The Role of Civil Society Organisations in Building Local Democracy

*By John Ulanga*

*Executive Director,*

*The Foundation for Civil Society, Tanzania*

*A paper presented at the Annual Meeting of MS Tanzania,*

February 19, 2008, MS TCDC Arusha, Tanzania


Over the last couple of years there has been a lot of discussions on the
importance of the role of civil society organizations in the development
processes. Attempts have been made to enhance their participation with a
view that through their participation, better quality development decisions
will be made and therefore more people will benefit from those decisions. It
has also been argued that for development to be achieved, democracy is key.
Democracy is key since it assures effective citizen participation in
development decision making and processes.

The objective of this paper is to build on that discussion in a Tanzanian
perspective as to what could be the role of Civil Society Organisations in
Building Local Democracy in our Country.

I have started my discussion with the definitions of the terms civil society
and democracy, then touched on what are the key principles of democracy that
are stated in the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania. Because
I believe effective democracy needs to happen at the levels where most
citizens are, the Local Government Levels, after the first introductory
section, I proceeded on touching on the concepts of Local Government System,
Agenda and Reforms in Tanzania as a means of enhancing democracy at local
levels. In Section three I have then provided my personal opinions on what
I think CSOs need to do to enhance/build local democracy in Tanzania. The
purpose of this paper is just to provoke discussions among the participants
of this Annual Forum and it is therefore my hope that after the discussions
we are going to leave this forum with some concrete measures that we are
going to undertake back in our communities to enhance local level democracy.

1.1 Meaning of Civil Society

Meanings of ‘civil society’ have varied enormously across time and place. In
sixteenth century English political thought the term referred to the state,
whereas contemporary usage tends to contrast civil society and the state.
Hegel’s nineteenth-century notion of civil society included the market,
whereas contemporary concepts tend to regard civil society as a nonprofit
sector. Seventy years ago Gramsci regarded civil society as an arena where
class hegemony forges consent, whereas much contemporary discussion treats
civil society as a site of disruption and dissent.

In contemporary thinking, ‘civil society’ is taken to refer to a space where
voluntary associations explicitly seek to shape the rules (in terms of
specific policies, wider norms and deeper social structures) that govern one
or the other aspect of social life. Some elements of civil society (often
characterised as ‘social movements’) seek radical transformations of the
prevailing order. However, civil society also includes reformist elements
that seek only modest revisions of existing governance arrangements and
conformist elements that seek to reinforce established rules. Indeed, many
civil society initiatives show a mix of radical, reformist and conformist

Civil society encompasses many sorts of actors. Civic groups can include
academic institutions, business forums, consumer advocates, development
cooperation initiatives, environmental movements, foundations, human rights
promoters, labour unions, local community groups, relief organisations,
peace movements, professional bodies, religious institutions, think tanks,
women’s networks, youth associations and more. In particular, this
conception of civil society stretches much wider than formally organised,
officially registered and professionally administered ‘NGOs’. Civil society
exists whenever and wherever voluntary associations – of whatever kind – try
deliberately to mould the governing rules of society.

* *

* *
1.2 Meaning of Democracy

Like ‘civil society’, ‘democracy’ has known many meanings and instruments in
different times and places. Ancient Athenian democracy was one thing, while
modern liberal democracy is quite another. Representative democracy is one
approach, while deliberative democracy is quite another. National democracy
is one construction, while cosmopolitan democracy is quite another.

Yet a common thread runs through all conceptions of democracy: it is a
condition where a community of people exercises collective
self-determination. Through democracy, members of a given public – a *demos
*– take decisions that shape their destiny jointly, with equal rights and
opportunities of participation, and without arbitrarily imposed constraints
on debate. In one way or another, democratic governance is participatory,
consultative, transparent and publicly accountable. By one mechanism or
another, democratic governance rests on the consent of the governed.

