A History of Decentralization

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Contributor: FAO
Contact Person: Jean Bonnal

A History of Decentralization

Decentralization has, not only an administrative value, but also a civic dimension, since it increases the opportunities for citizens to take interest in public affairs; it makes them get accustomed to using freedom. And from the accumulation of these local, active, persnickety freedoms, is born the most efficient counterweight against the claims of the central government, even if it were supported by an impersonal, collective will.

I. Introduction

Decentralization policies are part of vigorous initiatives to support rural development. In its most basic definition, decentralization is the transfer of part of the powers of the central government to regional or local authorities. Centralization is in response to the need for national unity, whereas decentralization is in response to demands for diversity. Both forms of administration coexist in different political systems. There seems to be a consensus since the 1980s that too much centralization or absolute local autonomy are both harmful and that it is necessary to put in place a better system of collaboration between the national, regional and local centers of decision-making.(1)

The renewed interest in this type of structure of the state that decentralization is, comes from the recognition that less centralized decision-making would make national public institutions more effective, and that it would make local governments and civil society more competent in the management of their own affairs. Recent research by different international organizations confirm this point of view:

Decentralization has kept its promise as far as the strengthening of democracy at the national level is concerned, as well as the central government's commitment in favor of rural development. It has thus contributed toward moving away from the bias toward urban areas in matters of development; to better management of the coordination of integrated rural development projects, and ensuring their sustainability. Decentralization has also reduced poverty which results from regional disparities, in paying more attention to the attendant socio-economic factors, in facilitating the gradual increase in development efforts, and the promotion of cooperation between the government and NGOs, while increasing transparency, accountability, and the response capacity of institutions.(2)
These observations have led some states to turn to the decentralized approach to development, especially so with the strong democratic processes in vogue, and the demands of new organizations of civil society that they participate in decision-making. The local level ceases to be the point of implementation of development policies decided by external actors, to become the place where local actors themselves determine the direction of their development, and implement them. Also, public policy decision-makers accept the necessity of citizen participation in order to make government action more effective and sustainable.

The aim of this chapter is to trace the history of the ongoing processes to the current situations so that they could be better understood.(3) Three major trends relating to decentralization can be identified:

  • the gradual appearing of a new distribution of responsibilities among the national, regional and local levels of government through the process of deconcentration (an initial and limited form of decentralization);
  • the disengagement of the state and economic liberalization, which favored a new wave of decentralization through devolution;
  • increased involvement of local jurisdictions and civil society in the management of their affairs, with new forms of participation, consultation, and partnerships.

II. Major Trends in Decentralization and Rural Development

The aim here is to retrace the trends which made it possible to move away from the interventions of highly centralized states, providing a large part of services to rural populations, to first of all, the disengagement of the state and the redefinition of its mandate, and the reinforcement of the roles and responsibilities of civil society and the different forms of local government.

1. A new distribution of responsibilities: from centralization to deconcentration

The first major trend in decentralization was administrative deconcentration.(4) In the context of deconcentration processes, different ministries transfer their functions and authority to regional and/or local out-posts. This limited form of decentralization only concerns relations between central level organs and their lower tiers. Deconcentration means that decision-making remains at the center, the other levels of government being limited to transmitting orders and implementing decisions. Though decisions regarding crucial issues are made at the center, the levels with deconcentrated authority can by delegation, make decisions concerning less important issues. (5) When they initiate a deconcentration process, governments seek mostly to bring their services closer to citizens either by moving part of their personnel to a particular location, or by assigning some responsibilities to regional or local authorities, while retaining administrative control over decisions taken locally.

It is possible to conclude that deconcentration is not a variant of decentralization but that deconcentration and decentralization are two distinct processes: deconcentration is, for the central government, the transfer of decision-making powers to its own local agents, whereas in decentralization in the strict sense , it is the transfer of power to organs or people elected by local populations. In other words, decentralization involves the management, by citizens and their elected officials, of matters that concern them the most. To get to decentralization in the strict sense of the term, it has been necessary to go through the experience of putting in place a new configuration of responsibilities between national institutions and their regional or local units. Though it is limited in scope, deconcentration makes it possible to involve citizens in decision-making.

