The Road to Decentralization: Achieving Guatemala's Promise of Accountable, Inclusive Democracy
By Tom Fagan, Ricardo Valladares, and Gary Bland
Over the last three decades, decentralization in Guatemala has been viewed as a way to achieve more participatory, inclusive democracy. With the return of democracy to Guatemala in 1985, the newly-elected government aimed to enshrine values of transparency, accountability, and local autonomy in the country’s new legal framework. The new Constitution, adopted in 1985, gave municipalities substantial authority to plan and execute public works and provide public services, and provided them with their own, dedicated funding to carry out these functions. It also created the National System of Development Councils which brings together representatives from civil society and local and national government to oversee urban and rural development throughout the country. In 1996, the Peace Accords formally ended the country’s 36-year civil war and further protected cultural and local identity and established fiscal earmarks for municipal investment in health, education, and other social sectors.
Despite these strong commitments to inclusivity and local participation in the planning and execution of public resources, implementation has not always lived up to the spirit of the law. A 2002 Decentralization Law, which aimed to further devolve decision making and fiscal authority to the municipalities, has yet to be put into practice. Line ministries have resisted delegating their responsibilities and argue that the lack of capacity for implementation and oversight at the local level prevents municipalities from taking on new functions. At the same time, unclear and seemingly contradictory laws have made local officials hesitant to break with the status quo and execute new responsibilities and programs. Progress toward a more fully decentralized system—as the law defines—requires a clear vision for implementation and the political will needed to see it through.
In 2016, during the development of a new strategy for health sector reform, Health and Education Policy Plus (HEP+) identified decentralization as a key pathway for strengthening health service provision and ensuring high-quality, responsive, and appropriate health services for all Guatemalans. Through close collaboration with the Presidential Secretariat for Executive Coordination and the Presidential Commission on Dialogue, the two primary government organizations tasked with engagement coordination at the local level, and other key cabinet-level agencies and ministries, HEP+ developed and is working to advance a long-term strategy for the implementation of Guatemala’s vision for decentralization.
September 8, 2017 marked a milestone event for this vision. President Jimmy Morales, speaking at a meeting of the National Urban and Rural Development Council, announced the launch of the HEP+-supported National Decentralization Agenda. The agenda lays out a strategic vision for decentralizing Guatemala’s public services and aims to guide the process of fulfilling that vision in the coming years.
Although Guatemala has laid the legal framework for a strong, decentralized system of governance and public service provision, commitment to seeing this vision through to fruition—until this year--has been lacking. The recent efforts of key government agencies, supported by the current presidential administration and HEP+, have demonstrated significant progress and promise in establishing a clear and well-defined plan for decentralization. With the continued success of these efforts, Guatemala may finally begin to realize its vision of the transparent, accountable and inclusive democracy, three decades in the making.
Click on the video above to listen to President Morales comment on Guatemala’s National Decentralization Agenda.
This blog is also available on Medium.