At a recent seminar in Bogotá, Colombia, NDI brought together local elected officials from Latin America to discuss how to restore faith in political parties’ ability to deliver the benefits of democracy to citizens. The 20 participants from six countries spent five days together.
Francisco Herrero, NDI’s resident senior director in Colombia, discussed the goals and accomplishments of the seminar and offered his perspective on the challenges facing political parties in Latin America.
Where did the idea for the seminar come from?
At a retreat last year, we arrived at the conclusion that it would be a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of these elected officials being together to identify tools to help them really address the needs of their citizenry. Where you can produce the largest amount of day-to-day change in the life of the public is at the local level, through local government. Studies such as the 2007 study by Latinobarómetro (http://www.latinobarometro.org/), an annual public opinion survey in 18 Latin American countries, have shown that the ability of local governments to deliver to their citizens has a greater effect on local belief in democracy than macroeconomic factors such as economic growth.
What does it mean to help democracy deliver?
Helping democracy deliver means achieving substantial improvements in the quality of people’s lives through democratic institutions. In its work, NDI concentrates on helping political actors focus on delivering results as well as helping the citizenry learn how to demand those results and monitor government actions.
It has been suggested that Latin Americans have a distrust of political parties. Where do you think that mistrust comes from?
One of the most important reasons is that the parties have been disconnected from their populations. Studies like Latinobarómetro have shown a real connection between the level and quality of services delivered and the acceptance of or appreciation for democracy. Studies show that only 22 percent of the population of Latin America is happy with basic services. This translates into a low level of satisfaction with political parties as the protagonists of democracy.
With Latin American parties, for example, the perception of corruption continues. Citizens view politicians as corrupt and working for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of the populations they represent. This promotes distrust.
What tools and methodologies for helping democracy deliver did you offer participants?
The seminar was designed to cover four strategic areas in the fight against poverty: listening to citizens, thinking strategically, developing a poverty reduction plan, and implementing and sustaining the plan. Each day the seminar featured panels, presentations, case studies, role-playing, and individual and group exercises, culminating in a daily evaluation.
NDI emphasized learning by doing and discussed a number of different themes. Some presentations highlighted the big picture, such as how to develop better public policies or reach the Millennium Development Goals. Others addressed specific tools that could be used by local governments, such as conditional cash transfer programs that could be used to address situations of extreme poverty. We also looked at how policies would affect certain population groups, such as minorities, women and Afro-descendent communities. And NDI delivered practical tools and case studies for the participants to take home to incorporate into daily practices.
What sorts of practical issues were the participants hoping to address on behalf of their constituencies?
One of the most interesting discussions involved the rights of such citizen groups as youth, women and minorities in areas such as education, security and the ability to participate in the development of policies that affect their lives.
Women, youth and ethnic groups, such as Afro-Latino and indigenous. are the most poor and excluded in the region, which is why the design and implementation of public policies directed at them is of vital importance in a poverty reduction plan. Panel discussions with Afro-Latino and gay and gender leaders found common ground in terms of the struggles they face in the implementation of public policies. These discussions motivated many of the attendees and raised their awareness of the needs of these vulnerable sectors.
Two other themes addressed regarding poverty reduction were the role of justice and health. According to the Latinobarómetro study, only 22 percent of people believe they have equal access to justice; 63 percent believe that every day life becomes less secure, less safe. Only 52 percent are satisfied with the level of health care they receive or have access to. This shows politicians truly must deliver when it comes to these issues.
What would you say were the major accomplishments of the seminar?
NDI was able to motivate the local elected officials. They demonstrated that they were ready to initiate a process, a change, to go back to their countries and push for what is needed to deliver the benefits of democracy. The participants recognized that change will take place only if there is real political will among the political class to achieve the goals discussed.
There was also a valuable exchange among the participants about best practices and the sharing of success stories, which provided practical examples of how to make democracy deliver inside communities. Among those discussed were best practices in communication, accountability, and ways to include constituents more directly in the creation of a budget and other public policies.
How can you judge the impact of the seminar?
NDI will continue to develop and disseminate manuals that can be used as tools to help governments and democracy deliver. NDI will also continue to identify experts and construct a network of reformers and leaders to increase its database of experiences and practices so people have examples and case studies to reference. NDI will maintain contact with the participants to get their view of how the program worked and what experiences and tools were applicable to their home countries to put into practice. We have already received reports from participants that they have been using case studies and tools from the pilot program, including internal party questionnaires on the role of political parties, in policy making.
Published on November 24, 2008