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On decentralization and privatization
Decentralisation and Local Governance: benefits and limits
From e-governance in Africa, From Theory to Action: A Handbook on ICTs for Local Governance"
(this book is a important contribution to the literature on the subject of e-governance in general, and e-governance in Africa in particular, as well as of ICTs and Development in Africa.
This volume reflects Gianluca Misuraca's vast knowledge of the field, including his practical experience while working for UN-DESA on secondment to the Tangier-based African Training and Research Centre in Administration for Development (CAFRAD), domicile of the e-Africa Initiative of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) of the African Union. Misuraca himself originally formulated the e-Africa Initiative on behalf of CAFRAD and UN-DESA in 2002.)
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Decentralisation and local governance are increasingly recognised as basic components of democratic governance, since they provide an enabling environment in which decision making and service delivery can be brought closer to the people, especially to the poor.

Decentralisation is instrumental in the overall issue of re-inventing government and is essential to achieving the internationally set Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Under the combined pressure of accelerating globalisation and persistent demands for deeper and expanded democratisation, central governments are seeing their traditional roles continuously challenged. Re-inventing government would then require revisiting the nature and role of the state itself and the sharing of political power and administrative responsibilities.1

But which are the benefits of decentralisation? and how does decentralisation contribute to the process of poverty reduction?

If we recall the key elements of good and democratic governance, and we consider them both for economic growth and as a means of achieving the MDGs, especially that relating to poverty reduction, decentralisation increases popular participation in decision making because it brings government closer to people, making it more accessible and knowledgeable about local conditions and more responsive to peoples' demands.

Central governments located far away and preoccupied mostly with national and regional issues, fall short of adequately and efficiently providing services essentially local in nature. The case for decentralisation can, in fact, be made on a number of grounds such as the following:

  1. Local authorities tend to act more in line with local preferences and conditions, and their response to local needs is more expeditious. Decentralisation provides opportunities to marginalised sectors of the community, like women in some countries, minorities etc., to participate at the local level, enabling a more sensitive approach to policy formulation and implementation.

  2. Because decentralisation tends to enhance transparency and accountability, the amount of money wrongfully diverted away from development often declines. The Human Development Report (2003)2, underlines that in 55 countries, decentralisation of government spending was closely associated with lower corruption among bureaucrats and reduced rent seeking by private parties - leaving more money to spend on basic services for poor people.

  3. Decentralisation increases effectiveness in service delivery, like reducing absenteeism among government employees, for example, in local schools and health clinics because elected officials receive complaints from their constituents and can improve discipline.

  4. Decentralisation provides bureaucrats with early warnings of potential disasters, enabling quick remedial action.

  5. Decentralisation makes development projects more sustainable and cost effective because local people are more likely to be involved in their design, execution, and monitoring.

  6. Decentralisation encourages communities to find solutions to their everyday problems, yielding innovative ideas, which are more attuned to local conditions.

  7. Decentralisation provides opportunities for more people, including the under-represented groups (like women in some countries, the poor, minorities etc.) to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

To summarise, because of a greater degree of accountability, responsiveness and participation, effective decentralisation can make a big difference by making the provision of local (social and economic) services more efficient, equitable, sustainable and cost-effective. Through community participation in decision making, planning, implementation and monitoring and backed by appropriate institutions and resources, it can go a long way in improving the quality of life, particularly of the poorer and marginalised sectors of the population, thereby alleviating poverty.3


But does decentralisation always work? And which are the constraints of decentralisation? For the process of decentralisation to be complete and for it to be successful, there are certain preconditions which may not exist in a country at a given time.

According to the UNDP Human Development Report (2003), these prerequisites include:

  1. Effective state capacity;

  2. Empowered, committed and competent local authorities; and

  3. Engaged, informed and organised citizens and civil society.

Decentralisation requires co-ordination between levels of government and more regulation -not less- to ensure basic transparency, accountability and representation. The state also has to raise adequate fiscal resources to support decentralisation. For the above to be achieved, effective state capacity is necessary. Furthermore, to ensure that the decentralisation effort is not hijacked by the local elites, and there is broad based participation, both a strong state and a mobilised civil society are required.

