James Tyler Dickovick and Dorothy Grace Davie, both African Doctoral Candidate Fellows who are completing their dissertations, presented their research findings and discussed the implications of their research. Dickovick has been undertaking a comparative cross-cultural analysis of decentralization, while Davie has been studying the approach that has been taken to the study of poverty in South Africa in different historical periods.

Dickovick’s presentation, entitled “The Mismeasure of Decentralization: Senegal and South Africa,” examined the cases of Senegal and South Africa, two countries that have been heralded as practitioners of decentralization. Dickovick observed that “decentralization” is often an ambiguous term, and that intensive analysis is required to determine whether or not decentralization has occurred in fact rather than in name only. He suggested that several factors should be considered in evaluating the actual relationship between central and sub-national governments. First, do local governments make political decisions autonomously, or are they subject to the influence of the central government. Second, do local governments make their spending decisions autonomously, or must they follow central government mandates? Third, do local governments have their own independent revenue base, or are they dependent on central government revenue allocations? Fourth, do local governments have the independent authority to borrow funds? Fifth, how are actions of local government adjudicated – by local or national courts?

Evaluating the Senegalese and South African cases in terms of these criteria, Dickovick concludes that even countries that have “decentralized” may have retained substantial power at the level of the central government. In both Senegal and South Africa, for example, a significant limitation on local government autonomy occurs through the central government’s ability to suspend local officials. Other inhibitions are placed, in both countries, on the revenue-raising and expenditure authority of local governments.

Turning to the policy implications of his research on federalism, Dickovick identified several policy issues worthy of further study. Should decentralization be considered as an end in itself, or simply as a means to a broader set of objectives? In that connection, Dickovick observed that there are numerous examples of good governance in relatively centralized countries, suggesting that decentralization need not be as critical an objective as it is sometimes argued by democracy advocates. At the same time, decentralization may in fact be a means of mobilizing greater citizen participation in governance. Is this kind of mobilization possible without significant elements of decentralization? If so, what dimensions of decentralization are particularly important? Another question to be explored is the impact of foreign donor contributions. By directing contributions to local governments, are donors unintentionally interfering with the development of more effective relationships between the sub-national units and the central government? Should foreign donors supply grassroots organizations with the funds necessary to empower the local citizenry or should their financial focus be more on empowering local governments to manage their relationship with the central government?

Davie’s presentation on “The Poverty Question in South Africa” focused on different academic approaches to the study of poverty that have been taken at different points in South African history. She observed that politics not only influenced social science research, the research itself came to be used as an instrument in political debates.

In the 1930s, experts collected firsthand testimony in order to explain the so-called “poor white” problem. Government responded with social welfare spending, but for whites only. With the emergence of quantitative social surveying in the 1940s, liberal reformers embraced statistics when arguing for universal social security and health care for all races. After 1948, Apartheid planners rejected these claims in favor of “separate development,” relocating blacks to supposedly independent homelands. However, in the 1970s, in the context of anti-apartheid activism and rising labor militancy, quantitative studies of poverty made a comeback. Student activists undertook academic research on household subsistence levels in order to shame employers into raising the wages of black workers. But, by the 1980s, academics rejected this statistical approach in favor of an exploration of the “voices” of the poor.

Davie argued that this tension between qualitative (behavioral and anecdotal) studies and quantitative (statistical) studies is an enduring aspect of social science research, partly because social actors can utilize both kinds of expert knowledge in the context of political debates. She also found that, while officials sometimes used academic studies in the development of public policy, the resulting policies were often wholly unintended by the researchers.

Finally, Davie suggested that social science research might make more of an impact on policy if efforts were made to deepen the relationship between the social sciences, policy work, and social movements.

Authors: Heidy Servin-Baez, Intern and Nicole V. Rumeau, Project Assistant
Howard Wolpe, Director, Africa Project (202) 691 4046