“Democracy works when people feel ownership of the decisions that are being taken”

Article, 01.06.2015

At the end of 2013 Mimoza Kusari-Lila was elected mayor of Gjakova, a city of 100,000 in the south of Kosovo.  She is the first woman ever in her country to be elected to such high office.  She has since been campaigning for social and economic development in her municipality in a spirit of participatory democracy and total transparency.

Mimoza Kusari-Lila is mayor of Gjakova in Kosovo
Mimoza Kusari-Lila spoke at the 2015 Annual Conference on Swiss Cooperation with Eastern Europe, whose main theme was « Strong municipalities for sustainable development » © SDC

An elegant woman and vocal advocate of her beliefs, Ms Kusari-Lila received a rapturous welcome at the 2015 Annual Conference on Swiss Cooperation with Eastern Europe. Speaking alongside other participants, including the mayor of Biel/Bienne, Mr Erich Fehr, she shared her vision of strong municipal authorities in her country, where the SDC has been active since 1999.

She illustrated how important it is for municipalities to kindle civic engagement in local politics and, at the same time, demonstrate their accountability to the people. People will be happier to pay their taxes if they can see a credible return on their investment in the form of well-run public services and a favourable business climate, for example.

Modern water-treatment facilities
Often funding is needed in order to nudge things forward. Thanks to SDC funding, the municipal water-treatment system in Gjakova has been completely modernised and plans are under way to link up 42 nearby villages to the city's mains water supply by 2017.

The SDC is also working on an anti-corruption project aimed at bringing more transparency to bureaucratic procedures. In 2014 Gjakova was awarded the prize for city with the greatest levels of transparency in Kosovo. Mimoza Kusari-Lila explains what it takes to succeed in decentralisation.

Where do things stand now in Kosovo as regards decentralisation?
Many decisions are still taken centrally today. The law enforcement authorities are also controlled by central government. That said, the municipalities have acquired a number of powers over the years: the freedom to promote economic investment, for example, and deal directly with international donors. It is important for us to have more of a voice, as in reality some 80% of citizens' complaints are addressed to local authorities.

That's exactly what you were saying during the conference – that the concerns of citizens need to be at the heart of negotiations with central government. What mechanisms have you put in place in your municipality to capture the views of your citizens?
Convincing people that it is in their interests to get involved in decision-making processes takes time, but we can boast a number of successes in that regard. In 2014 we organised five popular consultations for the planning of the 2015 budget. These consultations took place at the district level, with the same local bodies that we keep regularly updated on the development of public services. For our budget planning it was absolutely essential for us to have the support of these administrative bodies for the collection of property tax. One particular public meeting sticks in my memory. We had organised it to discuss the planned move of Gjakova football stadium to another district of the city. I noticed that there were as many architects and engineers there as there were supporters, which was when I realised they had all come to contribute something constructive. In all societies democracy works when people feel ownership of the decisions that are being taken. And it is largely up to us – the politicians – to make sure that the taxpayer's voice is heard.

Total transparency in the activities of your municipality is another of your convictions. How do you achieve that in practical terms?
Let me give you an example: since 2014 the calls for tender issued by the municipality of Gjakova have been published in full on the internet. That way everyone is informed, first and foremost the firms that are interested, who can quickly judge if they are in a position to make a competitive bid and, if not, work on their quality standards and improve their general level of performance. I could also mention the monthly meetings we have with the Business Advisory Council, where we discuss openly our plans for the future and they give us their opinion.

What is it like as a woman to be a mayor in Kosovo?  Does the "feminine touch" make things easier?
Yes and no. You can see it as an advantage in a society such as ours, where relations between men can be hard. Faced with a woman, a man will often prefer to acquiesce, allowing her to get her way! Otherwise I think politics really boils down to the individual as a person rather than their gender. I try to project the image of a proactive mayor with a vision. Ultimately the voters will decide if I've done a good job or not.