As COVID-19 continues its worldwide spread, the disruption offers renewed chances for dialogue in many of the contexts in which NIMD works. Governments of all nations must now brace for not only the pandemic, but also for rebuilding normal life afterwards. If we seize this opportunity for inclusion now, then perhaps we can hope for citizens’ inclusion in governance for years to come – even when COVID-19 is “old news”.
This opportunity is what led NIMD to experiment with a 7-month dialogue and training project in Mali. Working with municipal leaders in Commune V, a populous part of Mali’s capital city Bamako, NIMD Mali saw an opportunity to bring leaders and the public together. In order to establish a genuine dialogue between the people and their leaders, and to better take into account local concerns in the formulation of pandemic response measures, we are proud to have kicked off the Accord Communal Project.
Making the right preparations
After decades of work facilitating dialogue, sometimes even between former military adversaries, NIMD understands how precarious dialogue processes can be. One way to ensure a genuine and robust dialogue is to strengthen the dialogue skills of those participating in the dialogue through a shared training programme. This led NIMD Mali to design a full training programme for all 45 of the Municipal Councillors of Commune V, to be implemented before dialogue commenced. This covered how COVID-19 was impacting Malians, how a dialogue process around it could work, and – most importantly – dialogue skills and tools that the Councillors could use to keep the conversation going and keep the process on track.
The session successfully laid the foundations for fruitful public consultations. After the training, one elected official exclaimed “why wait until the end of our mandate to teach us how to work with our people?”, and another added “we would have been closer to the population if we had received [this form of training] at the beginning of our mandate”. One of the Deputy Mayors of Bamako went so far as to propose the same training was rolled out to other districts.
Coming together…at a safe distance
Following the training, citizens of Bamako’s Commune V engaged with the elected Municipal Councillors in dialogue. This was organized through the Town Hall – the body that includes both the elected Councillors and the local administration.
With this support from NIMD, the Town Hall seeks to improve its response to the pandemic by creating spaces for community actors to express their concerns about the impact of the pandemic on social, economic and cultural levels. This mutually reinforcing dialogue is the best way to help communities fight the pandemic as equals.
This approach means leaders are able to better understand the impact of the pandemic on peoples’ daily lives, the solutions advocated, and the leaders’ own role in defining a local response to the pandemic. Here NIMD’s methods were greatly appreciated by dialogue participants, and the traditional chief of Daoudabougou (a neighbourhood in Commune V) said “If the State had started by consulting civil society…it would have made it possible to better adjust its decisions so that they would take into account the concerns of the local populations – who have suffered too much.”
The opportunity for public dialogue also serves to combat disinformation on the outbreak, giving accurate scientific information that denies skeptics and improves public health awareness. For example, testimonies during dialogue led neighbourhood leaders, religious leaders, and representatives of retailers to pledge to raise awareness of the importance of following public health measures – especially the wearing of masks and the use of soap for hand washing.
Keeping citizens involved on COVID-19
After the dialogue session, community leader Ms. Coulibaly Alima Diarra said “We must repeat such initiatives. It is important to have a dialogue between us. Without communication, it is difficult to understand each other. I invite more dialogue.”
The next step in the programme will be a dialogue between elected officials, traditional leaders and civil society representatives who participated in the neighbourhood sessions. The aim will be to decide on the main points for the municipal response to COVID-19, to be presented in a written Accord Communal.
NIMD Mali will also support civil society in the development of a lobby document that will be addressed to the Municipal Council. After that, the Municipal Council will finalize its response to COVID-19, including questions to be put before national authorities.
Greater than the sum of its parts
NIMD’s Accord Communal Project is being implemented in concert with local partners, such as Tuwindi, Rue14 and the Malian Association of Municipalities. Each organization brings with it certain capacities and expertise that allows dialogue to be truly inclusive and far-reaching.
Tuwindi is a foundation of young technology experts that has developed an application that permits communication/consultation between elected officials and the population. This is how the population can monitor the application of the Accord Communal and continue to communicate on other issues regarding the municipality. Rue14.ml is an online news platform that follows the dialogue process to report on what is and isn’t achieved through this process of participatory governance. They will follow up on specific subjects, such as the reopening of schools or the distribution of humanitarian help; and specific groups, such as women and youth. Lastly, the Association des Municipalités du Mali, a local government advocacy organization, supports our methodology and will help us scale up to other municipalities.
In the end, not only will the municipality have been able to respond as effectively as possible to the Corona pandemic, the process will also have demonstrated the benefits of popular consultation and provided tools for the municipality, civil society and the population to strengthen participatory governance.