Decentralisation is influenced by a country's size, population, its political and institutional inheritance and diversity. These attributes have an important effect on the design and modalities of decentralisation, which are crucial for its success. Appropriateness of functions to be decentralised, adequacy of fiscal resources to be transferred to the sub-national government, efficacy of administrative and legal setups and sufficiency of technical/skilled personnel at all levels of government are important ingredients for successful decentralisation.4

However, politicians have more often than not used the slogan of decentralisation as rhetoric to strengthen their own power base rather than improve governance. In practice, the lack of willingness of the centre to relinquish or share power has been a major impediment to effective decentralisation. In fact, the inability to make the transition to a people-centred governance, with its commensurate implications for participation and empowerment is perhaps a bigger bottleneck in the process of decentralisation than legislative changes, which in their own right are also crucial.5

Finally, lack of public awareness and an absence of a culture of participation and a weak "voice'' of particularly the poor and marginalised sections of the population has inhibited the development of: firstly, a two way accountability system whereby local governments are not only supervised by an effective state government from above but also a strong civil society from below; secondly, a local government system which is responsive to the needs of all sections of populations, particularly the poor and the marginalised. As a matter of fact, the decision making process is dominated by local elites and government functionaries with little, if any, participation by the masses.


However, "a process for participation does not ipso facto lead to empowerment, and to be consulted does not mean that one's voice had weight in decisions taken": one way of achieving this is through "engaged governance" whereby an attempt is made, through new forms of collaboration between citizens' groups and the public sector, to link social capital into the development management process of a country.6

Engaged Governance:

is both a process and a form that attempts to link social capital into the development management processes of a country. This form of management goes beyond the realm of public administration and other formal institution and links itself to civil society organizations to help mainstream citizen or community inputs into the process of policy formulation. Though engaged governance is an emerging concept, there are examples where it has been successfully implemented. For example, in South Africa citizens' groups actively participate in budgeting and fiscal policy processes. In Australia, the state government of Queensland has established an Engaged Government Unit within the Premier's Department to ensure community's inputs into policy deliberations. The concept is finding support in other developing countries also.

(Katsiaouni, Workshop on Poverty Alleviation and Decentralisation for ten West African countries, organised jointly by UNDESA and the Government of Senegal, Dakar, July, 2003)

In this context, the role of the Civil Society for Poverty Reduction can be instrumental. Recent years have witnessed a considerable surge of interest throughout the world in the broad range of social institutions that operate outside the confines of the market and the state. Known variously as the 'non-governmental organisations' (NGOs), 'Civil Society' or 'third' sector, this set of institutions includes within it a wide array of entities – hospitals, universities, professional organisations, human rights organisations, job training centres and many more.

A growing number of political leaders, community activists and international donors have come to see such civil society organisations as strategically important participants in the search for a middle way between sole reliance either on the market or on the state. In fact, even governments are now increasingly viewing NGOs as an integral part of the institutional structure particularly for addressing the poverty problem. This is reflected in the poverty reduction strategy put in action by governments in most developing countries in Asia and now increasingly so in Africa.

But what is the link between civil society and poverty alleviation? And what role can NGOs play to help tackle the problem of poverty?

Potentially, NGOs, both local and international, can respond to the growing problem of poverty in a number of ways. Their responses can be categorised into the following: advocacy, social mobilisation, delivery of social services, providing livelihood programmes, training and relief and rehabilitation.7

NGOs, through advocacy, can potentially play a very significant role in influencing economic and political policies that have an impact upon the poorer sections of population. The agents of an active civil society, for example, can: give useful input on the thrust and design of economic policies; bring specific issues of social concern such as the environment, labour rights, gender equality and public health into the public spotlight. In some cases even help to change prevailing social norms; contribute to greater transparency and accountability and thereby curtail patronage, powerful special interests and corruption; ensuring that government policies are carried out in the manner intended and thereby significantly contribute to good governance.

Civil society can mobilise the masses, empower them and give them a "voice", supplement government in the provision of services, particularly social services, design and implement income generating programmes and micro-credit, improve community skills through technical/vocational and entrepreneurial training, and perform relief and rehabilitation functions. Another, albeit often overlooked, contribution of civil society groups to poverty alleviation is as a potential source of financial support to carry out various development programmes. A lot of the work undertaken by the NGOs is on a self-help basis and financed by philanthropic contributions, a source which otherwise would have perhaps remained untapped.

In conclusion, civil society organisations can potentially play an important role in poverty alleviation in developing countries.


