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The ‘decentralisation agenda’ must succeed

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture

MoroccoDuncan Green’s blog hosted a post by LSE’s Jean-Paul Faguet titled: Is Decentralisation good for Development? Faguet has edited a book by the same name that you can find here. This is a subject very close to my heart, and I believe in decentralisation as a value, just as I believe in democracy. It is often a work in progress, but it is a project worth persisting with, an ideal worth pursuing. Faguet’s research (at least, my interpretation of his work) therefore, really speaks to me. In this post, he makes several interesting and compelling points. For instance:

On the advantage of competitive politics generated by decentralised systems:

Imagine you live in a centralized country, a hurricane is coming, and the government is inept. To whom can you turn? No one – you’re sunk. In a decentralized country, ineptitude in regional government implies nothing about the ability of local government. And even if both regional and local governments are inept, central government is independently constituted, probably run by a different party, and may be able to help. Indeed, the very fact of multiple government levels in a democracy generates a competitive dynamic in which candidates and parties use the far greater number of platforms to outdo each other by showing competence, and project themselves hierarchically upwards.  In a centralized system, by contrast, there is only really one – very big – prize, and not much of a training ground on which to prepare.

Highlighting the importance of careful design:

The genius of a properly designed decentralization system is that it combines technical expertise from above with local time-and-place information from below, in a way that is superior to what either level of government could achieve on its own.

And finally, challenging the decentralisation-sceptic’s belief in democracy:

I have heard colleagues declare their allegiance to both democracy and the centralized state, and I just don’t get it. Citizens must be allowed to vote… but only for national government?  They must not be allowed local governments? Local services with few externalities – like local policing or primary education – whose effects are overwhelmingly concentrated on the residents of a locality… must be provided by a distant central government?

Decentralisation is an ideal, but it needs to be carefully designed. For instance, a local government without funds, functions and functionaries (the three in equal measure), is of no use to citizens. I have been fortunate that in India (and my home state Kerala in particular), decentralised governance is not an abstract idea. It is the reality. In recent years – in spite of all of my own critiques, and that of experts in the field – the central government in India has taken concrete measures that have the potential to deepen democracy, by yielding more power to federal states. Federal states on the other hand, have a mixed record in strengthening local governments, but even then, there is a promising momentum towards a truly decentralised governance system. (Yes, I am generalising, and there are several specific critiques; also important to acknowledge that the pace of reforms is uneven and several cases suggest even a reversal). But what is way forward?

In recent years, many doubts have been raised on the merits of decentralisation itself – on its ability to deliver better quality of public services, on its willingness to raise resources and on its ability to improve local accountability in general. In an old post, I had countered four popular reasons that are often quoted for the impending collapse of the local governance system in India at the lowest levels – the village councils. This is a short recap:

  1. Local governments are corrupt: You hear this all the time, and everywhere. As fund flows to local governments increased, these allegations gained in strength. There is, of course, some truth to this, but this is akin to claiming that the government should not implement any programmes because politicians and bureaucrats are corrupt. Through mechanisms such as social audits local-level corruption is easy to uncover and transparency has proven to be a powerful tool in the hands of communities.
  2. Elite capture of local governments mean that they are therefore not accountable to citizens: Local governments are often headed by elites, much in the same way as our legislators are usually the rich and powerful. The competing pressures of politics and the prospect of re-elections is a strong accountability measure that can reduce the chances of elite capture. Local government elections usually see very high turn-outs.
  3. Local governments lack the skills to draft development plans: This is an accusation thrown in a context where little is done to train elected representatives at the local levels regarding their roles and responsibilities. In many government programmes, local governments are are burdened with not only responsibilities of needs assessment and resource planning, but also monitoring implementation. In the absence of systematic training in the mechanisms of local resource appraisal, it is likely that plans will look more like wish-lists.
  4. Not all development projects can be planned at the village level: This is a classic misconception. The typical error here is that when one thinks of local governments, they only think of village-level, without considering the tiers above them that form the entire complement of local governance structures. Also, the federal states and central governments are supposed to, at their levels, take up projects that require specialised technical expertise, and cover large geographies, and multiple constituencies.

The problem with some of the critics of decentralisation is that they try to look at the work of sub-national/local governments in isolation. Either they express frustrations that these local governments have been unable to transform service delivery, or they reinforce their scepticism of local leaders by pointing to instances of corruption or inaction.

Ultimately, local governments need an enabling environment, where they work collaboratively with bureaucrats in the line departments and service utilities. Without this, and in an environment where local governments have to continually struggle for powers and legitimacy, expectations that they would get work done are highly misplaced. In many developing countries, the ‘decentralisation agenda’ is struggling. But it must succeed.

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This post first appeared on Suvojit's personal blog.

Photograph taken in Morrocco by
© Curt Carnemark / World Bank