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Improving local public services through a research-action dialogue in 4 West African communities

Introductory note and summary of studies

By Falilou Mbacké Cissé (The Alliance for Rebuilding Governance in Africa, August 2007)

The ‘Construisons Ensemble-Recherche sur les Citoyennetés en Transformation’ association (ACE-RECIT), which was recently renamed ‘the Citizenship Laboratory’, organised a capitalisation and perspectives workshop on 24 May 2007 in Ouagadougou. The workshop was based on research carried out in the form of dialogue with users and suppliers of local public services.

In 2006, four communities – Sirakorola in Mali, Aguégués in Benin, Say in Niger and Boromo in Burkina Faso – signed on with SNV, the Citizenship Laboratory, Lasdel Benin (Laboratory for Study and Research on Social Dynamics and Local Development), Lasdel Niger and Mali’s Institute of Human Sciences for the pilot phase of a programme that brings together researchers and actors in the field. The goal is to help improve the sub-region’s local public services, including health care, education, access to water, and sanitation, with a contribution that is solidly rooted in local African realities.

The objectives of the workshop were to:

  • share and capitalise on the results of the pilot phase of the approach

  • come up with ideas and proposals for the next phase of the programme.

Full text

Presentation of the ‘Improving local public services through a research-action dialogue in 4 West African communities’ workshop

The ‘Construisons Ensemble-Recherche sur les Citoyennetés en Transformation’ association (ACE-RECIT), which was recently renamed ‘the Citizenship Laboratory’, organised a capitalisation and perspectives workshop on 24 May 2007 in Ouagadougou. The workshop was based on research carried out in the form of dialogue with users and suppliers of local public services.

In 2006, four communities – Sirakorola in Mali, Aguégués in Benin, Say in Niger and Boromo in Burkina Faso – signed on with SNV, the Citizenship Laboratory, Lasdel Benin (Laboratory for Study and Research on Social Dynamics and Local Development), Lasdel Niger and Mali’s Institute of Human Sciences for the pilot phase of a programme that brings together researchers and actors in the field. The goal is to help improve the sub-region’s local public services, including health care, education, access to water, and sanitation, with a contribution that is solidly rooted in local African realities.

A certain amount of socio-anthropological research has been carried out on the interface between the supply of and demand for public services. The goal is to understand the context, realities, expectations and perceptions on both sides–suppliers and users–of local level public services.

The results of this research should help mayors, local actors and those who provide them with technical and financial support manage expectations, orchestrate supply and mobilise resources, while maintaining the necessary political, administrative and social support. To achieve this goal, studies have been carried out under the leadership of the communities involved and in dialogue with actors.

The objectives of the May 2007 workshop were to:

  • share and capitalise on the results of the pilot phase of the approach

  • come up with ideas and proposals for the next phase of the programme

This workshop hoped to showcase an innovative approach in which interactivity between researchers’ and local actors’ knowledge and points of view leads to changes in public services instigated by community actors themselves.

The challenge was to:

  • Design and carry out a research and action programme in a very short lapse of time (less than one year) with the possibility of continuing the process (3 years);

  • Intervene in four communities in four different countries;

  • Analyse a little-studied theme: the local level supply of public services;

  • Combine a number of ambitions, including: produce new recommendations for communities, support local SNV teams in their work, set up dialogue between research teams and actors and encourage new ways of thinking and acting on the part of community actors, SNV teams and research teams;

  • Deal with a context in which communities, involved as they are in administrative and political construction, are not always receptive to this type of intervention…

Upon completion of an initial exploratory phase, a 2-day workshop (22-23 May) was held to allow programme actors to mutualise their observations and future perspectives.

The workshop was followed, on 24 May, by a one-day encounter in which conclusions were shared with those involved in reform processes–associations of cities and towns, ministries responsible, ministries involved in reforms and technical and financial partners.

The latter will now be able to assess the potential of the approach and its results, view it in parallel with their own actions and give their opinions on proposals for continuing the programme.

Has the challenge been met?

‘Physical’ results are primarily papers: four reports on studies describing in detail the state of public services in the contexts that condition their production, from the viewpoints of both supply and demand.

All four reports are available on the Citizenship Laboratory site: www.ace-recit.org

The reports are dense. They vary in form but all four are very high-quality reports.

They don’t just describe services; they also analyse the conditions in which services are produced with a grid articulating the various ‘schools’ of anthropology. The method used illustrates new ways of ‘observing’ and ‘reflecting on’ these realities.