It has also brought to light the necessity of true decentralization and the strengthening of democracy at local level. Experiments with deconcentration followed by advancement or not toward decentralization have been tried in both developed and developing countries, though at different times in history. Except for a few countries, the nation-state at its beginnings was strong and highly centralized. Since the 19th century, in most developed countries, and during the second half of the 20th century in the developing countries, many waves of deconcentration have come to serve as a counterweight to these two characteristics of the nation-state, giving rise to a new distribution of decision-making between the central government and its regional and local outposts.

Deconcentration was seen at first as a more efficient way of organizing the work of public administrations, which would make it possible to appreciate the usefulness of each category of citizens. It was thus considered a condition for the efficient functioning of the state. But it was also admitted that the necessity for coordination and that of having the general interest prevail in government action, meant that the state could not cede all its powers to local jurisdictions. Other considerations associated with democratization came to reinforce the trend toward deconcentration, which appeared to be a means of reducing the dissatisfaction of citizens toward local jurisdictions. (6)

Nevertheless, the transition from deconcentration to decentralization did not occur, in the context of the economic reconstruction of the after-war years, and the building of the new nation-states after decolonization, both situations requiring unwavering and highly centralized policies relating to town and country planning and economic development. Hence deconcentration was given preference though subnational jurisdictions demanded decentralization through devolution.

As far as the agricultural and rural development sector is concerned, the principal method of intervention by the states during the 60s and 70s was the launching of huge integrated rural development projects. They are characterized by a high degree of public intervention and limited delegation to semi-public agencies with well defined functions, like marketing, inputs, sales, agricultural credit, or irrigation infrastructure. These methods of intervention were unsatisfactory and the viability of equipment could not be ensured. In spite the deconcentration of some of the huge projects, the centralized management style was one reason which rendered them unsuitable. The lessons from these experiments indicate the difficulty of obtaining significant results through heavily centralized methods. Their principal drawback is that they are unable to mobilize rural populations because their goals do not necessarily correspond to the priorities of these populations, being part of long-term plans incompatible with the pressing needs of producers.

2. Disengagement of the State, Economic Liberalization, and Decentralization

The failures of the centralized forms of state intervention and the realization that deconcentration had its limits, and the renewal of free-market theories embodied by structural adjustment and macro-economic stabilization policies, are all reasons for adapting public service in the direction of true decentralization. (7)

During the 80s, and more intensely during the 90s, governments have tried to overcome the flaws of deconcentration by transferring decision-making powers, not to local levels of central government organs, or to semi-autonomous public agencies, but rather to elected officials of local jurisdictions, and to civil society organizations. Decentralization by devolution is therefore, the transfer of functions, resources and decision-making to citizens themselves, who would exercise the powers ceded to either their local government, or to their representative organizations.

If one accepts that deconcentration is a variant of decentralization, we can then say that this trend toward devolution is a transition from administrative decentralization to political decentralization. There is political decentralization when the subnational jurisdictions have independent revenue sources, and their leadership is elected by universal suffrage. Administrative decentralization on the other hand, means that the decentralized jurisdiction remains under the supervision of the state, that its leadership is generally appointed, and that it does not have enough autonomy in the use of its resources. Administrative decentralization is thus associated more with the notion of deconcentration, while political decentralization involves a true devolution of powers.

In other words, the transfer of functions and resources between the different levels of the national government (deconcentration), becomes more significant with the transfer of decision-making powers and resources of the central government to civil society (devolution). These new reforms by devolution (8) are characterized by four major changes, which seek to make the objectives of effective administration and local democracy compatible:

  • The creation of new subnational jurisdictions at regional or local level;
  • The generalization of elections by universal suffrage to cover all subnational jurisdictions;
  • The transfer of authority with sufficient financial resources for subnational jurisdictions to carry out functions assigned;
  • The removal of the a priori supervisory role of state representatives, and the institution of legal administrative control (administrative tribunals), and a posteriori control of budgets.
CDecentralization by devolution or territorial decentralization makes it possible for inhabitants of a town, a department, or region to settle their administrative affairs through their elected representatives. All the same, during the first wave of this type of decentralization, local jurisdictions were placed under the supervision of a representative of the national government, with the task of making an a posteriori check on the legality of their decisions. New waves of decentralization gradually improved the representation of citizens in the process of decision-making. Representative democracy was limited, nevertheless, especially with local Úlite capturing the decentralized functions. This situation made it necessary to strengthen the process with participatory democracy, based on civil society organizations.

