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OpEd: Social Contracts Must Form and Thrive in Local Communities

Opinion Editorial co-authored by Enrico Gaveglia, UNDP Resident Representative in the Maldives, and Dr. Ahmed Shukry Hussain, a Community Development Expert who served as the first CEO of the Local Government Authority.

21 April 2024, MVT 15:51
Dr Ahmed Shukry and Enrico Gaveglia.-- Photo: UNDP
21 April 2024, MVT 15:51

Election time is always colorful in the Maldives. Campaigns are articulated, alliances formed and re-shaped. With every election cycle, society aims to find common ground and priorities amidst vibrant debate and divergence on pathways to progress. Such diversity of opinion is inherent in a healthy democratic process, and it is important the broader public are able to actively participate in the unfolding events.

This is observed to be especially important in island communities outside of Malé where civic engagement may be less shaped by political narratives stemming from the capital. This could lead to two, mutually reinforcing, scenarios. One is that individuals and groups, along with local governments, become less connected to policy discourse that affects everyday lives. The other is that communities may find themselves entrenched in partisan narratives, creating divisions missing the creation of an effective space for locally driven dialogue and where the common good is the center of attention.

While the decentralization journey of the Maldives has seen significant progress over the past decade, we must contemplate - where do community identity and social contract fit in all of this? Is representation of people’s collective aspirations being built within and from communities?

With increasing socioeconomic complexities, the role of local governments in Maldives remains key as guarantors of the common good. There can be no sustainable development without a social contract deeply rooted in local communities. It is at the local level where people’s engagement with public office and representatives is vital and has the most potential for change, and where involvement in social and political life can converge to increase the health of a democratic society. At a time when trust in governments requires new injections of trust 1 , it is recognized that it is as much how governance at the local level manifests, as much as what is administratively or legally in place.

The best time for this how is demonstrated or tested is during cycles of shifting economic and social currents and global and domestic polycrises risks that threaten the status quo, such as Elections. It is in these Democracy’s ‘World Cups’ that local governments must exercise legitimate agency in strengthening community bonds and preserving local identities, particularly when communities engage in exploring divergences of opinions and affiliations. The way to support this is by consciously and proactively adopting participatory governance for social cohesion, effectively addressing a spectrum of challenges, including addressing the possibility of community disengagement. When communities are more cohesive and channels of dialogue, cooperation and interaction are multiple and multi-layered, efforts to promote hate and differences are hard to take root.

For this to happen, and for communities to build and exercise power to increase equity, community-driven development needs cross-fertilization with a broader development strategy. This may encompass - yet is not limited to - reforms to governance under a robust decentralization model that truly and wholeheartedly prompts governments to improve the lives and futures of those left disadvantaged and on the fringes.

We could think that both intellectual and action-oriented involvement create social and political bonds in a community. Together with dialogue and discourse and coupled with investments in productivity and efforts to improve the quality of public service delivery, trust-building emerges as a key safeguard against the splintering of individual interests and erosion of communal cohesion.

Challenging hierarchies that have led to historical and continued exclusion of people – especially young people and women - from equitable representation and participation in society are important resources for this. Higher levels of social cohesion tend to correlate positively with greater representation and participation of women and youth in civic spaces. Research 2 has proven time and again that, when women are involved in social cohesion initiatives at community level, initiatives are more likely to be successful.

The notions of human development and local self-government are interconnected and critical to resilient local political economies, and social transformations.

This is an important finding, which convincingly demonstrates that communities and communal relationships are at the center of successful local governments. This approach enables us to view decentralization in a refreshed light – not merely as a governance structure to administer public services, but also as an environment and a vital condition for human development. Such an approach brings local governance and its indispensable role and significance in the processes of sustainable development in countries to a new level. This also opens horizons for the legislative and institutional development of local communities, including for innovation, environmental and cultural conversation and local economic growth.

The case for a local social contract is based on the view that, at the local level, there is an inclination for enduring place-based relationships which the state may not be able to fully offer. If we consider a national social contract model, especially in the context of an upper-middle income developing democracy like the Maldives, it is evident that it carries the risk to be fragmented and disconnected from local realities, embedded in broader themes of social and economic policies, rather than the real-life experiences of people in our 187 islands.

By contrast, at the local level, a more accessible and deeper relationship between the local council, the Women’s Development Committees (WDCs), community-based organizations, farmers, fishers, small-business owners and young people… is possible. We should see this possibility as having the potential to galvanize greater cohesion and civic formation in which all individuals share a collective imagination of that place. This should come with the agency to recognize challenges of social decline over the years, and with the intention to build a new compact – fully rooted in local communities.

2024 is said to be the year of elections globally, and perhaps democracy’s biggest test ever. For the Maldives, the Parliamentary Elections sets the stage for communities to build and exercise power to increase equity in time for the ensuing Local Council and WDC Elections. It represents a historic opportunity for genuine democratic consolidation.


1. OECD Report, Government at a Glance: glance_22214399

2. The paths to equal: Twin indices on women’s empowerment and gender equality. New York. UNDP, UNWomen 2023

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