Furthermore, a number of striking analogies included in the reports confirm initial hypotheses and in particular the central hypothesis: “aid actors see the community as a complete level of administrative management and service provision, but in fact its legal, administrative and financial competencies are very limited”. These analogies confirm the central hypothesis by noting a number of difficulties and weaknesses:

  • problems encountered in transferring competencies to communities;

  • lack of minimum resources, leading to the externalisation of operations as a substitute; involuntary or voluntary absenteeism on the part of elected officials;

  • competency conflicts between deconcentrated public services (State companies in particular) and communities or decentralisation managers; local impact of national policies and of partisan or factional struggles stemming from unequal access to services;

  • development of demand that is often disproportionate with regard to communities’ capacities;

  • the population being forced to bear the burden of certain expenses related to the creation and maintenance of basic services…

The central hypothesis is also confirmed by an entire series of institutional ‘deals’ with other components of society:

  • the municipality of Say agrees to participate in ‘projects’ only in villages that have paid their taxes;

  • in Say some communities set aside a percentage of their budget for the operation of the Prefecture;

  • the Conseil communal (town council) of Aguégués has included former local authorities belonging to the communist party in tax-collection teams; the community of Aguégués has also taken the initiative to pay the community counterpart–in place of populations–to obtain drilled wells for all local communities that do not already have one;

  • in Sirakorola, the insufficiency of some of the services provided has led potential users to organise a parallel or initial-level offering (security, courthouse-step justice);

  • some associations in Say are heavily involved in efforts to have the common good taken into account, for example in the field of health, consumers’ rights, etc.

Another group of hypotheses concerning the public services market has also been clearly confirmed:

  • “Supply and demand do not always match up: sometimes there is a supply but no demand, or demand but no supply.”;

  • “Between the official supply and demand there are objects of compromise such as a poorer quality supply that users nonetheless consider ‘adaptable’ to the current state of their needs.”

Users employ services in a one-off manner in response to a specific problem to be resolved and without integrating the entire frames of reference on which they are based; users use services in accordance with an opportunistic logic, in keeping with their personal interests and to resolve problems as they arise (Boromo); there are no coherent services built on shared objectives. Such services would, for example, place the interests of the user in the center of the process (Boromo); with the exception of regular services in relatively low demand compared to the supply, services provided by the municipality take little or no notice of social demand (Say); supply is sometimes produced under conditions that are in complete contradiction with official norms. What happens, in this case, is that other norms are produced to justify the practices and keep the institution (Sirakorola).

Areas for action

The results summarised above indicate possible areas for action, themes for forums and questions for study, which will be formulated by the parties involved in the process on 22-23 May, for presentation and discussion on 24 May.

To facilitate discussion, areas for action currently taking shape are grouped into four categories:

1. Areas for action related to the foundations of the decentralisation process. (How can the overall policy framework governing the provision of local public services be improved?)

  • How can the user be placed at the core of institutional development approaches? What institutional conditions favour the formulation of policies and implementation strategies based on indepth analysis of suppliers and users, while taking into account both sectoral and territorial service chains?

  • Is it useful to develop guides for writing norms for the national, deconcentrated and decentralised level and, in parallel, users guides organised by specific problem?

  • How can statistical indicators on budget support be formulated so that they are anchored in local realities? How can micro-macro dialogue on these indicators be facilitated? When quantitative statistical indicators show changes, how can participative research be used to provide qualitative information on possible causes, and to formulate national policies?

2. Areas for action involving institutions. (How can institutional interfaces and mechanisms be improved to make local public service provision more efficient?)

  • Do institutional and organisational analysis tools and approaches need to be reviewed on the local level?

  • On the deconcentrated and decentralised level, but above all on the level of interaction between civil servant and user, what is the minimum discretionary space for a given service that permits action in a concrete situation, and what is the maximum space required to attain legislators’ objectives?

3. Areas for action involving partners’ financial and technical support. (How can support strategies and means of intervening in local public services be improved?)

  • Should support be thought of in a more global way, with respect to themes selected, categories of institutional actors involved and national contexts that impact on the development of the capacities of the local level? In particular, should the construction and mutual recognition of the ‘subjects of the law’ (local authority and users) be encouraged with the development of a more applied type of law?

  • Should the ‘soft’ (6) be articulated with a minimum level of resources (7)?

  • How can indicators be set up so that an organisation that provides technical support for governance can feed information into the mutual apprenticeship of actors on the institutional, organisational and individual levels, and obtain feedback on its contribution?

  • Do we need to find financing that allows for longer-term planning and more suitable management of the approach, for example through the creation of a joint fund to which the various donors contribute?

4. Areas for action involving follow-up on the research-action process. (What is the next step? How can the research-action dialogue be continued and strengthened?)

  • On the basis of lessons learned, should the approach be repeated in other communities, with more involvement of local actors in the formulation of hypotheses and questions for research?

  • What resources and partnerships are needed to continue this work?

  • Do we need to find programme schemes that allow stakeholders in reforms and institutional development to be more involved in the choice of research themes, and that encourage participation of researchers in the sub-region (for example by an annual call for proposals that are then evaluated by a scientific and technical panel)?

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