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Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme Paper 4: Decentralization Policies and Practices under Structural Adjustment and Democratization in Africa

10 Sep 2001

  • Author(s): Dele Olowu


For historical, political and economic reasons, 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. While the relationship between adjustment and democratization, and the institutionalization of local government in Latin America and Eastern Europe has been the subject of systematic research and analysis, decentralization policies have remained poorly analysed and developed in African countries.

Decentralization in Africa has often been designed on the basis of ideological arguments (which extol the supremacy of party, state or market) rather than on analysis of what exists on the ground. Hence evaluations of decentralization programmes in African countries have generally produced negative findings.

The author finds that even though there are fundamentally new orientations in decentralization policies, these experiments give cause for concern. These are: few countries have allowed multipartism and democratic decentralization at the same time; uneven and unequal development of infrastructural and institutional capacities between regions and communities has made decentralization asymmetric, causing further inequalities; 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; 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.

This paper shows that democratic decentralization should be approached as a process, not as an event. Also, African states need to move beyond the confines of the institutional resources that are currently being mobilized to include NGOs and CBOs, which are at present sidelined in the process of democratic decentralization and could become critical players.

Dele Olowu is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Administration at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, the Netherlands.

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