Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Decentralize this: If one takes away power from the federal government, where does it go?

“Decentralization is moving in full swing in Ghana,” writes journalist and researcher Kofi Akosah-Sarpong in the Accra Mail (via “The practice, as a development venture, is to broaden the provision of public goods nation-wide by involving the citizenry in their progress.”

People have long talked about decentralization in Africa in many different government sectors: education, politics, budgeting and health. There are those who claim that Africa’s very centralized states are remnants from colonial times, where European powers had to build a formidable authority through government structures so a few people could rule over vast territory. Some will argue that these powerful federal systems felt right to the newly independent African leaders because pre-colonial Africa was mostly ruled by Kings and traditional leaders with near absolute power. I say that’s a bit of an oversimplification.

But let’s stay with generalizations, anyway. After Africa’s first generation of leaders was overthrown by military juntas, this new generation of dictators cultivated and maintained these highly centralized states. Centralization requires building a vast bureaucracy, making sure that power flows only from the capital to the provinces. But it also hands some power over to those little people who run the levers of this grand machine: the civil servants. Once the machine is embedded with this influence, it is hard to put a stop to it.

How it works elsewhere
Speaking to someone fluent in the health system in Burkina, centralization means keeping the power of budget allocation in Ouagadougou. When the little village health centers come up with their budget, they must first send it to the district level where it is weighed upon and then incorporated into the grander project. This is then sent up to the regional level, where its merits are again debated upon. Finally, it is sent to the national level, where people then decide where to dole out funds.

Staffing is another centralized activity. Unlike teachers, who can work around the country provided they understand different grade levels, health workers have developed different specialties depending on the region they work. Those in the south may understand river blindness, while those in the north may deal more with guinea worm (or whatever). However, these areas of expertise may prove irrelevant when a minister in Ouagadougou transfers the southern health professional to work in the far north.

There has been much chatter about decentralizing many government sectors, but my people claim it is still mostly talk. Centralization means the government holds a lot of cards, and it’s very hard for a bureaucracy to willingly pass this power down the line. In a more philosophical, political economy bent, what does this centralized system do to a government’s legitimacy for those at the local level? Is the government seen as a blind tyrant or a benevolent all-powerful force? Another question I’ve always had: What do local people think about their politically neutered local leaders? I understand even local préfets (governors) enjoy a bit of power (I’ve seen one put people in jail and another hold a lot of responsibility for a very important government project), but how much authority do they really have?

The Ghana plan
Let’s get back to Akosah-Sarpong’s piece about Ghana, where it appears decentralization will play into an election issue. If I get him correctly, unlike the bread-and-butter argument for political decentralization in Burkina Faso, Akosah-Sarpong favors using decentralization as a way to increase power not to politically created departments, but to the more historical (and cultural) districts and groups.

Though decentralization may be part of the emerging global development architecture, it is how it is implemented that differs from one local to another. This is informed by the local's history and culture, as the World Bank and other experts argue. That makes Ghana and the African region peculiar, for it is the only region where its development processes are dominated by foreign development paradigms to the detriment of its traditional values and histories. And the peculiarity tells the development troubles of Ghana.

Part of the solution is decentralization, as a way of involving the people in their development process by understanding their needs that are seen in their values based on their history and culture. But because of Ghana's colonial heritage and its peoples' culture much of the work of the decentralization process wheel around the mixing of Ghana's traditional values with those of its ex-colonial Western orthodox ones. The global development design is replete with this…

But this is where much of the challenges will come in a Ghana where policy-making and bureaucratization, for the past 51 years, despite its history and rich culture, has been one-track - more ex-colonial neo-liberal Western paradigms running the development show to the detriment of Ghana's traditional values.

Kufour is aware of this and reveals that the decentralization "transformation would require a new type of assembly members to comprehend both local and native issues that could give leadership and direction to the staff of the local government service in the district." And that may mean reading from the locals and mixing them with the global prosperity construction.


tmsruge said...

It's going to take another generation or two before Africa shakes itself of the remnants of colonial rule. One of the many things that are stumblings to true revolutionary change is the death-grip of the "old-guard", unwilling to give in to the new school of thought (Mugabe, Kibaki, etc), or the younger more revolutionary leaders empowered by and large, through global access to information.

Before Africa can find it's footing in this new world, post Kingdoms of old, post virtual cultural and resource gang rape that was colonial rule, the old-guard has to be replaced before a new school of thought can begin. Then and only then can Africa figure out if centralized of decentralized modes of governance can work for it. And that alone will take yet another generation to play out. Let's hope and pray that there won't be blood shed.

tmsruge said...

Thought I would take a visit from Project Diaspora