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Back | Programme Area: Governance

Decentralization Policies and Practices under Structural Adjustment and Democratization in Africa



For a variety of reasons—historical, political and economic—the governments of developing countries are generally more centralized than those of industrialized countries. In the 1990s, however, a number of factors led to renewed interest by national governments and international development agencies in the local government level of developing countries. These factors included globalization, economic crisis and structural adjustment, and democratization, as well as local and domestic forces such as rapid urbanization, strengthened ethnic identities, etc.

This paper focuses on African countries—without precluding occasional references to other developing countries—in order to make the discussion more manageable. While the relationship between adjustment and democratization, and the institutionalization of local government in Latin America and the Eastern European countries has been the subject of systematic research and analysis, decentralization policies have remained poorly analysed and developed in African countries.

Decentralization policies and programmes in Africa have often been designed on the basis of ideological arguments (which extol the supremacy of party, state or market) than on analysis of what exists on the ground. This situation has been further aggravated by the paucity of information on local political economy issues. This may also explain why evaluations of decentralization programmes in African countries have generally produced negative findings, with but a few, very limited, exceptions.

This paper approaches decentralization as a complex, relative, multidimensional process. It:

• highlights the motivations and dilemmas of recent decentralization policies;
• provides an overview of African decentralization policies and practices since 1945, with special focus on the last two phases—the periods of structural adjustment and liberalization;
• evaluates decentralization policies of the 1980s and 1990s, which are a part of the structural adjustment and democratization processes; and
• proposes a framework for analysing decentralization policies and programmes in developing countries, on the basis of which suggestions are offered for improving the design and implementation of decentralization policies.

The author finds that even though there are fundamentally new orientations in decentralization policies in some African countries, some aspects of these experiments give cause for concern. First, few countries have been able to allow competition among political parties and democratic decentralization at the same time. Many countries seem interested in democratic decentralization within the context of a de facto one-party state.

Second, uneven and unequal development of infrastructural and institutional capacities between regions and communities has made decentralization asymmetric, which may further such inequalities.

Third, decentralization policies tend to emphasize vertical transfers of authority and resources from central to local governments at a time when central governments are experiencing severe resource shortages. Furthermore, in some cases, large infusions of resources to regional and local governments may undermine incentives for the development of local revenue sources.

Fourth, the need remains to strengthen classical accountability mechanisms of representation with additional participatory forms such as recall, referendum, local ombudsmen, service delivery surveys and participatory budgeting, as is being practised in some Latin American and southern African cities.

The author concludes that resolution of these problems will take time, resolve, determination and imagination. Two crucial issues of strategy could help. First, democratic decentralization should be approached as a process, not as an event. Second, African states need to move beyond the confines of the institutional resources that are currently being mobilized to include non-governmental organizations, such as religious and community-based organs, which are at present largely sidelined in the process of democratic decentralization and could become critical players.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jul 2001
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8186
    From: UNRISD