The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Successful decentralization involves three indispensable elements: effective state capacity; empowered, committed, competent local authorities; engaged, informed, organized citizens and civil societies. For a central government to devolve authority to local authorities effectively, it must have power to start with. Decentralization requires coordination between levels of government and requires more regulation — not less — to guarantee basic transparency, accountability and representation. The state has to oversee, regulate and where necessary sanction local authorities so that poor people really benefit from political reform. The state also has to raise adequate fiscal resources to support decentralization...

Decentralization is about state potential, not state failure. When a weak state devolves power, more often than not it is simply making accommodations with local elites — creating what has been called decentralized despotism — rather than expanding democratic spaces. Take Sub-Saharan Africa, where centralized regimes have tried to control rural areas by appointing their own people at the local level — the opposite of sharing political power and enhancing local accountability. Such moves have failed to deliver desired development outcomes. Nor have decentralization efforts in Papua New Guinea given local people a stronger voice. They have been more about staving off a breakup of the country, under pressure from secessionist movements. The absence of a strong national government able to ensure territorial integrity has undermined the country’s decentralization efforts. In such circumstances, reforms cannot deliver expected benefits.

Responsibilities for delivering social services need to be devolved to local authorities through legislative or constitutional means that transfer control over both functions and functionaries. But functionaries cannot perform their functions without adequate finance. And whether decentralization serves the interests of poor people depends on whether local authorities promote social justice and are committed to pro-poor mobilization and policies...

The failures of some decentralization initiatives point to a lack of public awareness and an absence of a culture of participation. Where civil society has demanded accountability and responses from local authorities, decentralization has been more effective. Ensuring that these three actors — state authorities, local authorities and civil society — interact to improve the lives of poor people is a complex challenge. Indeed, there is nothing automatically pro-poor about decentralization. Dominant groups and narrow interests can hijack it. In Bangladesh, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and Uganda, such decentralization led to neither greater participation nor better social and economic outcomes for poor people. Uganda’s ambitious but poorly financed and centrally directed decentralization programme has run aground because of its overly centralized technocratic approach and system of local patronage.

Direct collective action is another way for ordinary people, especially poor people, to influence decision-making and hold authorities accountable. Social movements have brought exclusion and deprivation to the political fore. They are most active where democratic freedoms have been won recently or remain to be won. More than mere protests in the streets, they demand changes in decision-making processes. Decentralization has created new possibilities for popular engagement at the local level, leading to the proliferation of municipal activism.

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