Local governments are the units of government that deal with and understand the needs of their local community. Local government effectiveness varies according to the amount of responsibility and independence allocated to them. Strengthening local governments requires, in some countries, requires decentralization and democratization by the constitutional anchoring of local self-government on the basis of internationally recognized principles. In other countries, strengthening local government may be more related to financing, improving management skills or other such factors.
The World Assembly of Cities and Local Authorities, (Istanbul, May 1996) on the eve of the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (HABITAT II), called upon the international community to take steps to draw up, in partnership with the representative associations of local authorities, a worldwide Charter of Local Self-Government setting out, for the guidance of all national governments and international agencies, the basic principles which should underlie any democratic local government system. It urged that the basis of this Charter should reside in the principles of subsidiarity and proximity, whereby decisions should be taken at the level closest to the citizens (municipality or town) and that only those tasks which the local level cannot effectively carry out alone should be referred to higher levels.
The debates at the World Assembly had focused a good deal upon the constitutional position of local authorities and their relationship with central governments in the discharge of their functions. In this context, the positive experience of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, adopted by the Council of Europe in 1985 as a European Convention and now signed and ratified by a large majority of the Council of Europe's 40 Member States, was strongly highlighted in the debates.
The preparation of a World Charter of Local Self-Government figures among the aims specified in the Constitution of the World Associations of Cities and Local Authorities Coordination (WACLAC), the structure set up by the ten international local government associations which had convened the World Assembly in response to the call made by that Assembly for an ongoing coordination to serve as the interlocutor and institutional partner of the UN and its specialized agencies. WACLAC envisaged that such a Charter would most effectively be drawn up in partnership with national governments through United Nations machinery, with a view to the final text being promulgated as an official United Nations Convention.
At HABITAT II (Istanbul, June 1996), national governments committed themselves to the objective of decentralising authority and resources (Habitat Agenda, para 45(c)). They also recognized local authorities as the closest partners of central governments, and as essential in the implementation of Agenda 21 and the Habitat Agenda (Istanbul Declaration, para 12). The adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Habitat Agenda, including its Global Plan of Action, in December 1996 provides the political mandate for advancing work on a World Charter of Local Self-Government.
This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities. Agenda 21 recommends strengthening development of the human resources and of capacities of public sector institutions through technical assistance and international cooperation so as to achieve substantial improvement in the efficiency of governmental activities by the year 2000.
Since the Habitat II conference, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements UNCHS (Habitat) and the World Associations of Cities and Local Authorities Coordination (WACLAC) have created a Memorandum of Understanding setting out mutual commitments to collaboration in a number of key policy areas related to the implementation of the Habitat Agenda. The preparation of the World Charter of Local Self-Government is one of these joint undertakings.
The International Center for Self-Governance, San Francisco (ICSG), provides tools for institutional reform necessary for self-governance and entrepreneurship, self-governance being a way of life that maximizes the capacity, the right, and the responsibility of men and women to make fundamental choices that affect their lives and communities. Its does this through education and training, networking and publishing. ICSG works in developing countries with community level practitioners – farmers, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, and community activists; intermediaries – private volunteer organizations (PVOs), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), business organizations, donor organizations, policy analysts, and public officials. Its role is to serve as a bridge between these individuals and the producers of ideas for institutional reform.