Issue No.
159, July 2011 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Road construction in Ramallah. Photo by Yousef Shakarne.
Photo by Majed Shla.
Ramallah. Photo by Zeina-Za’rour.

Trustworthiness in Palestinian Local Governance
By Rasha Alyatim
Palestinian local authorities, a.k.a municipalities and councils, are vital social organisations. They are more than service providers; they are builders of society and keepers of development. In our Palestinian context where higher and national authorities are dependent on unstable political whims, it is important for local authorities to be reliable organisations; competent and able to withstand the tides of political turmoil and deliver confidence and assurance to their citizens.

Naturally, when discussing local authorities we are discussing two components and the working relation between them: locals and authorities. Authority exists because locals have chosen its existence to manage collective issues of concern. It exists to serve the locals, to help them in meeting their needs, to guarantee the rights and interests of the group, and to manage the scale between the rights and interests of the group and the rights and interests of the individual. On the other hand, since locals are referees to the scope and nature of the authority’s duties and work, it is their responsibility to guide the authority in its work and decision making and facilitate its progress.

It is important to realise that the general negative public perception of Palestinian local authorities and their competency does not reflect the reality.

Palestinians believe that their local authorities are unfair, incompetent, and lack the necessary skills and resources to perform at acceptable standards. Palestinians may also use some creative and colourful language when describing and talking about their local authorities, often accompanied by real-life stories about family members, neighbours, and acquaintances who fell victim to the incompetency of their local authority. Happily, I am pleased to say, the reality is not like that at all.

The real picture paints a wonderful image of sophistication and advancement in any Palestinian local authority. In spite of, or maybe because of, the difficult circumstances that Palestinians regularly encounter, local authorities have managed to expertly navigate the tricky route of local governance with as little collateral damage as possible. Although local authorities, much like their locals, are not hesitant at all when talking about the shortcomings of locals, namely, their lack of loyalty, participation, and good citizenship. Local authorities, too, have a bag full of stories about citizens throwing trash from a car or the third floor of a building, and demanding access to certain services that they refuse to pay for.

Thus, it is apparent that a missing link exists in this all-too-important relationship. Both sides are of the opinion that the other side has a private agenda and is not acting to achieve common goals and interests. This reality makes each side work independently regardless of inputs or recommendations from the other side. Therefore, optimised cooperation may be classified as non-existent between the two sides.

This is all due to the missing link in this relationship: trust. Neither side trusts that the other side knows what it is doing or that the intentions of the other side are honourable. Local authorities don’t trust citizens to behave in a responsible manner by paying their dues or using resources and services consciously; on the other hand, citizens don’t trust local authorities’ actions or competency.

This missing link of trust breeds an environment of passiveness. Citizens are not actively involved in the governance of their locality, nor are local authorities actively involving citizens in the governance process. It might be the case that some form of involvement in governance takes place, but it’s subjected to the terms and conditions of internationally funded projects, not to citizens’ needs and demands.

So, how to restore this trust?
Well, first it is important to realise that it is an ongoing process of gaining trust and keeping it. One single action or activity to build trust is never enough, no matter how big, but rather repeated and continuous actions will decide the trustworthiness of involved sides.

This is the second element to realise when working to restore trust; each side - citizens and local authorities - has to prove its trustworthiness to the other side. Since the relationship between locals and their authority is a dynamic one, both sides share the responsibility of making this relationship, and, in turn, their locality, prosper and thrive.

After understating these two elements comes the actual process of restoring trust. Good indicators of trustworthiness are ethics, participation, and competency. The ethics indicator refers to practicing and applying values such as accountability, transparency, integrity, fairness, and rule of law. The participation indicator refers to engaging citizens broadly and freely in local governance decision making. The competency indicator refers to the level of skills and resources needed to develop local governance. Bringing these indicators together in practice by citizens and locals should result in restoring trust.

One indicator I want to emphasise here is transparency. The governing process in Palestine is surrounded by a mystic aura of secrecy; it is the norm for things to be hidden and confidential amongst a very small number of people. The reasoning, it is argued, is that there is no value in making things publicly known, as the very popular Palestinian proverb goes, “Too many cooks spoil the cooking.” This mentality needs to change; we all know that better-informed people make better choices. An atmosphere of openness is an atmosphere of trust. Being transparent, hiding nothing, means accepting responsibility and accountability for actions, which, in turn, encourages fairness and integrity in actions.

Expectedly, trustworthiness indicators are harder to measure and apply. They don’t require new tangible tools or equipment as much as they require transformed mentalities and attitudes, which are, as we all know, much harder to develop. Practicing these indicators requires absolute conviction and commitment to them. It also requires fundamental changes in the way things happen, which scares many stakeholders.

My ending comments for this article are about local elections that were postponed twice so far (hopefully there will not be a third time). Local elections are one strategic tool to guarantee and enhance local public trust. The concept behind elections is a very simple one: legitimate representation of citizens. This straightforward concept ensures that trust indicators are functioning well.

Local elections are a way to hold both sides accountable for their actions and decisions. It is one way to demand transparency and integrity from both sides. It is a way to guarantee fairness and rule of law in society. Local elections are also one approach to participation, and they allow interested sides to raise their competencies. As such, local elections are a sure opportunity - that we have already missed twice - to raise trustworthiness standards.

Trust or trustworthiness is the cornerstone of the governing relationship at any level, but it has considerable significance at the local level because of the closeness of authority and the direct impact of its work on daily life. Locals and authorities have to trust each other; trust that they have the same vision, common goals, and purposes; and trust that the doings of each other will not harm the common good but rather work towards its achievement.

Rasha Alyatim works at the Applied Research Institute - Jerusalem (ARIJ).

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