Former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O’Neill declared following his only electoral defeat in 1935 that, “All politics is local.” In 1969, Friends of the Earth founder David Brower coined Think Globally, Act Locally, which became the universal mantra for the environmentalist movement, inspiring activism and change.
More than half the world’s population now lives in cities, underscoring urban challenges like crime, infrastructure, and poverty and the urgency to fill gaps in financing, partnerships, and technology. Meanwhile, six of the eight Millennium Development Goals have a connection to local government.
In many countries, the metaphor of the “village” is a powerful cultural symbol, and the ideals of village life motivate national development. Swaziland, for example, is strengthening Tinkhundla (local government) to be the engine of good governance, development, and service delivery while respecting Chiefs as central to socio-economic organization of the people. For Swazis, benchmarking good practices in decentralization is about adapting traditional governance and transforming society.
Canada has perhaps the most decentralized system of government in the world. This is a function of the country’s geographical size, regional diversity, and natural paths of communication and transportation, among other factors. Delivery of programs and services must be decentralized to manage this reality. Canada’s decentralization challenge is manifest in:
- Devolution from national and provincial to local governments via delegation and collaboration;
- Authority to legislate, own, budget, tax, and employ through division of powers;
- Central unification of policy and standards;
- Local anchoring of decision making and responsive services;
- Valued contributions by cities and communities to the national agenda; and
- The need to know how much government is too much government – there is only one taxpayer.
Canada is itself an international benchmark, where little is considered sub-standard about sub-national government. Perhaps the greatest potential for replication is in local governance, where programs and services operate closer to citizens and where innovations resonate with countries seeking to decentralize and modernize the state.
Smaller-scale, community-based reforms are often more adaptable, manageable and affordable. This makes south-south cooperation and peer review attractive for countries like Swaziland. Canada’s contribution to the mix remains firmly grounded in local governance innovations that embrace diversity and refrain from championing “one-size-fits-all” approaches.