Decentralizing for a Deeper, More Supple Democracy

Issue Date October 2015
Volume 26
Issue 4
Page Numbers 60-74
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We review recent evidence regarding decentralization and state strength and argue that decentralization can deepen democracy without compromising state strength if adequately designed. We examine how decentralization affects five key aspects of state strength: 1) Authority over territory and people, 2) Conflict prevention, 3) Policy autonomy and the ability to uphold the law, 4) Responsive, accountable service provision, and 5) Social learning. We provide specific reform paths that should lead to strengthening in each. Decentralizing below the level of social cleavages should drain secessionist pressure by peeling away moderate citizens from radical leaders. The regional specificity of elite interests is key. If regional elites have more to lose than gain from national schism, they will not invest in politicians and conflicts that promote secession. Strong accountability mechanisms and national safeguards of minority rights can align local leaders’ incentives with citizens’, so promoting power-sharing and discouraging local capture or oppression. “Fragmentation of authority” is a mistaken inference; what decentralization really does is transform politics from top-down to bottom-up, embracing many localities and their concerns. The state moves from a simpler, brittler command structure to one based on overlapping authority and complex complementarity, where government is more robust to failure in any of its parts. Well-designed reform, focusing on services with low economies of scale, with devolved taxation and bail-outs prohibited, should increase public accountability. Lastly, we advance a novel way that decentralization can strengthen democracy: by allowing citizens to become political actors in their own right, the small scale of local politics should promote social learning-by-doing, so strengthening political legitimacy, state-building, and ‘democratic suppleness’ from the grassroots upwards.

About the Authors

Jean-Paul Faguet

Jean-Paul Faguet is professor of the political economy of development in the Departments of International Development and Government at the London School of Economics. He is the author of Decentralization and Popular Democracy: Governance from Below in Bolivia (2012).

View all work by Jean-Paul Faguet

Ashley M. Fox

Ashley M. Fox is assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at the State University of New York–Albany.

View all work by Ashley M. Fox

Caroline Pöschl

Caroline Pöschl recently earned her doctorate from the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

View all work by Caroline Pöschl