Thus democracy as a general condition needs to be distinguished from
liberal-national democracy as a particular historical and cultural form of
‘rule by the people’. Democracy is constructed in relation to context and
should be reconstructed when that context changes. The more particular
question at hand here is: what role can civil society play in a reconfigured
democracy for local governance?
1.3 Democratic Principles in the Constitution of the United
Republic of Tanzania

The founding provisions of the Constitution of the United Republic of
Tanzania stipulate that Tanzania is a sovereign United Republic and a
democratic and socialist state *(still???),* which adheres to multi-party
democracy and social justice.

In this regard the Constitution provides that:

– Sovereignty resides in the people and it is from the people that the
Government through this Constitution shall derive all the power and
– That the primary objective of the government shall be the welfare of
the people to whom the government is accountable;
– That the people shall participate in the affairs of their government in
accordance with the provisions of the Constitution;
– That government means and includes a local government authority.

2 Local Government Authorities

The Tanzania Constitution further stipulates that Local Government
Authorities shall be established in each region, district, urban area and
village of the United Republic, which shall be of the type and designation,
prescribed by law to be enacted by Parliament for Tanzania Mainland or the
House of Representatives in the case of Tanzania Zanzibar.

Article 146(1) of the Constitution states that the purpose of having local
government authorities is “to transfer authority to the people”. Local
government authorities have been given power to participate and to involve
the people in the planning and implementation of development programmes
within their respective areas and generally throughout the country. Every
local government authority has a constitutional mandate and obligation:-

– To perform the functions of local government in its area;
– To ensure the enforcement of law and public safety of the people; and
– *To consolidate democracy within its area and to apply it to accelerate
development of the people.*

Tanzania local government system is based on political devolution and
decentralization of functions and finances within a unitary state. Local
governments are multi-sectoral, government units with a legal status (body
corporate) operating on the basis of specific and discretionary powers under
the legal framework constituted by the national legislation. Local
governments have a responsibility for social development and public service
provision within their areas of jurisdiction; facilitation of maintenance of
law and order and promotion of local development through participatory
processes. The elected local councils are governments or organs which are at
lower levels of one unitary Government of United Republic of Tanzania and
thus required to operate within the national policy and legal framework
while retaining their status as the highest political authorities within
their areas of jurisdiction. *The most powerful tools of councils are their
annual workplans, budgets and control of resources exercised by the standing
2.1 History of Local Government System

The local government system in Tanzania Mainland has had a chequered
history. Dating back to 1926 when it was established by the colonial
government, the system has gone through changes which partly reflect the
changing national philosophy concerning the economic and social development
of the country. The most dramatic change occurred during the period
1972-1984 when the government abolished local authorities along with all
the institutions which were supporting the local government system including
the Local Government Service Commission and the Local Government Loans
Board. By the use of its deconcentrated field offices in the regions and
districts, the central government took over responsibility for the provision
of and management of basic services and for planning and implementation of
development projects at the local level.

The deconcentration exercise of the 1970s and early 80s could not bring
about the desired results i.e. increased public participation in the
development process and accelerated rural development. What turned out,
instead, was rapid deterioration of service delivery in both rural and urban
areas and overall decline of urban infrastructure.

Following the enactment of a set of local government Acts in 1982, the
present system of local government was reintroduced in 1984. In the
following year the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania was
amended to effectively entrench local government in the country’s system of
governance. Under the present set up there are urban councils (i.e. city
councils, municipal councils and town councils), (rural) district councils
and over 10,000 village councils. Despite these positive interventions the
reintroduced local government system did not meet the expectations of the
people in terms of improved service delivery. Apart from the elected
councilors, the new local government institutions inherited the problems
which were facing the earlier system of deconcentrated government

In May 1996, a national conference comprising of delegates representing all
segments of the Tanzanian Society was convened to take stock of the
prevailing performance of the local government system and propose measures
for improvement. After extensive deliberations the participants emerged with
a *Shared Vision *of a new local government system which would meet the
current situation, challenges and be more instrumental in the ongoing fight
against poverty, ignorance and disease.

The *Shared Vision *of a new local government system in Tanzania has the
following characteristics:

*(i) Autonomous Local Authorities:*

The local government authorities will be free to make policy and operational
decisions consistent with government policies without undue interference by
the central government institutions.

