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Back | Programme Area: Governance

African Decentralization: Local Actors, Powers and Accountability

  • Author(s): Jesse C. Ribot
  • Programme Area: Governance
  • Paper No.: 8
  • Code: PP-DGHR-8
  • No. of Pages: 89


African governments have undergone repeated decentralization reforms since the early colonial period. However, in the most recent wave (beginning in the late 1980s), the language of reform has shifted from an emphasis on national cohesion and the management of local populations to a discourse more focused on democratization, pluralism and rights. This review is concerned with the degree to which the new language is being codified in laws and translated into practice.

Decentralization is any act in which a central government formally cedes powers to actors and institutions at lower levels in a political-administrative and territorial hierarchy. Decentralization reforms are usually about strengthening both central and local governance in ways that support the objectives of national unification, democratization, and greater efficiency and equity in the use of public resources and service delivery. A primary objective of decentralization reforms is to have governments that are able to perform or support all of these functions with appropriate roles at multiple levels. This review focuses on local government and local institutions, as they are the key recipients of decentralized powers.

It has been argued that democratic mechanisms that allow local governments to discern the needs and preferences of their constituents, and that provide a way for those constituents to hold local governments accountable, are the basis for most of the purported benefits of decentralization. The underlying developmentalist logic of decentralization is that local institutions can better discern, and are more likely to respond to, local needs and aspirations. Theorists believe this ability derives from local authorities having better access to information and being more easily held accountable to local populations. Downward accountability of local authorities is central to this formula. When downwardly accountable local authorities also have discretionary powers—that is, a domain of local autonomy—over significant local matters, there is good reason to believe that greater equity and efficiency will follow.

These assumptions must be approached with caution, as surprisingly little research has been done to assess whether such conditions exist or if they lead to the desired outcomes. In practice, there is considerable confusion and obfuscation about what constitutes decentralization. In the name of decentralization, powers over natural and other resources are being allocated to a variety of local bodies and authorities that may not be downwardly accountable or entrusted with sufficient powers. Many reforms initiated in the name of decentralization are not structured in ways likely to deliver the presumed benefits of decentralization and participation, and may ultimately undermine efforts to create sustainable and inclusive rural institutions. The term “decentralization” is also often applied to programmes and reforms that ultimately are designed to retain central control. It has been argued, for example, that the legal and political design of local government in Africa can actually weaken the cultivation of a democratic culture at the local level, and that it can hamper the ability of local authorities to take initiatives in the field of service provision.

Because decentralizations that democratize and transfer powers threaten many actors, few have been fully implemented. In turn, it should come as no surprise that most of the literature on decentralization focuses more on expectations and discourse than on practice and outcomes. On the whole, the decentralization experiment has only taken timid steps in the direction of deconcentration. Many reforms are taking place in the name of decentralization, but they are not setting up the basic institutional infrastructure upon which to base the positive outcomes promised by decentralization. Instead, local democracies are created but given no powers, or powers are devolved to non-representative or upwardly accountable local authorities. Decentralizations must now be assessed to identify those that exist in more than just discourse. When such instances of decentralization are found—that is, downwardly accountable local authorities with discretionary powers—outcomes can then begin to be measured.

This review samples the rapidly expanding literature on decentralization in Africa. It examines design and implementation issues emerging in decentralization and identifies fruitful areas for policy research and analysis in this critical governance domain. From the review of the literature, it appears that decentralization is not taking the forms necessary to realize the benefits that theory predicts, because it fails to entrust downwardly accountable representative actors with significant domains of autonomous discretionary power. The decentralizations under way differ in terms of the level of legal reform involved; the scale and number of layers of “local” government; the kinds of local authorities being engaged and developed; the mix of powers and obligations devolved; the sectors involved; the nature of the enabling environment; and the motives of governments for launching the reforms in the first place. These variables are examined with respect to how they shape expected outcomes.

Jesse C. Ribot (jesser@wri.org) is a Senior Associate in the Institutions and Governance Program (IGP) of the World Resources Institute. He currently directs the Decentralization and Environment Initiative of the IGP’s Environmental Accountability in Africa Project.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Dec 2002
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8186
    From: UNRISD