Subnational governments play a key role in invigorating democracy, inclusive governance, and sustainable development

An open Letter to USAID Administrator Samantha Power

Dear Administrator Power:

On behalf of the Local Public Sector Alliance, I would like to thank USAID for publicly sharing its draft Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Policy for review and scrutiny, before the policy is finalized and used to guide the allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. foreign assistance.

DRG Policy Context

The Local Public Sector Alliance is a not-for-profit global professional network that champions inclusive, equitable societies and sustainable global development by advocating for more inclusive and efficient decentralization and localization.

The United States has a long tradition of inclusive governance, not only at the federal level, but especially at the state and local government levels. In an evolving global development landscape, the United States is extremely well-positioned to serve as a strong and credible voice on the importance of inclusive subnational governance and local democracy.

Subnational governance and the American experiment with representative democracy

As noted recently by Secretary Blinken, “[c]ities, when you come down to it, are where democracy is closest to its people. And when cities are responsive to the needs of residents, they demonstrate democracy’s greatest strength: its ability to improve on itself, to empower citizens to hold their leaders accountable, to try out different solutions, and to allow the best ideas to rise to the top.” The rich array of state and local governance institutions and processes in the U.S. reflect the wide variety of successful approaches to engaging citizens in their own governance and delivering public services. While there is no globally superior—or ‘one-size-fits-all’—approach to subnational governance, the lessons inherent in the American experience with multilevel governance illustrate the importance of states, counties, cities, towns and townships in delivering democracy’s promise.

Unfortunately, the current draft of the DRG Policy does not adequately emphasize the critical role that subnational governments and subnational governance institutions play in invigorating democracy and bolstering inclusive, sustainable development. The almost complete omission of subnational democratic actors in the draft DRG Policy is notable and unfortunate, and stands in sharp contrast to America’s own experience with subnational democracy.

For instance, when identifying “frontline democratic actors”, the draft DRG policy (p. 18-19) lists “civil society [organizations], activists, and journalists, but also government reformers, such as judges, prosecutors, anti-corruption champions, parliamentarians, supreme audit institutions, human rights commissions, and change-makers from across development sectors.” Glaringly excluded from this list of frontline democratic actors are the actors that actually serve on the frontline of democracy, including elected representatives at the regional and local level (e.g., city councilors, district councilors, provincial assemblies, and so on), mayors and governors, as well as the state and local government institutions themselves. USAID’s efforts to promote democracy and inclusive governance will fall short if these subnational officials and subnational government institutions—along with their associations, intergovernmental commissions, and similar organizations— are not recognized as critical frontline democratic actors.

USAID’s localization terminology is confusing. Truly local actors (e.g., local governments) are often overlooked and not named among the constituencies that will help localize USAID’s efforts.

Indeed, subnational governments and other subnational stakeholders are critical to ‘invigorating democracy and bolstering governance that advances the public interest and delivers inclusive, sustainable development’ around the world. In the absence of inclusive and responsive regional and local governance institutions, it is almost impossible for a centralized public sector to systematically engage citizens in public participation, let alone in ‘ensuring that people have greater agency to influence the decisions that affect their daily lives’. A review of major public sector reforms around the world over the past 50 years and USAID’s own experiences—in countries ranging from the Ukraine and Indonesia to Kenya and South Africa, and Brazil or Peru—suggests that decentralization, effective multilevel governance, and strengthened subnational democracy play a key role in advancing DRG’s aspirations.

Ensuring that people have greater agency to influence the decisions that affect their daily lives.

As part of its ‘pivots’, DRG would be well-advised to consider multilevel governance and cities as a fifth major opportunity to promote democratic empowerment, inclusive governance, and sustainable development around the world. Cities continue to be the engines of economic growth as well as centers for innovation and social transformation around the world. Citizens know this – and they continue to move to cities. As a result, however, cities in many USAID partner countries, especially in Africa and Asia, are major sources of carbon emissions, placing them at the center of climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. Given the complex economic, political, and social dynamics of urban areas, and the often-constrained intergovernmental context within which cities function, an essential target of USAID democracy support thus ought to address the effectiveness of multilevel governance systems to empower cities and to ensure inclusive, resilient, and sustainable urban growth.

With these concerns in mind, we would like to suggest a number of general and specific changes to be incorporated in the final draft of USAID’s DRG Policy. These suggested changes are made with the aim to balance the importance accorded in the DRG Policy to national as well as subnational actors, and the associated actions at the national and subnational level in partner countries needed to achieve USAID’s policy’s objectives. To ensure that sufficient attention is paid to subnational democracy and subnational governance in programming, and to ensure coordination within DRG and across Bureaus, USAID may further wish to consider establishing a division within the DRG Bureau dedicated to inclusive and effective multilevel governance and cities.

We thank USAID for taking into consideration these comments as the Agency finalizes the draft DRG Policy.


Jamie Boex
Executive Director