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Analyzing Decentralization: A Framework with South Asian and West African Environmental Cases

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Type: Working Paper
Author: Agrawal, Arun; Ribot, Jesse C.
Date: 2000
Agency: World Resource Institute
Series: Environmental Governance in Africa
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/3917
Sector: General & Multiple Resources
Region: Africa
Middle East & South Asia
Subject(s): decentralization
Abstract: "New institutional economics and public-choice literature indicate that it is possible to achieve greater efficiency and equity in public decisionmaking by internalizing externalities, deploying all available information, and better matching service provision to needs. In this paper, we suggest that representation and accountability are critical if devolved powers are to serve local needs efficiently and equitably. We conclude, analyzing four case studies, that the presumed benefits of decentralization become available to local populations only when empowered local actors are downwardly accountable. Actors, powers, and accountability emerge as essential elements of a framework that can help evaluate the effectiveness of decentralization. "However, in many instances around the world, decentralization reforms do not attend to these elements. In Senegal, responsibilities in forest management were devolved to local elected councils without devolving access to the related commercial profits. In Burkina Faso, powers to cut, sell and manage forests have been devolved to private project-based committees, rather than to representative bodies. In Zimbabwe?s campfire program, powers were transferred to District Development Committees who were largely under the control of central government. In Nepal, one can point to projects that view decentralization as being accomplished simply by directing a stream of monetary benefits toward a group of resource users rather than attempting to create institutions that allow durable decision-making powers to local authorities. Perhaps all who conduct research on decentralization are familiar with such examples. "This paper provides a framework to examine whether the policy choices being made even constitute decentralization. Governments often perform acts of decentralization as theater pieces to impress or appease international donors and NGOs or domestic constituencies. Our framework can be seen as an analytical lens for assessing reforms in the name of decentralization. It can be used to identify shortfalls in decentralizations?design flaws or political obfuscation. Identification of such flaws can allow advocates of decentralization to push reforms beyond proclamations and closer to action on the ground. The framework can be applied to single sectors, pointing up sectoral shortcomings in an otherwise well-crafted institutional initiative, or to a core set of decentralization laws affecting all sectors. However, the framework does not analyze issues of training, physical infrastructure, or education at the local level that may also be necessary if decentralization is to be successful in its stated aims. "Instead of identifying decentralization simply as an institutional reform in the political, fiscal, or administrative realm as is commonly done, our framework shows how a particular reform can be analyzed by referring to changes in actors, powers, or accountability. Using four case studies from South Asia and West Africa, we compare instances of decentralization of resource management and assess the utility of our framework by applying it to understand the extent to which decentralization actually occurred in each case. The analysis of the cases in light of our framework leads us to focus on downward accountability as a key aspect of decentralization."

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