*(ii) Cost effectiveness in service provision:*

The strength and effectiveness of the local government institutions will be
underpinned by:

– possession of resources and authority necessary to effectively
perform the roles and functions that the individual local government
authority has been mandated to perform; and
– having adequate numbers of appropriately qualified and well motivated
staff, who will be recruited and promoted exclusively on the basis of merit.

*(iii) Democratic Local Governance:*

The leadership of the local authorities will be elected through a fully
democratic process, which should also extend to village councils and other
grassroots organizations.

*(iv) Efficiency in delivering services:*

The raison d’etre for the devolution of roles and authority by the central
government, and the existence of the local government system, will be the
latter’s capacity and efficiency in delivering services to the people.

*(v) Poverty Reduction:*

The local government authorities will:

– facilitate the participation of the people in planning and executing
their development programmes; and
– *foster partnerships with civic groups.*

* *

* *

*(vi) Subsidiarity:*

Each local government authority will have roles and functions that will
correspond to the demands for its services by the local people, and the
socio-economical conditions prevailing in the area. The structures of each
local government will reflect the nature of its roles and functions.

*(vii) Political Accountability and Transparency:*

The local government authorities will be transparent and accountable to the
people. This will be the basis for justifying their autonomy from central
government interference.

*(viii) Ethical Conduct:*

Local government leaders (Councillors and other elected leaders) and local
government staff will adhere to a strict code of ethics and integrity.

*(ix) New Centre-Local Relations:*

In line with that vision, the role of the Central Government institutions
will be confined to:

– facilitation of the local government authorities in their
responsibility to provide services;
– development and management of the national policy and regulatory
– monitoring accountability by the local government authorities;
– financial and performance audit; and
– provision of adequate resources (human and financial) to enable the
local government authorities to deliver services.

2.3 Local Government Reform Agenda and Programme

* *

The main principles of the local government reform as pointed out in the
Government’s Policy Paper on Local Government Reform, published in October
1998 include the following:

– letting people participate in government at the local level and elect
their councils;
– bringing public services under the control of the people through
their local councils;
– giving local councils powers (political devolution) over all local
– improving financial and political accountability;
– securing finances for better public services;
– creating a new local government administration answerable to the local
– de-linking local administrative leaders and staff from parent
ministries; and
– creating new central-local relations based not on orders but on
legislation and negotiations.

In this context the reformed local government will be holistic
organizations, i.e. organizations dealing with most aspects of society and
directly responsible for a wide range of sectors. Local councils will have
general powers, which means that they are allowed to do anything, unless
this is forbidden through legislation or reserved for central government.

Following the formulation of the vision and subsequent Government
endorsement of the Local Government Reform Agenda and the Policy Paper on
Local Government Reform, the Local Government Reform Programme (LGRP) was
developed and approved by the Government of Tanzania to guide structured
attainment of the declared vision of the future local government
authorities. The overall objective of the LGRP is to improve the quality of,
and access to public services provided through or facilitated by local
government authorities.

The programme has six components each of which aims at contributing to the
achievement of the overall goal. To me, the most important component
is on *Governance:
To establish broad based community awareness of the participation in the
reform process and promote principles of democracy, transparency and

*The over-arching goal for the reform programme and its six components is to
create good local governance based on political and financial
accountability, democratic procedures and public participation.*

3 The Role of CSO in promoting local democracy/ democratic

Having touched on the meaning of civil society, democracy, elaborated on the
democratic principles in the constitution of the United Republic of
Tanzania, and the Local Government System and its Reform Agenda, in this
section I am going to elaborate on what I think are the major roles of civil
society organizations in building and promoting local democracy in Tanzania.
Many people in Tanzania would equate democracy to the election process and
would therefore claim that a country is democratic once the elections are
claimed to be “free and fair”, I would argue that election is only one
component of democracy, a significant component but not necessarily the
biggest component! The challenge that countries have in building and
promoting democracy lies in ensuring democratic governance of the various
Government, Public and Civil Society Institutions. To what extent is the
day to day running and decision making in our institutions democratic? To
what extent are the elected leaders work with their electorates to arrive to
their daily decisions? To what extent is the thinking of the leader is a
resulting of a participatory process involving the necessary stakeholders in
his/her constituency?

