The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the authors and should not be attributed in any manner to the World Bank, to its affiliated organizations, or to members of its Board of Executive Directors or the countries they represent.
Alongside the familiar economic and democratic-electoral reforms that have occurred in African countries since 1980, another significant reform, if less visible and less celebrated, has been the progressive decentralization of the state. While analysts and practitioners have long noted the extreme centralization of the state in Africa since independence, the situation today is decidedly different. Whether arising from dramatic political reforms, donor pressure and programs, or as part of evolutionary administrative change, recent local governance revival has been one of the most significant facets of state restructuring in Africa since independence.
In a recent World Bank study, thirteen of 30 countries surveyed showed high or moderate levels of decentralization as measured by a composite index of political, administrative, and fiscal devolution indicators. Another thirteen showed at least some degree of decentralization, with several in the process of change. Although not all countries have fully revived local governance, the study also indicated no country in Africa today propounds a preference for the centralized state. Indeed, nearly all countries claim in one way or another to be decentralizing power, resources, and accountability to local levels. Yet, as present evidence indicates, the process of reform and results of recent decentralization are widely varied and the underlying processes not fully understood.
The purpose of this paper is to contribute to our understanding of the different pathways to decentralization, via a focus on the political dynamics of the process. To be sure, the technical challenges associated with a move to decentralization are daunting. They include the creation of new political tiers of government, the introduction of intergovernmental fiscal systems, and the realignment of administrative systems. Correspondingly, there is a rich technical literature on the options within each of the administrative, fiscal, and political dimensions, as well as on the strengths and weaknesses of alternative sequencing options among the dimensions.
The technical literature, however, tends to neglect the political underpinnings of decentralization, even though state transformation to shift resources and authority closer to the civic front-line is a profoundly political process. This paper aims to help redress the imbalance between technical and political analysis. The intent is not to imply that technical analysis has no place, or that there are no ‘degrees of freedom’ available to policymakers. Rather, the implication is that the room for maneuver is constrained, that options arise within the context of specific political realities prevailing in individual countries. Only if technical analysis is grounded in these realities, can it be useful in identifying and evaluating alternative feasible options.
The paper proceeds as follows. The next section of the paper lays out a simple framework for assessing comparatively the politics of decentralization within individual countries. Sections Three and Four apply the framework to three countries – Uganda, Senegal and Malawi. The cases were deliberately selected to capture a wide range of reform efforts and outcomes in the region.1 Thus, Senegal exemplifies an enduring democracy with a long-running effort to decentralize but with an ultimately stalled process. Uganda exemplifies radical and early decentralization following a revolutionary take-over and one that is past the stage of installing structural reforms and now contends with consolidation. The political drivers of the very different Ugandan and Senegalese dynamics are explored in Section Three.
Section Four turns to Malawi as an intermediate case. Malawi’s experience with decentralization is less long-lived than the other two; its current progress appears midway between that of Uganda and Senegal; and it evinces an ebb and flow in its decentralization reform often threatened by broader issues of an ongoing political transition. Additionally, the Malawian case raises some interesting questions as to the interaction between decentralization and grass-roots participation, and whether the latter can actively be nurtured in support of decentralized governance.
The paper’s final section draws from the cases some suggested lessons for a politically-sensitive approach to decentralization reform.
II: Assessing the Politics of Decentralization: A Framework
This section lays out a framework for assessing the politics underlying different pathways to decentralization. While our point of departure is the familiar distinction between ‘big bang’ and incremental reforms, the framework goes beyond this simple duality.
Traditionally, analysts identify ‘big bang’ reforms as those in which local political authority is created or revived, center-local fiscal governance systems deployed, and personnel transferred from the center to localities in a massive program rolled out across all sectors and regions, and within a short period.2 Most recently typified by the decentralizations in Indonesia and Pakistan, this mode of reform tends to be driven by intensely political imperatives, usually linked to a drive to recover or reinvent political legitimacy. Among the most prominent African examples are Uganda, South Africa and, in an ongoing case, Ethiopia.
The vast majority of African countries that have explored decentralization have done so incrementally, with changes ranging from the barely perceptible to more dramatic but sequential reforms over time. The list includes Senegal, Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, and Ghana, with several of them tracing their evolutionary devolution (or intentions) to the 1980s especially. However, most subordinated that aim to the centralization that attended various shades of authoritarian rule. In addition, in the more recent phase of decentralization revival few countries have encountered the significant break with the established model of politics that would allow for a more energized pursuit of devolution given its implications for political control.
The narrow pre-occupation with ‘big bang’ versus incrementalist reform has at least two weaknesses. First, the universe of cases in the latter category is so broad, and so varied, as to render ‘incrementalist decentralization’ a meaningless ‘catch-all’, especially since the incremental mode typifies the large majority of decentralizing countries, and hence deserves closer attention and differentiation based on the context that reform confronts.
Second, while much of the analytical literature and the internal Bank discussion on the choice between “big bang” and incremental decentralization focuses on the technical strengths and weaknesses of each option, declarations of the pace of reform as causal, desirable, or critical to success may overstate its relevance compared to the state-society structure confronted by a reforming (or non-reforming) regime. Rather, the pace and substance of reform may be linked (as dependent variables) to the status quo ante as defined by the incentives, constraints and opportunities confronted by the principal stakeholders vis a vis any move towards decentralization.
Figure 1 lays out a two dimensional framework for assessing the dynamics of decentralization in individual country settings. The first dimension distinguishes among three key sets of stakeholders, vis a vis decentralization:
political elites, comprising in particular the political leadership (which may be unified, or may be a coalition) which controls the levers of governmental authority;
bureaucrats within central government, at all levels of authority; and
communities, both local elites, and ‘grassroots’ stakeholders (the term ‘community’ is preferred over ‘civil society’ because it better captures the essentially ‘local’ dimension of civic activism that is especially relevant for an analysis of decentralization).
Arrayed along the other dimension are three distinct (though potentially overlapping3) phases of decentralization:
Engaging decentralization, the initial phase when fundamental decisions as to state structure – specifically to what extent, and how, to shift resources and responsibilities ‘downwards’ to communities (including the establishment of elected local governments) – are on the national agenda;
Detailing decentralization, the phase in which the specific fiscal and administrative mechanisms needed to give life to local empowerment are clarified and rolled out in an initial phase of implementation; and
Sustaining decentralization, an ongoing phase of learning-by-doing in which the institutional arrangements of the intergovernmental system are continually fine-tuned
Figure 1 poses a series of questions vis a vis the role and influence of each stakeholder at each phase of the process. As the figure suggests, these roles vary both across stakeholders and, for a given stakeholder, across different phases of the decentralization process. Further, some questions are highlighted, signaling that the roles of different stakeholders may be more or less crucial at different phases of the process.