Posts Tagged ‘decentralisation’

Decentralisation Blues

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


She would if she could

There’s an old English rhyme that one is supposed to recite whilst pulling the petals off a daisy: one line per petal, whichever line corresponds with the last petal supposedly tells you how your intended really feels about you. It goes:

(S)he loves me,
She doesn’t,
She would if she could,
She can’t.

Sometimes I feel that rather sums up our relations with donors. Fads in conservation and development come and go a lot quicker than it takes to see real on-the-ground projects through to satisfactory conclusions, hence the first two lines.

The latter two lines seem reflective of another, equally frustrating problem. There’s one particular desk officer at a local embassy who seems to really like what we do. Lesson learning teams and strategy development consultants are sent down to visit us, a shining beacon in a sea of failing mediocrity (even if I do say so myself). Conversely our friend appears close to losing patience with many of the actual projects that she’s been landed with to oversee.* But several years of warm words and appreciation have so far failed to yield a single dollar of funding. One remains ever hopeful but, like any unconsummated love affair, bitter experience has taught us not to expect anything. Although she is too professional to say so, I surmise that our friend would fund us if she could, but head office has a rather fixed view of things, so she can’t.

* Many donor projects have such long gestation times that desk officers on short 3 year stints get to design their successors’ projects but may only get to manage whatever confused mix they inherit from their predecessors.

Decentralisation Doubled Over

Community-based natural resources management (CBNRM) is often positioned within the broader development theme of decentralisation, although I think it is as much a marriage of convenience in which two separate strands of thinking (one bottom up, one more top down) were unified. Decentralisation seems mostly to have played out within the development sector – I don’t see much mention of it any more – whereas community-led initiatives are still alive and kicking: testimony to the greater staying power of bottom up thinking.

However, CBNRM is by no means a universal success story. Governments are loathe to give up control of important sources of patronage which includes many natural resources. There is a lot of superficial community engagement which gets official blessing – always good to keep the mob on side – but less genuine negotiation. A particular trap which can be hard to avoid is that the government will make apparently quite reasonable statements about the need to retain some oversight / governmental control, to which it seems unreasonable to object … Until one remembers that one of the main reasons for having this discussion in the first place is the failure of the government hitherto to carry out its responsibilities in a fair, efficient and incorrupt way.

Recently I was discussing with friends from Tanzania the contrasting stories of CBNRM in the wildlife and forestry sectors in that country. Apparently the two systems used: Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and Participatory Forest Management (PFM) are incompatible, which would appear to be a spectacular failure of the donor-supported policy-making process in the late 1990s. Did they never talk to each other?

More to the point, PFM is widely viewed as having been more successful than WMAs. Why? Well one possible explanation is that the central government controls the allocation hunting concessions through a notoriously opaque process. (Hunters are rumoured to be generous donors to the ruling party.) Wildlife is widely perceived as highly valuable, and the government is not keen on giving away to communities a share (25%) of the income they receive. In contrast, forestry has historically been viewed as far less important, and so the government was happy to agree to communities to get up to 100% of the value of timber on their land! More significantly, responsibility for managing the forests had been devolved to district councils during the 1990s decentralisation drive. Thus, while organisations and projects working on WMAs must contend directly with the central government if they are to succeed, a forestry project, when faced with uncooperative district officials, can appeal over their heads to the central government. It’s a tactic with limited impact, but the fact that it exists at all might make the difference in some cases.

What, in effect, has happened is that responsibility for forest management had been devolved twice: once to district councils, and then again to rural communities through PFM. If anyone involved in the Tanzanian forestry policy making process back then had their eyes on this kind of political economy and anticipated such effects then I take my hat off to them; that’s seriously cunning! More likely it is just happy coincidence, but we can learn two important lessons. Firstly, that the political economy is always critical (we’re not supposed to ever forget that, but sometimes it slips), and, secondly, if you’re trying to engineer a similar kind of result in a different context, then setting up future allies within central government like this could pay dividends in the long run.

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