3.1 Citizen participation as a means for equitable distribution and
efficient utilization of public resources

As stipulated in the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania, and in
the Local Government Reform Agenda and Programme, citizens form the core of
our country’s decision making. Effective citizen participation will
therefore result into effective decision making, and effective decision
making processes will result into effective and equitable distribution and
utilization of the public resources – land, natural, financial, etc. It is
therefore important to ensure that citizens effectively participate in
various decision making processes for their own and for the country’s
benefit. During the period 1996 – 2006, Tanzania enjoyed remarkable
economic performance, increasing GDP growth rates from below 3% annually to
over 6% during the year 2005/6. Inflation was reduced from two-digit
figures to between 4-5% during the period with tax collections increasing
from below Tsh 25bn monthly to over Tsh 100bn monthly. Country’s level of
reserve reached over four months equivalent of imports, government borrowing
was brought to control and fiscal discipline was attained and maintained.

During the same period however, poverty was not reduced at the same level
that growth was attained, it was a generally agreed truth that the
remarkable performance attained at macro level has not trickled down to
micro level, to individual level. We attained growth but not equitable
growth, few individuals became very successful and many were still
struggling. During the same period, incidences of corruption were
increasing, ineffective utilization of public resources – utilization for
personal purposes as opposed to public purposes was not uncommon. All this
was a result of lack of effective mechanism to engage citizens in decision
making processes, especially at local levels. Mechanisms to hold the
leaders of the various Government and Public Institutions became weaker
during the period, even with the local government agenda and reform in
place. I strongly believe that the best way to ensure that citizens engage
in various development processes is through organized manner, in citizen
groups – civil society organizations.
3.2 Civil society organizations as a means for citizen participation

As indicated earlier civil society organizations can take the form of NGOs,
CBOs, FBOs, Trade Unions, etc and can play an effective role in organizing
citizens around a particular geographical or thematic area, and through
them, citizens can effectively engage with other actors in policy and
development processes; in democratic governance of our government and other
public institutions.
3.3 Civil Society Organisations and Local Democratic Governance

As stipulated earlier on, CSOs have the most important role in local
government reforms and in ensuring that the concept of decentralization by
devolution takes real root in our society. It is however not encouraging to
note that many civil society organizations have not been able to effectively
play that role in Tanzania. At local authority levels, civil society
organizations have the role to ensure citizens participate in decision
making and other development processes as stipulated in the local government
3.3.1 Village Assemblies/Mitaa Meetings

The smallest unit of participation under the Local Government System is the
Village Assemblies or the Mitaa Meetings whereby all the major decisions of
the village/mtaa are made and decisions from higher levels of governance are
communicated. It is at this levels that development planning and budgeting
for resources start; it is at this level that priorities for the
village/mtaa are decided upon; it is at this level that the destiny of the
particular community is decided. Research has shown that also citizen
participation and inclusive decision making has improved in urban councils,
the practice is still minimal at rural communities resulting in people’s
opinions and priorities not being incorporated in the plans and budgets, and
therefore left out of the development agenda. There are also no effective
mechanisms and procedures in place for citizens to hold officials
accountable. The only mechanism that can ensure effective participation is
through effective inclusion of civil society organizations at this and other
relevant levels.
3.3.2 Ward Development Committees

Ward Development Committees (WDCs) consolidate and many times compromise
development decisions made by the village assemblies. And in many cases,
the district management and council will consider the Ward Development
Committee decisions more seriously since it is assumed that they have taken
due consideration of the village assembly decisions while it is not the case
many times, and in many more times, the village assemblies even did not take
place to make such decisions at first place! It is therefore important that
civil society organization keep a close follow up of the decisions made by
the WDCs and necessary action be taken to influence them.
3.3.3 Full Council Meetings

