Democratic decentralisation and local participation: A review of recent research
Introduction This review essay aims to present recent research on the relationships between democracy and decentralisation, with a focus on local participation and empowerment. Although an earlier wave of experiments with decentralisation in Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s is considered to have largely failed (Crook and Manor 1998:1), these themes have received widespread attention in recent years, particularly since they form part of the discourse on ‘good governance’ promoted by many donor agencies and development institutions. The main argument emerging from the works under review in this essay is that more recognition should be given to the fact that ‘real’, i.e. democratic, decentralisation is inherently a political process. This would counterbalance the disproportionate attention paid to decentralisation’s administrative and fiscal aspects in the literature and in policy debates. These components of decentralisation are often framed as purely technical issues having to do with the redistribution of authority, responsibility, and financial resources for the provision of public services among different levels of government. While these issues are important, policy makers—and implementers—also need to take into account the wider political context (e.g. the electoral system, political economy, etc.) and social history of the country in question. This includes an assessment of the potential of civil society in each region or district, and how organised groups would respond to specific incentives or disincentives, as well as new power structures, created by decentralisation reforms. These incentives or disincentives and new power structures also determine the level and form of popular participation in local politics as well as the fate of developmental efforts. Moreover, donors and external development institutions need to be more conscious of the fact that the participatory methods and processes they promote often undermine the political process inherent in democratic decentralisation reforms. The works reviewed here also challenge the common assumption that decentralisation necessarily means a retreating central state.