One of the major findings of the Fifth African Governance Forum, is that the fundamental challenge for good governance in Africa is to strengthen the political will in support of decentralisation. The first step in this direction would be for leaders of the African countries to show their real commitment to decentralise. In many African countries, clear constitutional principles as well as legislative and regulatory frameworks, which are key for decentralisation, are not yet in place. Other major constraints to effective political participation by the citizenry include: scarcity of resources, poorly trained cadres at the local government level, intra-partisan rivalries and non-responsive political parties, weak governance structures to control corruption and to promote accountability and transparency, and inadequate attention of local authorities to the importance of decentralisation.8

But if we analyse the situation in Africa, most of the important prerequisites for successful decentralisation are almost non-existent or in the very early stages of development, especially considering that some countries are emerging or have just emerged from conflict or crisis. Which are then the imperatives and reasons for decentralisation in Africa?

For a long time, worsening poverty levels in Africa were explained in terms of poor economic performance. Emerging evidence, however, shows that economic growth alone is not sufficient to bring about, in a sustainable way, the needed reduction in poverty. In fact for some African countries, GDP growth has come hand in hand with worsening social indicators, validating an established fact that while economic growth is important for poverty alleviation, particularly in the medium and long term, it is definitely not sufficient by itself. In the African context, the lack of responsiveness of poverty to the economic stimulus is attributed in part to problems with governance, especially at the local level.9

In pro-poor interventions, one of the primary hurdles is how to effectively target the poor. Proper targeting has generally proved to be elusive. The other challenge is how best to ensure that there is local ownership of the interventions. These considerations bring to the fore the issues of local governance. One of the lessons from past failures of poverty-focussed interventions is the importance of avoiding a 'top down' approach to project design and implementation as this invariably results in ineffectiveness of the interventions.10

Also, concerns regarding central administrative capacity, fiscal constraints and the limited accountability at all levels of government have led African leaders to place increased emphasis on the importance of decentralisation and developing local governance capacities. The other supporting argument for decentralisation is the need for improved government effectiveness in the delivery of goods and services and revenue collection.

External pressure by funding agencies like the World Bank, UN etc. have also been important motivations for decentralisation in many countries.11

Furthermore, a good number of African countries see decentralisation as a solution not only to the enhancement of the state's capacity to accelerate local development but also as a way to enhance the voice and power of the poor in the continuing fight against poverty. On the political side, decentralisation has been opted for as a solution to political challenges that seem to threaten national cohesion. Countries with a history of tensions (linguistic, ethnic/tribal, religious) have often found the federal approach to national governance as most suitable. Central politicians also tend to support decentralisation to appeal to voters and win elections as a means of undercutting the power base of rivals.12

However, despite the political and developmental motivations, decentralisation is perhaps much more of a challenge in Africa than elsewhere in the world. It is, therefore, important that there is consensus on the decentralisation policy, which is not centrally or donor driven, and which has a holistic framework, focussing on all levels of government and civil society simultaneously. It should be based on improving the enabling environment and building capacities and not on projects. The need for immediate success and quick results can lead to quick fixes, which are unsustainable. As such, it is important that decentralisation is viewed with a long-term perspective. African leadership will have to demonstrate patience and uninterrupted and determined commitment for the successful implementation of decentralisation in the continent.


Given the above, capacity development - that will enable participation of key stakeholders - is crucial to achieving sustainable development. Experience has shown that there is a gap between existing capacities and demand for services and accountability at the local level. This situation calls for the creation of awareness, clear articulation of roles, and harnessing of the potentials of the different actors involved.

Decentralisation policies sometimes call for establishing new structures, participatory mechanisms and accountability systems. However, the option of strengthening existing traditional structures should not be totally discounted.

According to studies and analysis conducted in several countries, for effective local governance decentralisation policies, strategies, legal frameworks, programmes and activities should be conceived from two planes13:

  • The vertical plane: involving the transfer of authority functions, responsibilities and resources from central government to local government;

  • The horizontal plane: involving the empowerment of grass-root communities to enable them to determine, plan, manage and implement their own socio-politico-economic development.

While vertical decentralisation requires shifts in central government policy, laws as well as institutional and structural arrangements to provide for the sharing of powers, authority functions and resources and enable local governments to perform fully, horizontal decentralisation may take place without necessarily making adjustments in the laws. However it requires determined mobilisation and organisation of local communities to participate fully in the planning and implementation of socio-economic activities that are aimed at strengthening their capacity to determine and enjoy their livelihood.

An important linkage between vertical and horizontal decentralisation is that in countries used to highly centralised governments and/or dictatorships, horizontal decentralisation empowers local populations and prepares them to be able to positively receive and utilise the powers, authority and resources transferred to them via the vertical decentralisation.

