Does Decentralization Still Hold Answers for Africa?

Decentralization which involves the transfer of power, responsibilities and finances from central government to subnational levels of government, at provincial, regional and/or local levels gained popularity in the developing world in the early 2000s and has remained a staple, as 80% of all developing and transition countries have undertaken some form of decentralization in the past two decades (ICHRP 2005: 11). In Africa south of the Sahara, few countries have not implemented decentralization reforms.

Decentralization has however not produced the results it was expected to.  There are few success stories where regional or local governments are more successful at providing social services such as healthcare, education, access to water and electricity more effectively than central government.  Local economic development meant to increase trade, ease of doing business and most importantly, job creation, has not fared much better.

Responding to challenges of governance

Today as Africa faces increasing challenges on three key levels, it is important to take another look at the decentralization solution. Insecurity and instability in numerous African states today is directly linked to the inability of central governments to respond to:

The Covid-19 Factor

Since 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has demanded that national government act energetically and effectively to respond.  Countries with more effective local governments have been able to roll out a Covid-19 response more quickly and cover larger segments of their population than those without. The pandemic is reinforcing what we know well.  Effective decentralization serves citizens better.

Decentralization which:

  • provides the opportunity to have a unique local political and cultural identity within a larger one;
  • brings government closer to the needs of the people and therefore makes it able to respond more effectively to those needs;
  • creates the opportunity to seize the economic characteristics of a particular area and develop the sectors that will grow local businesses and create local jobs is a proven solution in a wide variety of countries and contexts. From Germany to China, Switzerland to Brazil, decentralization is meeting these challenges in various ways. Africa must take a closer look at decentralization and how it can be made more effective to meet the needs of its citizens.

Lukewarm Decentralization to Date

Why has decentralization has been unable to effectively address political identity, basic service delivery and economic growth to date and what can be done differently? Despite over two decades of investment in decentralization by governments and their development partners, the results are mediocre, at best.

The most important factor that has contributed to this lackluster result of decentralization is the weakness in political will by central governments to truly decentralize.  This is demonstrated most acutely in:

  • The extreme slowness in legal and administrative procedures to make decentralization a reality.  In many African countries it has taken/is taking over a decade to put the legal and administrative framework in place for effective decentralization.
  • Insufficient and inadequate human resources in decentralized government.  Local governments often lack the attractivity to hire qualified staff.  This includes low salaries, limited professional opportunities and insufficient social and cultural services in rural areas. There is also insufficient partnership to enable local governments access the human resources available and often overly abundant in central government.
  • Insufficient financial resources at local level.  In Africa, spending at subnational levels is less than 20%, below the global average just under 25%.  In addition, in many countries disbursements from the central to the local level are delayed and can be months or even years in arrears.  Fiscal decentralization leaves a lot to be desired and inadequate human resources at the local level often mean that local governments are unable to collect the few taxes that are in their purview.

Lukewarm Decentralization in Sub-Saharan Africa

Can Decentralization Offer Solutions to Key African Challenges?

Given its performance over the last two decades, can decentralization then offer solutions to some of the key challenges of political identity, service delivery and economic growth that Africa is facing? 

From Zanizibar in Tanzania, to Calabar in Nigeria and throughout South Africa, case studies demonstrate that the answer is yes.

However, for decentralization to succeed on scale it requires important building blocks:

Decentralization means transferring both resources and power to the subnational levels of government.  Unfortunately, many central governments see this transfer as a net loss.  The facts tell us otherwise. Strong local governments build strong economies and provide improved services to citizens.  This makes central government stronger.  All over the world federal or federal-like states demonstrate this from Denmark to the United States and even in South Africa, one of Africa’s most powerful economies.

Key, therefore, to succeeding in decentralization is enabling historically highly centralized states to see the benefit of decentralizing.  This does also mean seeing the benefit of becoming more democratic.  There are multiple examples in Africa to demonstrate that decentralization whereby political elites from the center capture and dominate local government does little to grow local economies and improve services. The will to decentralize in a manner that is truly beneficial to citizens does generally mean the will to democratize, this remains a hurdle for many central governments.

The most successful local governments will develop in the framework of a central government that has the will to decentralize and establishes an effective legal, administrative and fiscal framework to do so.

However, even where this framework is poor, local governments have some margin for action in establishing the other four building blocks.  Since 1998, STRATEGIES! has worked with local governments in Cameroon, a country where the framework for decentralization is far from ideal, nevertheless forward-thinking local elected officials were able to make significant strides with regard to the other four building blocks. 

Building Block : I- Adequate Human Resources for Local Governments —˃

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