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Decentralization and Development Post-2015: A Strategic Imperative for Africa?


In May 2013, the United Nations' High Level Panel, tasked by the UN Secretary General to make recommendations on the development agenda beyond 2015, released a report making the bold assertion that "our vision and our responsibility are to end extreme poverty in all its forms in the context of sustainable development and to have in place the building blocks for sustained prosperity for all."  To back this claim, the report makes a strong case for a new paradigm in tackling the obstacles to global development on the basis of the lessons learned from the implementation of the soon-to-expire MDGs. It proceeds to recommend five transformative shifts as pillars of the new development framework. Conspicuous among these principles is the recognition of peace and good governance as "core elements of wellbeing, not optional extras." The recommendation of the High-Level Panel for issues of peacebuilding and good governance to be explicitly incorporated into the future development framework is bound to stir some controversy among member states of the G77+China group in the UN. Nevertheless, this institutional transformation holds significant relevance for the success of future development efforts, especially in Africa.

Good Governance as Development

The link between peace and good governance on the one hand and sustainable development on the other, although not a focus in the MDGs, has long been recognized in development discourses and processes. In recent times, several organizations have been advocating for the next global development framework to explicitly articulate this connection, notwithstanding the potential resistance it faces from some governments in the Global South which believe the UN's development agenda and the resulting international cooperation should be strictly apolitical. However, it cannot be lost to any development planner and practitioner that stable and peaceful environments, underpinned by participatory, inclusive, accountable and transparent political and economic processes, are, in the words of the High-Level Panel, "development outcomes as well as enablers."

The experience of large parts of the African continent bears testimony to this fact. Decades of poor governance, accompanied by weak and dysfunctional institutions, mismanagement of public resources and over-centralization of political power, have produced pseudo-democracies, social strife and violent conflicts. These dynamics have encouraged a vicious cycle of poverty, underdevelopment and insecurity throughout Africa and explains the discrepancy between official development assistance for so-called fragile and conflict-affected states (most of which are in Africa), estimated at 30% of all assistance, and the lack of progress in achieving the MDGs.[i]

With the formal acknowledgement of the inseparable relationship between peace, good governance and development in the post-2015 development debate comes the need to identify and prioritize the institutional building blocks for peaceful, democratic and prosperous societies. Although the report of the High-Level Panel stresses the need for institutional transformation as part of the new development agenda, it falls short of making concrete recommendations about the kind of institutional arrangements that would deliver on the ideals of transparency, accountability, inclusiveness, justice and equality, despite its belief that these concepts should underpin development.  One of the governance reforms that deserves particular emphasis in the post-2015 development agenda, and which is strategically imperative for Africa if it is to make substantial strides in the coming decades, relates to the shift from unjustified centralization of political and development processes towards greater devolution of authority and resources to lower levels of government. This requirement is already implied within the principle of 'global partnership' articulated in the High-Level Panel report, reaffirming the important role of local governance and local development in the post-2015 development agenda. Local government is used here in a broad sense to denote all levels of government below the national government, including provincial, district, city, municipal, and traditional administrations.

The Role of Local Government

Encouraged by the important contributions that local governments and other sub-state actors have made towards the achievement of the MDGs, both the 2011 Busan High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness and the 2012 Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development were even more articulate on the centrality of the local space to any future development agenda.[ii] The Global Partnership on Effective Development Cooperation that came out of the Busan conference underscored the critical role that local governments play in "linking citizens with government, and in ensuring broad-based and democratic ownership of countries' development agendas." This contribution is reaffirmed in the Rio+20 outcome document, which highlights the role of local governance and local development processes  in promoting inclusiveness in the decision-making, planning and implementation of sustainable development policies. This recognition thus underlines the need for effective decentralization processes, which allow for the reasonable transfer of political, administrative and fiscal authority and responsibility to lower levels of government, accompanied by an unwavering commitment and partnership to support subnational entities to develop the requisite governance capacity.

The case for a strong emphasis on decentralization in the post-2015 development agenda is even more warranted in Africa for at least two reasons. First, most of the countries on the continent are defined by significant diversities that need to be delicately managed through participatory, inclusive and fair political and economic processes. The inability to prudently manage these objective differences or their explicit manipulation for narrow political ends in countries like Sudan, Mali and the DRC has been at the root of the political and social unrests that have undermined development in these countries.  In such contexts, it is inconceivable that development initiatives would be inclusive and sustainable outside an institutional framework that empowers citizens in previously marginalized peripheries to take charge of the development agenda in their respective localities. Needless to say, current centripetal tendencies on the continent, characterized by the concentration of power and wealth in the center, are inimical to this prospect, thereby necessitating institutional transformation with a strong accent on decentralization.

Decentralization and Development

The second dynamic that makes decentralization a strategic imperative for Africa in any future global development framework relates to the status of the continent as a net receiver of development assistance. A very large proportion of development assistance from OECD countries has traditionally been directed to African countries. Likewise, although South-South development cooperation displays a strong element of intra-regional transfer of resources and technical expertise, Africa is prominently featured in the development cooperation framework of major southern donors like China, India, Brazil and Turkey. Yet the story of development aid in Africa has not been a palatable one, particularly because African countries often display a lack of capacity to profitably absorb this assistance and make it relevant to their development needs. Successful decentralization processes, which could stimulate efficient, transparent and accountable local governance, complete with the active participation of all segments of the grassroots community, can unlock important local capacities necessary to capture and translate foreign assistance into strategic assets for local development with maximum results.

Furthermore, greater decentralization in Africa is crucial for creating a conducive environment for the continent's local governments to meaningfully engage in decentralized cooperation (DC). As a form of development cooperation between northern countries and their African counterparts, DC has been instrumental in assisting many African countries to make important strides in achieving the MDGs. Recently, DC implemented within the framework of triangular and South-South cooperation has also proven to be a major catalyst for institutional and human capacity development in participating African local governments, allowing them to execute their democratic, developmental and service delivery mandates with relative efficiency. Harnessing this potential for future development efforts would require a recommitment to the promotion of decentralization and local governance from all actors involved in development activities in Africa.



Fritz Nganje is researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue ( and a Southern Voices Network African Research Scholar at the Wilson Center.

Photo credits to YoHandyo on Flickr Creative Commons



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