Local governments have embraced participatory democracy as a way to empower civil society, better include marginalized groups and build more accountable and inclusive institutions; thus, in advancing urban equality. In order to bring their political approaches and practical knowledge on this very relevant issue for local democracy to the forefront, the UCLG-CSIPDHR and the IOPD organized last 18 March a workshop among several of its members. Contributions to the event identified emerging priorities and policies linked to topical issues such as the COVID-19 crisis and the digital transformation. These will help build a meaningful, joint contribution to the GOLD VI Report on Urban Equality and help to identify current challenges of participatory democracy from the perspective of local governments.
The workshop was marked by the proven experience, regional diversity and approach variety of participants involved. Tunisian local government representatives from Sousse and L'Ariana focused on the challenges of strengthening local democratic institutions and fostering citizens' civic engagement in the context of a still relatively recent democratization process. Douala 3 in Cameroon and Iztapalapa in Mexico stressed on the importance of decentralizing participatory democracy processes at the level of neighbourhoods, while the Indonesian regency of Wonosobo highlighted the role of proximity mechanisms for direct accountability - an especially relevant innovation if one thinks on local human rights guarantee.
Participants highlighted how their cooperation with civil society groups was crucial for deepening local democracy and strengthening residents' civic engagement. This was the case of Grenoble, in France, and Barcelona, in Spain, who built on their cooperation schemes with grassroots organizations and human rights defenders to foster inclusiveness in participatory democracy mechanisms. The representative of Quilmes (Argentina) also referred to this issue in connection to his city's efforts to empower marginalized groups and upgrade especially deprived urban areas.
Building political equality and advancing social justice through institutional transformation and community strengthening
In exploring how local government practices aim at building urban equality, Laura Roth, expert in charge of writing GOLD VI's contribution on democratizing, argued how local efforts tend to follow a twofold relationship: one seeing the strengthening of democracy as instrumental to achieve urban equality (even though "democratic decisions" also produce inegalitarian outputs) and another one seeing equality as instrumental for democracy (tackling for instance the fact that marginalized groups tend to participate less).
In conclusion, Roth recalled that democracy is also a form of political equality in itself, if one thinks, for example, of inequalities between political actors or representatives and represented residents. With this in mind, an interactive Mural exercise allowed participants to identify how their own approaches connected to the questions "how to redesign local institutional structures to share decision making power" and "how to strengthen communities so that people participate as equals". This helped to address these various questions in a more integrated manner.
The role of participatory democracy practices face to the COVID-19 aftermath and digital transformation
All participants gave an important emphasis to how the COVID-19 crisis impacted their work and priorities. Indeed, it made the efforts of inclusion and partnership with civil society more relevant, as a way to address the renewed demands of residents and most affected communities. The current scenario also propelled local governments to transform the way they carried out policies, taking for instance a more proactive and affirmative approach, establishing proximity accountability mechanisms or embracing digital technologies. Even though most participants praised the role of digital technologies to maintain participatory democracy mechanisms at a time of global pandemic, they also emphasized how physical spaces of participation cannot be replaced either due to their social function.
Linking these contributions to the GOLD VI process
Given the meaningful substance of all contributions, key ideas and innovative practices shared throughout the event, the UCLG-CSIPDHR and the IOPD are now ready to contribute to the GOLD VI Report on Urban Equality by building on their members' viewpoints on the subject. Both organizations will draft, in cooperation with expert Laura Roth, an extensive contribution to the Report reflecting on "the role of participatory democracy practices in advancing urban equality".
The GOLD VI Report will address the inequality crisis and its multiple dimensions at the local level. In doing so, it aims to shed light on emerging responses by local governments, focused on building more inclusive and equitable cities. By addressing approaches adopted by both local governments and civil society, it particularly aims to identify innovative solutions, to explore key issues and to see how these relate to particular, key urban populations. The Report will be published in 2022 on the occasion of the UCLG World Congress with the aim of shaping UCLG's discourse and agendas on urban equality. You can know more about this process here.
Workshop participants :
Marc Serra, Councillor for Citizenship Rights and Participation, Barcelona City Council and Secretary General of the IOPD
Achille Azemba, Councillor of Douala 3
Imen Ouardani, Councillor in Sousse
Ilhem Ben Salah, Councillor and President of the Council of Participatory Democracy of L'Ariana
Emmanuel Carroz, Councillor for Migration and International Cooperation of Grenoble
Hidayat Fahmi, Director of Human Rights of the Wonosobo Regency
Rocío Lombera, Director of Planning and Citizen Participation, Iztapalapa Mayor's Office
Fernando Collizoli, Director of International Relations of the Municipality of Quilmes
Diego Fernández, Director of Local Democracy of Grenoble
Ana Maria Vargas, Research Director at the Swedish International Centre for Local Democracy (ICLD)
This activity was carried out in collaboration with the UCLG Committee on Social Inclusion, Participatory Democracy and Human Rights (CSIPDHR).