A Comparative Review of Village Governance in Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines

Asia Foundation Local Governance Policy Brief

Although villages are rarely the local government level that is assigned the responsibility for delivering key local services (such as education or health services), village governments nonetheless play an important role in the local government structure of many countries. While the functional role of village governments often focuses on basic community services, citizen participation/ engagement and local-level justice, the existence, structure and nature of the village-level governance institutions often also has important political ramifications.

As part of its policy support to the reform of village legislation in Timor-Leste, the Asia Foundation recently prepared a research study on the evolution of decentralization and village governance in the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Cambodia. This paper forms part of the Asia Foundation’s ongoing research and analysis on the decentralization and local development sectors in Timor-Leste. This study endeavors to look at the overarching drivers of policy and change by conducting objective, broader comparative reviews which contribute lessons learned and key findings that are relevant in other relevant country contexts.

The study finds that across the four comparison countries, government initiatives to pursue decentralization took place fairly suddenly and in response to political concerns at the national level. Both the Philippines and Indonesian governments legislated extensive decentralization policies in a short period of time. The Philippines is known for enacting the most extensive decentralization legislations, and provides an example with a rich and relatively long set of experiences. Meanwhile, Indonesia has subsequently retracted and re-extended authorities at the sub-national level and has only recently focused on the village level of government. Cambodia has been implementing policies at a slower pace, and started first with establishing governance at the commune level with a more recent focus on the districts and provinces. Papua New Guinea faces the challenge of integrating traditional leadership in the sub-national governance structure, and is yet to reconcile how to strengthen local governance. In comparison, Timor-Leste is still in the early stages of embarking on both a nation-building and decentralization process.

The comparative study of village and/or lowest tier of governance across the four comparison countries included in this study reveal some basic similarities and a few fundamental differences:

  • The village may have well-defined authorities without being included as an administration tier within subnational administrative structure
  • Provisions may be made for ‘customary’ governance, however caution must be taken to prevent discrimination under alternative governance structures
  • A village (or commune, barangay or ward) head and a council or committee provides a balanced governance structure that includes executive and legislative functions
  • Elections at the village level provide the constituents with confidence in their potential to hold local leaders to account
  • The most critical question is which authorities to mandate to village-level government. The mandates must take into account both capacity of local leadership and national policies to enable effective functioning.
  • Official mandates for civil society participation in local governance provide greater incentives and purpose in public involvement.
  • For local governments to be effective in service delivery, there must be clear procedures for engagement with line ministries and capacity building of local officials.
  • Village and local governments must have clear roles in natural resource management.
  • Adequate financial resources for development activities must be allocated to the local government for effective governance at this level, with clear mechanisms for accountability from higher levels of government.
  • Salaries or remuneration to local leaders provide an indication of the importance bestowed on this level of government.
  • Separation of the executive and legislative functions provides a check and balance on village level governance.
  • Mandates for minimum positions filled by women candidates may increase women’s participation in governance.
  • Once established at the national level, gender mainstreaming policies must be integrated into local level governance.
  • Addressing violence against women requires a commitment from the national government and the establishment of support institutions at the local level.
  • Establishing a local level justice system may strengthen the role of local leadership in resolving disputes and conflicts.

Susan Marx and Asha Ghosh. 2014. Comparative Review of Village Governance in Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines. Asia Foundation Local Governance Policy Brief No. 1 / September 2014. Dili, Tomir-Leste: The Asia Foundation.