“We assert the right that we have, as citizens, to exercise control over the management of public affairs.”
In Guatemala NIMD supports a programme that engages local politicians and citizens’ groups in an effort to devise a Shared Municipal Agenda (Agenda Municipal Compartida): a joint plan for the development of their municipality. With the programme, which currently covers 27 municipalities, NIMD and its partners – Acción Ciudadana, Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and the Italian aid agency Cooperazione Internazionale (COOPI) – seek to help municipal governments improve the management of public funds and services, and make them more accountable to their residents.
Ednea Patricia de León Quinto and Romualdo Augusto Mejía López live in Izabal, a department in the northeast of Guatemala on the Caribbean coast. They are active citizens who take an interest in public affairs. Ednea works with a civil society group in the port of Puerto Barrios. Romualdo is a politician for the Republican Front of Guatemala (FRG) in nearby Livingston. Last year, they both helped establish a Shared Municipal Agenda (SMA) in their municipality: a local development plan with proposals to improve health care, education, security, and the environment.
Romualdo’s constituency consists mainly of Garífunas, one of the many ethnic communities in town. “Livingston is a very special municipality due to its great diversity. We have Q’eqchi’, Ladino, people of Indian descent, Chinese and Garífunas.” According to Romualdo, these differences do not pose a problem: “we all participate in each others cultural activities, and when we gather to discuss issues, we try to reach consensus”.
It is in this spirit that Romualdo has been working with other local politicians and citizens, organised in a Citizens’ Action Committee (CAC), to devise a plan to address some of the most pressing problems shared by all inhabitants of Livingston.
Unemployment is such a problem. “Within the Garífuna population that I represent, there are many who are unemployed” Romualdo observes. “Very few of them have a university degree, and job opportunities are scarce in Livingston.” The shared agenda, which Romualdo has helped develop, contains proposals to address this situation. As he explains: “We propose that the government provides us with incentives for self-employment, for example, in the tourism sector, or through agricultural development”.
Likewise, in Puerto Barrios, citizens and politicians have worked out a shared agenda for the development of their municipality. Initially, the discussions were “very tense” says Ednea, who participated in the meetings. “Each party and civil society organisation wanted to push its own agenda. Yet eventually we understood that this defeats the purpose of agenda sharing; that we had to partake and truly share ideas.”
As Puerto Barrios is a bustling seaport, the town attracts people from other parts of Izabal looking for employment. It also attracts crime. “There is considerable drug trafficking, while mugging, robbery, and murder rates are on the rise” says Ednea. Another challenge is corruption. The municipality of Puerto Barrios is heavily indebted. According to Ednea “it has been ransacked by the authorities, by people who have been in power. This is an issue that many do not like to discuss”.
In the meetings leading up to the presentation of the Shared Municipal Agenda in September 2008, Ednea managed to table the issue of corruption. This culminated in the initiative to conduct a series of ‘social audits’ to review the municipality’s handling of public funds. In a first case, Ednea has helped conduct an audit of the management of a public hospital in Puerto Barrios. The findings are included in the SMA document. Even if the authorities do not respond immediately to this audit’s recommendations, Ednea hopes that more social audits will be conducted in the coming years. “These audits remind officials that they are held accountable by the residents of Puerto Barrios as we assert the right that we have, as citizens, to exercise control over the management of public affairs.”