The World Bank’s Shanta Devarajan reckons that there needs to be real political demand for capacity building to truly transform dysfunctional developing country institutions, and avoid the trap of isomorphic mimicry. He is surely correct in this assertion, but I fear the rose-tinted spectacles return when he advocates the benefits of decentralisation:
“One reason [for doubting local authorities capacity to manage financial resources] may be that no one has given local authorities the chance to deal with funds. There may have been no demand for financial management at the local level because the central government has told you what to spend. If you give them the chance to make the decisions, then they might actually build the capacity or hire that capacity because it’s something they can decide for themselves.
Moreover, if the local governments are accountable to the local population, they will have to build capacity really fast. They can no longer put the blame on central government if things don’t work well.”
To be fair to Devarajan he does qualify his enthusiasm with the requirement that local governments should be accountable to the local population. The trouble is that in the decentralisation that I have witnessed in least developed countries I have never seen much sign of that condition coming true, and certainly not any evidence of it leading to substantially increased capacity. Instead, where local official venality and low capacity are the rule rather than the exception, as is the case around here, such pushes as there are to improve service delivery come from above, although even here there’s a lot more political rhetoric than practical action. Decentralisation thus leads to temporary petty fiefdoms that can go largely unmolested so long as performance is not notably worse than elsewhere in the country (and sometimes even when it is).
This rose-tinted view of decentralisation is not restricted to ill-informed denizens of the embassy district and big donor agencies. I think we field operatives can sometimes be equally guilty in assuming that just because community leaders are that much closer to their constituents they will therefore be that much more responsive to their needs, or that bad leaders will get voted out of office. For even at the community level base party politics and local rivalries so often trump technocratic concerns of executive competence.
I would suggest that demand for good services is predicated on at least some idea of what they should look like and sense that they are properly due. By this I mean not just that a community should want the service, and be prepared to air their grievance to anyone who cares to come by and ask (very common around here), but that their sense of justice should be inflamed at the breach to the perceived social contract, and, as an aggrieved party, they are prepared to act seriously to obtain redress. Consuming many government services, e.g. sending one’s children to the local school, might be a largely passive undertaking, but service quality depends upon a community’s aptitude to pursue their due proactively, and in turn for the rest of society not to regard such direct action as disproportionate.
Some would translate all of that as the need for a large middle class, and trot out that old canard about democracy not being workable without one. I am prepared to be a bit more optimistic than that, but I think we should be cautious about expecting demand for service provision to drive improvements in local capacity. There will always be counter-examples, usually championed by exceptional local leaders, but countrywide I wouldn’t pin your hopes on anything other than slow progress, with plenty of steps back interspersed with the forward ones. Social change is slow and messy.
Hat Tip: Lee Crawfurd