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Centralization or Decentralization?

By Charles Hardy
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Five years ago Juan and Maria were tired of the dust that filled their
barrio home day after day. One evening at supper they decided that it
was time to do something about it. They visited their neighbors and
called a meeting to discuss how to pave the street that ran in front of
their houses.

Everyone at the meeting agreed that the work
was the government’s responsibility. The question was: who knew someone
that could hear their plea? Only Martha knew of a neighbor who worked
at the city hall: Ramon, a janitor. He seemed to be their only contact
with power.

At the next meeting, Ramon said a secretary to a city
councilman had been very kind and courteous with him. She might be able
to help.

Thus the struggle began: the proposal went to the
secretary, then to the councilman, then to the city council, then to
the mayor’s office, the mayor, the state government, the governor, the
ministry of infrastructure, and finally the project was approved. Two
years later funding was allocated. After filtering back through
bureaucrats in the ministry, the state offices, and the city
offices—each taking a cut of the appropriation—a contractor arrived in
the community to lay the asphalt that would cover about ten yards of
the street.

Four years had passed since Juan and Maria organized that first
meeting. They called another meeting and the community realized that at
the current rate and following current procedures, it would take eighty
years before the whole street would be paved. Something had to change
in the country.

Enter the idea of community councils. A group of four hundred families
have an assembly and begin a study of the community needs. Together
they select their priorities one of which is the paving of the street,
draw up the proposals, and submit them directly to the ministry of
infrastructure. The projects are approved and the money goes directly
to the community council to oversee the projects and to see that they
are carried out. Three months later Juan and Maria have a paved street
in front of their home.

Corruption can still happen in this new situation at either end of the
process. But now there are just the two “ends” without all the
intermediaries. At one end there are fewer people who can be held
responsible if corruption occurs; and, at the other end are the
interests of the community that will want to see that it gets what it
deserves.

The first procedure is defended in Venezuela by those who have ruled
the country for decades as a virtue called “decentralization of power.”
They also demonize the second calling it “centralization” of power.

Juan and Maria are willing to let the politicians and philosophers
debate the point. Their only interest was getting their street paved.

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