Systems of government
Advantages of decentralization
Improved development and poverty reduction
Decentralisation as a conflict resolution strategy
Dimensions of decentralisation
Models of local government
Historical overview of decentralisation in Africa
The parastatal sector
Decentralisation and local government reform
Case Study: Kenya
Government and Administration
Federalism and Local Government
Privatisation and Development Policies
Dele Olowu and Soumana Sako (2002) point out that it is no secret that governance on the African continent has been under the spotlight, and for all the wrong reasons. Their have been improvements, however, with a shifting from autocracy to democracy in many African states; this has resulted in a move to better or good governance due to this democratic change. Good governance is a complex issue and there is no distinction between good, democratic and participatory governance. Furthermore, there has been little consensus pertaining to the criteria that distinguishes between good, bad, or better governance.
This paper will not delve into the conceptualisation of good governance due to length restrictions. The bulk of the paper will provide a detailed analysis of decentralisation, as well as looking at systems of government and models of local government. That will be followed by an overview of decentralisation on the African continent, with specific reference to its impact on the East African state of Kenya. The influence of decentralisation has produced mixed reactions, depending on who it effects; the adequate conceptualisation and method of implementation of the term has also been disputed. This paper holds the position that decentralisation has had a positive effect on the continent as a whole as well as on Kenya.
Systems of government
A unitary system consists of only one level of government above the local level. The country is governed constitutionally as one single unit, which comprises one created legislature. Political power is vested in the Parliament yet some of this power can be transferred to lower levels, to regionally or locally elected assemblies, governors and mayors. Unitary systems benefit significantly from the simplicity of having one responsible government, but appear to be less effective in larger and multi-ethnic nations (Mahler, 2003:26).
A federal system contains two levels of government above the local level, namely the national and intermediate levels, with each one being allowed a certain degree of sovereignty. This sovereignty is in fact constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and constituent political units, such as states or provinces. One of the advantages of this system is that it allows for the working together of regional and nationalist goals. Another is the ability of the national government to supplement some of the economic costs of member states through economic redistribution. Although just above ten per cent of the countries in the world are federalist, it comprises five out of the six largest nations in the world (Mahler, 2003:27-28).
Dele Oluwu and James Wunsch define decentralisation as “legal acts and administrative measures that transfer responsibility and authority, resources, accountability and rules from central government to local entities” (Oluwu and Wunsch, 2004:3). Decentralisation has received a lot of scholarly attention, yet there is very little known about it. It is alarming to see how policy makers promote the idea of decentralization in many countries in the face of very little empirical evidence supporting it, as well as little consensus pertaining to its implementation (Smoke, 2003:7).
There are a number of reasons for this, one being that the real reasons for its implementation are varied. Most of the reasons are political with the failure of centralized approaches to development instigating the current wave of decentralization in Africa. Another reason is inability to find a precise meaning for the concept, as can be seen with the different understanding thereof among the British and French traditions in Africa. There is a blurred distinction between deconcentration and devolution yet their policies are seen as mutually exclusive by many scholars. Economists have undertaken the arduous task of measuring decentralisation through the percentage of sub-national governments’ total public expenditures; although this sheds no light on the level of autonomy or accountability. Thirdly, the complexity of decentralization makes it difficult to study and implement. This has resulted in it being compartmentalized whereby economists focus on fiscal and economic development; public administration experts look at institutional structures, procedures and processes; and political scientists emphasise the importance of local elections, intergovernmental elections and accountability mechanisms. These dimensions need to be integrated and looked at holistically in the study and implementation of decentralization. Finally, those that are for or against decentralization are determined by the side of the fence on which they stand. Those that stand to gain from decentralization, such as community organizations, naturally promote its implementation; and those that are set to lose out, such as national government agencies, do not support it (Smoke, 2003:7-8).
Advantages of decentralization
Although decentralisation is characterised by often conflicting goals its advantages can broadly be viewed as improved efficiency, governance and equity; even though they are often related to economic development and poverty alleviation. It is assumed that the devolution version of decentralisation will bring about these benefits. Devolution “presumes appropriate assignment of powers and resources to reasonably autonomous local governments, responsive governance through elected councils and other accountability mechanisms and adequate capacity of local governments to meet their responsibilities” (Smoke, 2003:9).
The fact that people live in different conditions within a country legitimises the argument for decentralisation held by its proponents. Sub-national governments have a good understanding of the people within their region, as well as having access to local information. For this reason they are in a better position, than the central government, to recognize the type and level of services needed by the people in the region; thus improving the efficiency of distribution. Critics argue that certain services are best provided by the central government; whereas some scholars argue that allocative efficiency may be lost due to an increase in public overhead expenditures (Smoke, 2003:9).
Many citizens feel better connected to local governments as their needs are more likely to be met on the local level than by higher levels of government. This is very important as it gives citizens a sense of control and autonomy, liberating and empowering them. It must not be forgotten that governance and collective action do not only take place on the local level; and national goals are always the priority, despite local needs (Smoke, 2003:9).
The best possibility for poverty alleviation and the equitable distribution of public resources is provided when local governments have a good understanding of local circumstances. However, the redistribution from richer to poorer areas needs to be undertaken by the central government due to the limited internal resources of local governments (Smoke, 2003:9).