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Why is decentralization still a silver bullet?

I realize there are plenty of development practitioners who are very aware of the limits of decentralization, but it’s still treated as somewhat of a silver bullet in the industry in general.  The recent election administration problem in DRC – where decentralization is one of the key goals of donors – is a perfect demonstration of what is wrong with this line of thinking.

The central government in Kinshasa can’t afford to move election equipment to its country and we think that dividing the country to 26 new states will make things easier?  How will each of those government administrations be able to procure election equipment for their local elections?

The short answer is, they couldn’t.  Unfortunately, donors often view decentralization as an end in itself, rather than asking what greater goal it should serve.

What’s the status of subnational government in Egypt?

I finally have a reason to post one of my photos from Alexandria

Via Heba Fahmy, comes this story regarding the appointment of Adel Labib as Governor of Qena.

CAIRO: Most residents of the Upper Egyptian city of Qena welcomed the decision to appoint Adel Labib as the governor for the second time, while others called for a new civilian governor…

Labib was previously the governor of Alexandria, where residents strongly opposed his decisions and hindered his development projects, according to Mahmoud.

…“Labib will try to prove that Alexandria’s residents were wrong about him,” Mahmoud said, adding that Qena’s residents will also try to prove that Mikhael was the wrong governor for them.

A governor isn’t liked in one area, so he’s simply moved to another.  Imagine Scott Walker getting dumped on Minnesota because they didn’t complain enough!

I’m not going to address the politics of the appointment, or the considerable controversy that recent appointments have caused in the past few months.  But I would like to know:  has there been any talk about changing the system of local governance in Egypt?  Governors are currently appointed by the president, which isn’t an unheard of system, but it’s not very accountable either. (Indonesia recently moved from central appointments to direct elections for its governors, although the execution hasn’t been flawless).

Egypt last held local elections in 2008 and the old rules had them staggered for four year terms.  Local elected officials didn’t have much power (shocking!) although the elections still had some  importance due to the potential impact they had on presidential elections.   (In order to qualify as an independent for the presidency, potential candidates had to collect 250 signatures from elected officials, who could be from both the local and national level).

Obviously a lot of important stuff needs to happen first, and local government elections aren’t considered that important when building a narrative about different factions vying  for control of the country.  When it comes to actually governing the country well, however, local government can be extremely important.  Hopefully the attention stakeholders are committing to the current electoral system will extend to subnational government as well.

Patronage, District Creation and Reform in Uganda

Uganda's Districts, 2010

In Patronage, District Creation and Reform in Uganda, Elliot Green argues that Ugandan Yoweri President Museveni has used the creation of new subnational district boundaries as a way of consolidating power through traditional patronage means. Looking at several African nations, Green notices that new boundary creation tends to increase as presidents’ margin of electoral victory diminishes.  By creating new districts, he argues, regimes are able to offer better services to targeted segments of the population.

I think the main takeaway from this paper is that like the structural adjustment programs before them, autocrats have managed to manipulate decentralization efforts in an effort to maintain traditional vertical power relationships.  It’s just sort of a given in development that decentralization is a good thing. The theory behind this is sound but there is lots of evidence that it doesn’t really work.  To be fair, this isn’t the most egregious form of corruption; new boundaries don’t have the deleterious effect of useless ministries.  Still, it’s worth keeping in mind the next time somebody you here somebody spouse the unchallenged benefits of decentralization.

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