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Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme Paper Number 8: African Decentralization: Local Actors, Powers and Accountability

26 May 2003

  • Author(s): Jesse C. Ribot


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.

However, 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.

Also, because decentralizations that democratize and transfer powers threaten many actors, few have been fully implemented.

This review examines design and implementation issues emerging in decentralization and identifies fruitful areas for policy research and analysis in this critical governance domain.

Jesse C. Ribot 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.

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