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Peace in local spaces: the Development Councils

Keywords: Acuerdo de paz | | Trabajar para la democratización del poder | Guatemala

The current government’s understanding of moving the peace process to the local level is to work with the Urban and Rural Development Councils.

The Development Councils originated in the processes of state decentralization that began in the 1970s. In the aftermath of the 1976 earthquake, working within the concept of development planning, a series of policies were enacted to set up the so-called “development poles” — intermediate urban centres and concentration of means of production — and to reorient public investment and the growth of infrastructure along territorial lines (1). The main criteria were to promote efficiency rather than to foster social development. Moreover, during the war part of that structure was incorporated into the counter-insurgency strategy with the aim of population control (2).

Decentralization came to the forefront during the transition to democracy as part of democracy building and to foster social development. The Urban and Rural Development Councils were institutionalized by inclusion in the 1985 constitution, charged with formulating development policy along territorial lines. The constitution also mandated that the councils be allotted the necessary fiscal resources (3).

The role of the councils has since been spelled out in specific legislation: “…the system of development councils is the principal means of participation for the Mayan, Xinca, Garífuna and non-Indigenous population to participate in the conduct of public affairs in the democratic process of planning development, taking into account the principles of national unity and of Guatemala as a pluricultural and multilingual nation.” (4)

The councils are organized as follows:

National CouncilNational, the highest level
RegionalRegion that comprises a group of departments
Departmental (CODEDES)A single department
Municipal (COMUDES)A single municipio within a department
Community (COCODES)A community within a municipio

Both state and civil society representatives participate in the councils, although the make-up may vary depending on the level of participation. (There may not be business associations at the municipal and community levels, for example.)

StateCivil Society
The Executive: the Presidency, Ministry of Finance, Planning and Programming Secretariat, Executive Coordination Secretariat, Presidential Secretariat for Women.Groups representing the grassroots, women, Indigenous Peoples, intellectuals. Representatives of Indigenous Peoples, cooperatives, peasant organizations, workers organizations, non-governmental development organizations, organizations of women, the University of San Carlos and private universities.
Municipal Government: mayors represent municipal governments.Business Sector. Associations of agricultural, retail, financial and industrial enterprise.Associations of small and medium size businesses in manufacturing and services.

As mentioned above, at every level the councils are mandated to formulate development policy and territorial organization; to formulate and monitor plans, programs and projects; to review, monitor and propose public investment in their areas; to supervise the performance of public officials; and to promote the participation of women and Indigenous Peoples.

The councils were promoted by Vice President Roberto Carpio Nicolle and by Development Minister René De León Schlotter during the first government of the democratic transition (1985-1990), but in practice they were only set up at the departmental level because, among other factors, adversaries of the project went to court and managed to block the municipal and community councils, arguing they violated municipal autonomy. The issue was taken up in the Accords and the legal hurdles were resolved through reforms enacted in 2002.

The new legal adjustments mean that the councils now have the potential to become spaces for interaction between government and civil society and for social actors to participate in the conduct of public affairs at the level that most relates to their everyday lives.

The new strategy for the ongoing peace process aims to give the councils the additional role of monitoring and promoting compliance with the Accords, as they are experienced at the different levels.

Our researchers carried out individual and group discussions with representatives of women’s and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations (5). We also analyzed the results generated by the joint project between Programa Participacion y Democracia (PPD) (6) and the Guatemala office of the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty (FLACSO) (7). This project sought to help the councils and their participants adapt to the new legislation, and to understand the extent to which the peace directives where known and were being applied at the local level. It also carried out specific research on the participation of women and Indigenous Peoples. The project worked with a sampling of municipal and departmental councils (8).

Research was developed at both the departmental (CODEDES) and municipal (COMUDES) council levels. Because of the small number of cases within the total universe — it is estimated that as many as 323 COMUDES and 2,000 COCODES may be functioning or in the process of starting up — our sample became a kind of pilot project to begin looking at the dynamics of the councils.

Among other components, the PPD-FLACSO project was designed to provide the following:

  • a) Support for civil society groups attempting to meet the legal requirements to gain a seat in the councils

  • b) Support for the development of council regulations

  • c) Support and lobbying for the set-up and operation of council working committees.

The underlying logic for choosing these components was as follows:

  • a) Accreditation.

Even though legislation gave civil society access to the councils, this is not automatic. Among conditions that must be met are raising awareness, organizing, capacity building and legalizing representation. The first condition means disseminating information on the nature and role of the councils and on the importance of participation. Issues of organization and legalization are complicated by civil society fragmentation which, once overcome, allows for capacity building and development of support mechanisms for delegates.

