Local Challenges, Local Solutions
When Matías travels to his appointments at a clinic for people with disabilities in Asunción, an ambulance transports him there free of charge from the doorstep of his home in the nearby city of Itauguá. This service was introduced by Itauguá’s local government to support people with disabilities after their need for assistance was identified as a priority by the city’s Municipal Development Council. This is a prime example of a policy that was developed through public participation. And in Paraguay, the demand for this kind of reform is strong. Eighty percent of the population still practices self-medication due to the high costs of healthcare, and only 3 in 10 Paraguayan students complete 12 years of schooling with only 1 in 10 students going on to attend university. So how does a government of a big country connect with its citizens at a local level to better tailor public services to their specific needs?
Going Above and Beyond to Decentralized Decision-Making
The answer in Paraguay lies in the decentralization of government as a measure of democratic reform. Over the past couple of decades, the government’s strategies to stimulate equitable development have gone local, featuring a reorganization of government administration.
Paraguay’s action plan originally aimed to tackle this by creating 50 municipal councils. In their 2014-2016 action plan, however, more than 200 municipal councils, over four times the amount originally planned, were formed. These councils bring together local authorities from different sectors with neighborhood groups and local businesses. They serve as consensus bodies, convening public hearings, monitoring projects, and creating participatory development plans that outline what resources the municipality has and how the community believes they should be used. Councilwoman Mirian Salinas pointed out, “People liked the approach to civic participation – many people got up and thanked us because it was the first time that this opportunity was given and that motivated them to work on this initiative because if people have the chance to participate, they do so…it’s a matter of giving it ago.”
Government by Community
Although the recommendations of the councils aren’t binding, they represent a huge shift for Paraguay by institutionalizing community consultation and dialog with citizens as a fundamental principle in government, which encourages civil servants to be more open, responsive, and citizen-oriented while building trust with the public.
This commitment was carried forward into both its third and fourth action plans, with the municipal district councils being further strengthened as mechanisms for citizen participation.