It is always of great use to engineer efforts of decentralisation on the two planes involving all stakeholders: horizontal decentralisation will empower local communities and, vertical decentralisation will create conducive structural arrangements and transfer of powers, functions, responsibilities and resources that will supplement the empowerment created by vertical decentralisation.

Conceiving the two planes of decentralisation is also useful in the situation where the debate and agreement on formal vertical decentralisation, involving the transfer of powers, authority, functions, and resources from central government to local governments, for various reasons takes a long time. In such cases it is possible and advisable to start on programmes, projects and activities that empower local communities via, for example, NGOs or Community Based Organisations (CBOs).14

In conclusion, based on the experiences and lessons learned in this field by eminent experts and practioners, the key policy messages and recommendations for local governance-decentralisation, or Decentralised Governance, can be summarised as follows:

  1. Decentralised governance for poverty reduction is a long-term learning and development process that requires a sustained commitment from, co-ordination of, and strengthened capacities of all stakeholders at various levels;

  2. At the national/central level, there must be an enabling environment to ensure that devolution of authority/power to the local level would succeed for community empowerment;

  3. For decentralisation to contribute to poverty reduction, it is necessary to give due attention to administrative and fiscal decentralisation and not just to political decentralisation;

  4. For decentralisation to be effective, adequate emphasis should be placed on ensuring participatory monitoring and evaluation at all levels;

  5. Decentralisation initiatives should not be prescriptive, but instead take into account the specific contexts (e. g. local cultures).15 Moreover, a specific framework incentives-focused able to motivate local people should be established.

1 Report of the Capacity Development Workshop on "Decentralized Governance and Poverty Reduction", organized by UNDP, during the 4th Global Forum on Re-inventing Government - Citizens, Businesses and Governments: Dialogue and partnerships for Development and Democracy, Marrakech, Morocco, 10-13 December 2002, UN, New York 2002.

2 UNDP, Human Development Report – 2003, "Millennium Development Goals: A compact among nations to end human poverty", UN, NY, 2003.

3 Report of the workshop on Poverty Alleviation and Decentralisation for ten West African countries, jointly organised by UNDESA and the Government of Senegal, Dakar, July, 2003.

4 Mani, Presentation to the workshop on Poverty Alleviation and Decentralisation for ten West African countries, organised jointly by UNDESA and the Government of Senegal, Dakar, July, 2003.

5 Katsiaouni, Presentation to the workshop on Poverty Alleviation and Decentralisation for ten West African countries, jointly organised by UNDESA and the Government of Senegal, Dakar, July, 2003.

6 Khan and Katsiaouni, Presentation to the workshop on Poverty Alleviation and Decentralisation for ten West African countries, jointly organised by UNDESA and the Government of Senegal, Dakar, July, 2003.

7 Adablah and Mani, Presentation to the workshop on Poverty Alleviation and Decentralisation for ten West African countries, jointly organised by UNDESA and the Government of Senegal, Dakar, July, 2003.

8 Fifth African Governance Forum (AGFV), "Local Governance for Poverty Reduction in Africa", Maputo, Mozambique, 23-25 May 2002.

9 Kemo Conteh and Sheikh E.T Lewis, "Decentralization and Civil Society approaches as means of improving governance and poverty reduction: The Gambia Experience"; and Sao-Kpato Max-Kyne and Abu Brima "Sierra Leone's experience with decentralization as a means to improve governance and combat poverty", 2003.

10 Aliyu Dr. Abdullahi, "Nigerian experience of decentralization as a mean to improve governance and how it contributes to combating poverty", 2003.

11 Adablah, Presentation to the workshop on Poverty Alleviation and Decentralization for ten West African countries, organized jointly by UNDESA and the Government of Senegal, Dakar, July, 2003.

12 Gyan-Baffour Prof. George, "Decentralisation as a means to improve governance and poverty reduction: Experience from Ghana", 2003.

13 Kauzya John-Mary, "Local Governance Capacity Building for Full Range Participation: Concepts, Framewoeks, and Experiences in African Countries"; Background Paper of the 4th. Global Forum on Re-inventing Government - Citizens, Businesses and Governments: Dialogue and partnerships for Development and Democracy, Marrakech, Morocco, 10th.-13th. December, 2002, UN, New York 2002.

14 Kauzya John-Mary, idem.

15 Report of the Capacity Development Workshop on "Decentralized Governance and Poverty Reduction", organized by UNDP, during the 4th. Global Forum on Re-inventing Government - Citizens, Businesses and Governments: Dialogue and partnerships for Development and Democracy, Marrakech, Morocco, 10th.-13th. December, 2002, UN, New York 2002. -

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