized; then there is a regional layer in a country of 720,000 persons divided into ten administrative regions. Now how can any of these units ever be viable or be liberated from their dependency from central government. They can never under the present structure.
These multiple layers also present human resource constraints. It is hard enough to find enough talent for parliament much less to find enough qualified and competent persons to be councilors of the municipalities, and then within the villages to find sufficient numbers of similarly competent persons to become NDC councilors.
On top of that, more persons have to be found by the political parties to be part of the regional system. The political parties which contest local government elections will always be challenged to find sufficient competent persons to fill all of these layers.
The entire system needs to be simplified. Either the regional system is dissolved or it be kept and dissolve the NDCs. Both, but both cannot survive together. This will involved a major revamp of the structure of local government.
Unfortunately, loyalty to a party’s history prevents the system from being completely disassembled because no one wants to argue that our still very much socialist local government structure is ill-suited to modern local government demands.
So Guyana ends up fiddling with a few formulas, and in the end entrench a structure that remains archaic and backward. If any liberation is needed it is from the resistance to dismantling a historic relic.
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