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Representing Rural Voices in Africa

A new WRI report presents new research on the importance of working with African legislatures for long-term social and environmental improvements. It finds lawmakers face enormous challenges when representing their constituents, and that the rural majority is often poorly represented. The report, found here, presents options for improving representation.

In development circles, public participation is often viewed as a “cure-all” for building local democracy. If the local people are present, permitted to pose questions to officials, and, in rare instances, make suggestions during government meetings, it is assumed that the development project is successful.

However, creating meaningful participation in large, complex societies is neither feasible for the limited time-frame of development projects nor sufficient for the development of local democracy. For example, in Africa, where over 400 million people live in poverty, participation can be too time-consuming and expensive for the populace.

Representative democracy is arguably a better means for addressing the concerns of the rural populace in Africa, in particular the rural poor. In representative democracy, voters elect leaders and delegate the authority to govern on their behalf. This removes the high-costs (e.g., time lost from work, transport costs) of direct participation from low-income households. Since each representative ideally supports the priorities of her entire constituency, representative democracy also reduces bias favoring the most powerful groups, particularly if they are in the minority.

Focusing on reforms to this system, rather than singularly relying on direct participation, would ensure that rural priorities are addressed over the long term.

A new WRI report, On Whose Behalf? Legislative Representation and the Environment in Africa, provides recommendations for reforming representative democracy in Africa.

Based upon five years of research and outreach, this report discusses critical incentives and disincentives to legislative representation and the implications for addressing constituency matters.

As the report states, development projects that “discount the influence of the broader political context in which parliaments are embedded…are unlikely to have much effect on the deeper incentive patterns, informal rules, and power principles that guide political life.”

The findings of the report suggest that effective representation can be extremely difficult to attain. It is both challenging for legislators, yet critical to the interests of the rural majority. In Africa, rural households are the majority, comprising 65 percent of the continent’s population. On average, over 60 percent of total rural family income is derived from nature. Their priorities tend to be strongly linked to environmental sustainability (e.g., safeguarding environmental assets, ensuring sustainable use, and protecting critical ecosystem services from degradation).

Advocacy on local environmental issues can be especially problematic for legislators for several reasons. Legislators who risk supporting environmental conservation are likely to be marginalized by senior officials in the executive branch who consider these to be luxuries rather than policy priorities. Other environmental issues, such as security of land, access to natural resources, and benefit-sharing, tend to be politically charged and divisive.

At the same time, legislative representation is critical to the interests of the rural majority and thus the strengthening of local democracy. Case studies from Cameroon, Tanzania, and Uganda show that the environment can be an important entry point for citizens to engage with local and national interests.

The environment can provide a platform for rural citizens to organize around, a catalyst for the development of civil society, and an impetus for grassroots political participation.

The report outlines four critical areas of reform for strengthening representative democracy:

  1. Accountability of legislators to their constituents (e.g., freedom of information acts, providing citizens with recall)
  2. Autonomy from political bosses and politics (e.g., restrict president’s authority to appoint legislators to parliament)
  3. Authority and capacity to perform representation roles (e.g., empower legislatures with authority to impose sanctions on government officials and institutions for poor performance)
  4. Personal Attributes of legislators (e.g., establish minimum standards and qualifications of legislators)

If development practitioners work with policy-makers on empowering legislatures in these areas, then the public will have a louder, though perhaps more nuanced, voice and participatory interventions (for those who choose and are able to participate) will be strengthened.

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