Capacity building for women requires special attention. When they manage to overcome the inherent difficulties for civil society access to the council, women are likely to face patriarchal prejudice that tends to be accentuated in rural and provincial areas. Finally, legalization refers to procurement of the legal documents required for access to the councils.

A series of practical difficulties became evident. Some Council meetings that started at the end of the workday would become night sessions, a problem for peasant representatives who often traveled long distances for the meeting. For women this meant additional difficulty, opposition from husbands and family asking “who is going to prepare dinner if you go to the meeting?”

Some new delegates feared that they were not up to exercising their representation. They would ask questions like: “What am I going to report to my compañeros when I am not even allowed a turn to speak at the meetings?”

  • b) Regulations.

Although developing regulations would appear to be a routine administrative process, it is highly political because it refers to how a council will actually function. The guiding concept is to keep in mind that the councils are meant to exercise decentralization at its fullest, and government representatives must learn to share the decision-making spaces with civil society. Because regulations encompass the rules of the game, issues such as empowering the weaker sectors need to be elucidated.

In practice it has been hard for COMUDES to overcome the authoritarian tradition of the country’s political culture that regards mayors as sort of “little presidents”. Some mayors — or governors, for that matter, in the case of departmental councils — proceed under the assumption that the councils function to gather opinions and discuss accountability, but that decisions are made by the highest authority.

  • c) Committees.

Working committees are central to the exercise of power in the councils. How committees are organized, what issues they take up and how they actually work are indicators of how a particular council has moved toward a culture of democracy and whether or not there is real participation. Power plays develop in as many fields as there are committees and in general through three types of players: government officials (a mayor or representative of the municipal council, or a governor), the diverse representations of civil society, and state agencies (the Presidential Planning Secretariat through its departmental technical units, the Executive Secretariat of this agency, departmental delegations of the different ministries).

Furthermore, we should keep in mind that civil society cannot be assumed to be homogeneous. Local business sector delegates may wield greater influence and stronger technical capacity — and get along better with government officials — than delegate from peasant, Indigenous Peoples or women’s groups. While technical capacity is necessary in order to play any kind of significant role in certain committees — a project or budget committee, for example — in other areas links to the grassroots may prove essential, as in the case of conflict resolution and some types of security issues. A certain level of technical capacity is necessary to wield any significant influence in the councils precisely because their role is to conduct public affairs as part of decentralization policies. Popular sector representatives can meet this requirement to some extent through capacity building and training, but profesional advisors would still seem necessary to shore up their role in the councils.

Several problems have been detected during the first two years of application of the new legislation on development councils (9) :

Political ProblemsTechnical Problems
Failure of state and municipal authorities to accept the role of civil society representations.Unfamiliarity with council legislation and lack of capacity to work with the framework.
Numeric disparity between state and civil society representation in CODEDES.Absence of regulations and operational mechanisms, such as working committees.
 Insufficient planning and work plans.
 Difficulty accrediting civil society representation and insufficiently prepared delegates.
 Lack of communication between civil society entities acting in the same spaces.
 Insufficient community involvement in the work of the councils.

Several factors limit the participation of women in the councils: “…illiteracy is a front line factor, along with lack of organization and machismo. Indigenous Peoples and women’s presence is timid and barely visible…we need to take a more leading role. This is even worse in the COCODES and COMUDES” (10).

Councils are not sufficiently familiar with the peace commitments, nor are they prepared to take on functions delegated to them in the new peace framework, such as promoting dialogue and conflict resolution. In fact, the Accords are barely present in the daily workings of the councils.

Furthermore, political parties have been known to manipulate the councils and the limitations that COMUDES face in trying to carry out their work:

Municipal governments, especially those belonging to the party in power, try to impose sympathetic Municipal Councils, going so far as to leave out members from the previous council. The new makeup minimizes and excludes the previous composition of the council and participation of the Community Councils.

Obstacles have been set up in many municipalities to true and democratic set-up of Community Development Councils, often refusing to register COCODES formed by community initiative, or demanding that they be legally notarized. Practically none of the municipalities have accepted Community Development Councils set up according to the usage, customs and traditions of Indigenous Peoples even though this is clearly established in the law (11).

An overview of problems hampering councils can be summarized as follows:

  • There is no policy debate, attention tending to focus on infrastructure projects.

  • Sometimes funds assigned to CODEDES are used for projects that were not approved in the council system.

  • Civil society representation at the national level is in fact excluded from the system because the seats are allotted to representatives of the regional councils.

  • The national planning system, which should involve the councils, has not been set up.

  • Development planning should be micro-regionalized.

