The country’s progress in bringing government closer to the citizens through decentralization reforms was commended this September by the European Parliament’s Foreign Committee Rapporteur, MEP Richard Howitt.
Mr Howitt was in Skopje on a two-day visit meeting with the Ministry for Local Self-Government, the Association of Local Self-Government Units, UNDP and other leaders in the reform process to help promote the 2012–14 Action Plan of the new Decentralization Programme.
The Action Plan is a comprehensive set of measures and activities aimed at ensuring that municipalities can provide effective, fair and socially inclusive government.
UNDP has strongly supported the decentralization process as part of its commitment to good democratic governance, working closely with national and local partners on the elaboration of the Plan.
“The decentralization process has been one of the major engines of growth and democracy in the country,” said UNDP’s Resident Representative Deirdre Boyd, speaking at a press conference during Mr Howitt’s visit, “And the relatively short period of its implementation has confirmed the capacities of the country to push this complex process forward, at times more vigorously than in other countries.”
A former mayor and long-time municipal councillor in the UK before becoming an MEP, Mr Howitt emphasized the “indispensable contribution that local government makes to a rich and vibrant democracy,” confirming from his own experience that “decentralization leads to more efficient and responsive public services, higher levels of investment for economic well-being and higher levels of personal well-being among local citizens.”
Speaking on the occasion of Mr Howitt’s visit, the Minister for Local Self-Government Mr Nevzat Bejta also emphasized the importance of strengthening local government as a means of achieving greater economic empowerment and the development of a fairer society: “Only by developing all municipalities in this way can we improve the quality of citizens’ lives and reduce existing disparities, which are particularly pronounced between major urban centres and rural communities.”
Both the Minister and Mr Howitt congratulated the municipalities on their commitment to more transparent, accountable and responsive government. At the same time they acknowledged that major challenges remain, especially in the need to increase the financial and human capacities of local government institutions to fulfil their expanded responsibilities.
Mr Howitt declared that he would “strongly back the arguments of municipalities for more financial autonomy” and was paying close attention to the views of local government on “blocked accounts, on the equalisation of revenues, on the funding of schools, and on both VAT and a broader base for property tax - which remains the cornerstone of local government finance in my own country.”
But he stressed that such autonomy “will only work if you wholeheartedly join the fight against corruption” and stressed the need for all government officials to be “professional and strictly impartial in their conduct”.
Mr Howitt further stressed the importance of successful decentralisation as a crucial aspect of the country’s accession to the European Union. “Your progress on decentralisation in this country is absolutely vital,” he said, “readying you to play your role as a future member of the European Union.”
Recent reforms in local government are expected to feature significantly in the EU’s upcoming Progress Report on the country, which Mr Howitt believes will be largely positive. Adding to this good news, the Member of the European Parliament for Eastern England was also able to report “positive progress in the High Level Accession Dialogue with Brussels”.
In the course of his visit, Mr Howitt travelled to Veles to meet with mayors of the municipalities in the Vardar region. There he heard directly from those who have been leading the decentralization process at local and regional level. And their commitment to these reforms was clear.
“The municipality of Veles has been and will continue to be at the forefront of the positive changes” said Goran Petrov, the Mayor of Veles and the Chairman of the Vardar Planning Region. “With the support provided by UNDP and national partners over the past years, Veles has been able to become a champion of the decentralization process.”
Mr Howitt’s visit was organized as part of the ‘Mid-Term Review of the Decentralization Process’, a UNDP project implemented in partnership with the Ministry of Local Self-Government, and supported by the Association of Local Self Government Units. The project will help the Government review all of the main components of the process, including the legal framework, the institutional and legal capacities, and the fiscal and service delivery aspects.
Thanking the Ministry of Local Self-Government and the Association of Municipalities for their hospitality and cooperation, the EU Rapporteur paid special tribute to UNDP. “I know UNDP is a valued partner for you in the country and a valued international partner for us in the European Union,” he said, “By committing some ten million US dollars a year here and undertaking interventions in around half of all municipalities in the country, I know our UNDP partners are making a very significant impact on an issue which is integral to the EU accession process.”
To see full speech delivered by Mr. Howitt, please click here
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