Under what conditions does local democracy emerge? Do local authorities always represent local people? Decentralisation reforms in developing countries have transferred power to a range of local institutions but often failed to empower democratic local governments. This essay from the journal Development looks at how the choice of institutions affects three dimensions of democracy: representation, citizenship and the public domain. While elected local governments are not a substitute for other institutions, they can play an important role in establishing and sustaining local democracy.
Several theories assert that decentralisation is good for democracy, leading to positive efficiency, equity and development outcomes. However, countries and agencies aiming to increase local participation through democratic decentralisation have widely failed to empower democratic local governments. Instead, powers over natural resources are transferred to other institutions such as customary and religious leaders and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This results in the fragmentation and diffusion of powers among local institutions.
Representation means that leaders are responsive and accountable to the people. Citizenship is a residency-based form of belonging. The public domain represents the political space citizens are able to influence. Decentralisation efforts may affect these three dimensions of democracy in a number of ways:
- Increased participation may bring a broader section of the population into decision-making but may not be representative or binding. Responsiveness requires leaders with the power to translate needs into policy and practice.
- Representative local authorities can be strengthened through recognition but weakened if they receive too little power or become overshadowed by parallel institutions.
- Different institutional forms have different forms of belonging. Strengthening identity-based and interest-based forms of belonging, such as religious groups and NGOs, over residency-based citizenship can cause fragmentation.
- When governments and international agencies favour a certain authority they strengthen its identity and repress internal struggles for power. Chosen authorities are then able to recognise or dismiss other actors, determining who belongs and who does not.
- As a space for collective action, the public domain is a necessary part of representation and of the production of citizenship. Privatising public resources and powers to individuals, corporations, customary authorities and NGOs diminishes and restricts the public domain.
Some points are particularly relevant to policymakers involved in decentralisation efforts:
- While competition between local entities can lead to better representation all round, it can be divisive, when under-funded elected local governments are forced to compete for legitimacy. This can produce conditions for elite capture.
- The means used to transfer powers to local authorities influence whether they end up representing local people. Conditional and insecure transfers lead to upward accountability. In contrast, transfers made as secure rights can be exercised with discretion in response to local needs.
- Retaining powers in the political domain, where citizens are able to influence authorities, maintains and reinforces public engagement. Elected local governments should hold powers in the local arena so that decisions and services reflect local needs and aspirations.
- Local electoral systems must be scrutinised to ensure they are not just a set of procedures covering autocratic rule. Elected authorities are not exempt from the need for multiple accountability mechanisms.