  • Third-level COCODES should be set up in municipalities where the population exceeds those of the second-level COCODES.

  • Civil society inclusion has not been completed in the majority of CODEDES.

  • The national and regional levels of the council system have not been fully implemented.

  • Lack of funding makes CODEDES vulnerable, weakening the entire foundation of the council structure.

  • Government representation at the various levels of the council structure should have the capacity to negotiate and make commitments.

  • Representatives throughout the councils should improve the feedback provided to those they represent (12).

On the other hand, it is possible to note substantive advances generated by the new legislation:

Indigenous authority is recognized in both the new Council legislation and the Municipal Code…in the everyday movement of things you can see ideological changes in Guatemalan society, so racist and divided, regarding women and Indigenous Peoples (13).

As women, we now dare say things in public…men and women leaders have been combining experience with informed capacity…leaders have a broad assortment of knowledge (14).

We have seen some progress during this time, there have been some changes… wish to speak directly of citizen participation. We know there has been an opening, and also, some of the legal changes are a result of the Peace Accords. We should be clear on the fact that these changes have opened many spaces, although this is but a step in the process of giving the population [the right] to participate (15).

…[P]articipation today is more conscientious; people have a vision and proposals…in the sense that we as women have to be present in this type of decision…so women are participating. [At the] urban level they say things like ‘Indians won’t let themselves be trampled, women won’t let themselves be trampled …[this] means a lot, these phrases compare the present with twenty years ago when women couldn’t speak, whereas today when women have proposals… (16)

There is also a positive appraisal of women’s experience in developing alliances:

… [W]e had to develop strategic alliances with other civil society actors such as workers, peasants, NGOs, Chamber of Commerce, in order to raise the visibility of social actors in the Council…we know that our presence in the CODEDE is transitory, but the space for women has been won and will be permanent. They can’t take the space away from us, it’s there. We have to continue to strengthen the united women’s sector in order to eliminate poverty, unemployment, rape and racism and to [fight for] respect for our cultural values, for inclusion and to protect [our] rights, for the [right to] intellectual development, to exercise freedom of expression and, of course, [to] avoid calls to violence and confrontation, [to] build a culture of peace in our daily lives (17).

Other advances are also recognized.

There are undeniable advances in the institutional development of the Councils, among them the improvement of the normative framework approved in 2002, the practice of strategic planning in COMUDES and CODEDES in the context of validating the strategy to reduce poverty, the experience of micro-planning carried out by certain COCODES, initial experiences with accountability in some municipalities and the availability of financial resources coming from the VAT and other sources (18).

All told, a preliminary appraisal appears to indicate that the legislation and institutions required for implementing the Accords’ main commitments on decentralization already exist. While early experience has been problematic in many ways, accomplishments are probably greater and future possibilities are no doubt promising.


  • (1) : Gálvez, 2002.

  • (2) : Aguilera, 1988.

  • (3) : Constitución Política de la República de Guatemala, 2001.

  • (4) : Ley de los Consejos de Desarrollo Urbano y Rural, 2002.

  • (5) : This research was directed by Carmen Lucía Pellecer.

  • (6) : The Program for Participation and Democracy, an entity that follows-up the recommendations of International-DEA in regard to the fulfillment of the peace accords.

  • (7) : Braulia Thillet de Solórzano directed this project.

  • (8) : The PPD-FLACSO project worked with the COMUDES of Sumpango, Santa Cruz Balanyá, Patzún, El Tejar, San Antonio Palopó, Santa Catarina Pinula, Santiago Atitlán, Comitancillo, San Antonio Sácatepequez, San Lorenzo, San José Ojetenam, Tejuela, San Felipe, San Martín Zapotitlán, Zunilito, San Miguel Panán y Pueblo Nuevo.

  • (9) : Analysis developed by the Participation and Democracy Program/FLACSO: Evaluation workshop of the 2004 Operational Plan, photocopy of documents and verbal reports; evaluation workshop, Guatemala, October 21, 2002.

  • (10) : Interview with Sister Isabel Can, Director of Radio Quiché and coordinator of Indigenous Organizations in the department of El Quiché, Interview from the study “From the conclusion of war to the consolidation of peace.” In Guatemala, what kind of peace is possible? PPD 2004, Retos, Guatemala, pp.12.

  • (11) : SERJUS, 2005.

  • (12) : Burgos, A. 2005.

  • (13) : Carpio, 2004.

  • (14) : Zapeta, 2004.

  • (15) : Bulux, 2004.

  • (16) : Coti, 2004.

  • (17) : Chavez, 2004.

  • (18) : Burgos, op. cit.