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Decentralisation in Africa: Scope, Motivations and Impact on Service Delivery and Poverty

Lídia Cabral, Overseas Development Institute
March 2011

FAC Working Paper 20

This paper reviews the literature on decentralisation in Africa, with a focus on impact on service delivery and poverty reduction. It notes decentralisation is not necessarily good or bad, but success depends on the details of policy design and context, particularly the political motivations of ruling elites and its relations with local power bases and constituencies. In Africa, decentralisation is widespread but not deep. Driven largely by political motivations, decentralisation experiences in the region have consisted mostly of deconcentration of administrative functions, rather than true devolution of powers. Although there is limited evidence available, the impact of decentralisation on service delivery is probably limited, judging by its impact on intermediate variables such as access to information, locus of power, administrative performance and accountability relations. The propoor character of decentralisation is also questionable. Available evidence does not confirm that decentralised governments perform better in delivering services to the poor, despite the fact they ofter are their largest constituency. In Africa, decentralisation has been essentially used to consolidate alliances with local elites and thereby reinforce central power, rather than to pursue pro-poor policies. Institutional weaknesses and fiscal constraints have also limited the success of decentralisation in Africa. Therefore, as an overarching governance process, decentralisation may have limited chances of success without a more structural transformation in African societies which reduces the polarisation of power and gives the median voter greater agency.