The ultimate decision making bodies of the local government authorities are
the meetings of the councilors – The full council meetings. These are
equivalent of the “Bunge” at the local authority levels. These make
decisions on the allocation of resources for a particular period; priorities
are decided upon at this level and also assessment of the utilization of the
resources of the previous period are is done in this forum. If Civil
Society Organisations are to be effective in ensuring citizen participation
and awareness, it is important that, in one way or another, they
participate/observe in the proceedings of the Council Meetings. The
challenge is to ensure mutual understanding and agreements on the mode of
operation once CSOs participate/observe in such meetings.
3.4 Tools and Instruments that can be used by CSOs

In order for the CSOs to be effective in ensuring citizen participation that
will add value to the decisions that are made, CSOs need to adopt a set of
tools aimed at enriching the decisions made by citizens in the various fora.
The tools to be used should first and foremost, and as a matter of priority,
adequately inform the citizens on the issues at hand and the information
must then assist them to make appropriate decisions on matters at hand. Among
many such tools and instruments, the following are worth mentioning:
3.4.1 Civic Education

One of the bottlenecks to the ability of citizens to effectively engage is
the fact that they are not empowered to know what their civic duties are. The
tendency again in Tanzania and in many other African Countries is to conduct
ad hoc, quick civic education sessions just before general elections as if
the only civic duty of a citizen is to vote. As alluded to earlier,
ensuring effective participation in the democratic governance of our
government and other public institutions is the main civic duty of a
citizen, of course, plus other duties pertaining to the adhere to laws and
regulations of the country. Continuous civic education is one of the main
tools that CSOs can use to empower citizens to know things like their
constitutional rights and obligations and other similar things.
3.4.2 Public Expenditure Tracking Surveys

As mentioned earlier, the most powerful tools of the councils are their
annual workplans, budgets and control of resources exercised by the standing
committees. However, if not adequately managed these can be the most
disempowering tools for the citizens of a particular local authority. It is
therefore important that citizens are adequately informed on the budgets and
other resources allocated for their development during a particular period
and a tracking of the actual expenditure is independently done and dully
reported to the community. Public Expenditure Tracking Systems and Surveys
are a comprehensive means of doing exactly that. Civil Society
Organisations as independent entities from the Local and Central Government
has a critical to play to undertake public expenditure tracking surveys and
report to citizens based on which citizens can make further decisions on
their development priorities and hold their leaders accountable.
3.4.3 Corruption Perception Surveys

Corruption is known to be a big bottleneck to equitable distribution of
resources and efficient delivery of public services. Regular undertaking of
surveys to gauge people’s perception on the level of corruption in our
service delivery institutions is a good way of ensuring that people’s
perceptions are taken into account in planning processes but more important
is a good way of holding leaders in accountable in order for them to take
appropriate measures to improve the quality of services availed to the

3.5 Media as a Tool for Wider Dissemination and Attention

Some definitions consider media organizations as CSOs. However, I would
argue that other forms of CSOs have not effectively used the media to
advance for local level courses. There is therefore the need for CSOs to
effectively use the media to disseminate the message on local level
performance. It has been proven that once local level issues get national
level attention, actions are taken!
3.6 Need for the CSOs themselves to be locally democratic

Although this is not the focus of my discussion today, but I believe that in
order for the CSOs to become effective change agent, they also need to be
effective, to be locally democratic, responsive to the needs of their
communities first and to their donors next! For them to be able to organize
citizens for enhanced local democracy, CSOs need to lead by examples, they
need be accountable themselves – accountable to their members, their funders
and the community at large. They also need to build their capacity to

4 The role of support institutions like MS Tanzania

As noted elsewhere, civil society sector in Tanzania is still nascent and
therefore relatively weak although there are many CSOs in Tanzania.
like MS Tanzania can assist CSO partners at local levels in many areas
including assisting them to develop mechanisms to ensure accountability in
the CSOs themselves, ability to communicate effectively with the target
citizens and the general society, ability to analyse technical policy issues
and simplify them for general population. It is also important to ensure
that CSOs are enabled to network effectively amongst themselves in order to
share experience and learning but also to unite their strengths through the