Also, the excessive and disorganized tapping of natural resources was another reason to put in place decentralization by devolution through the creation of intermediate structures that function according to the subsidiarity principle. According to this principle, each level of government must be given full consideration in government action. It was thus advisable to let local governments undertake all the functions they were capable of carrying out as well as, or better than higher levels. In these circumstances devolution is seen as the best basis for country planning and natural resource management that would be mindful of local interests and national duties.

The recent trends toward the disengagement of the state and political decentralization, with greater attention for the sustainability of projects, have contributed to what's come to be called decentralized rural development, or especially in Latin America, the municipalization of rural development. Contrary to the huge projects that characterize integrated rural development, decentralized rural development is based on small projects closer to rural populations, and on varying degrees of accountability. This makes it possible to identify more realistic proposals, with a greater chance of being sustained.

The last factor in decentralization by devolution is the desire to respond to regional aspirations, which reflect the awareness of a community of interests at this level, and the desire of citizens to participate in the management of their affairs. Hence the region appeared in the debates on decentralization as the most appropriate level where reinforcement of institutions, and the coordination and coherence of actions could be ensured. Regions are the subnational jurisdictions, which in recent years,(9) have become the principal focus of economic development, and the most fitting administrators of public equipment.

3. Accountability and Institution Building for Local Jurisdictions and Civil Society Organizations: Participation, Consultations and Partnerships

Devolution is the most advanced yet the least generalized form of decentralization. It involves the transfer of powers to a local institution or association, with broad autonomy, legal status, and which is representative. To take its full meaning, this form of decentralization has to be accompanied by mechanisms which institute popular participation in the process of decision-making. It means also that accountability of civil servants and elected officials to citizens should be integrated into the process.

If decentralization is viewed as a means of establishing citizen participation, then it cannot be said to have led to concrete results and the challenges toward achieving this goal remain great.(10) Significant reforms in this regard have been tried in different countries but at a different pace: some reforms seem to have reached a point of no return (Bolivia), whereas others seem to have hardly started (Mali and Colombia), or are at the stage of declaration of intent (Guinea-Bissau).

Devolution involves participation, and participation in turn leads to the search for new forms of association or partnerships between local actors. Partnership is the most recent trend in decentralization, which has started to establish itself as the new deal in rural and local development. This approach recognizes that besides public institutions and their new functions, other local actors (professional or representative organizations, private sector, or other NGOs)(11) should be included in decision-making processes and accountability.

Overall decentralization based on devolution, participation, and partnership, appears today to be the major challenge for governments seeking to specialize different levels of government in the accomplishment of specific tasks. Governmental and spatial specialization implicit in the new decentralization tasks, would on the one hand, make the local levels of government proximity and solidarity jurisdictions, and on the other, make intermediate levels such as regions turn toward the future through their activities in economic development, country planning, and sustainable development of natural resources.

The building of roles and responsibilities for civil society and local level governments should further the objective of popular participation and the desire to establish consultations at all stages, by ensuring that decentralization is geared toward more citizen participation in local public life. The foreseeable trends of these actions are:

  • The replacement of force by contract, in other words, the identification and implementation of local micro-projects, the establishing of contractual relations between the different actors in rural development, and the promotion of conditions that enable effective participation.
  • Priority to local jurisdictions governed by elected councils, as an expression of the desire of the state to decentralize and to provide institutional framework for citizen management of their own affairs in a partnership approach.


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  1. For a general survey of the periods when different Latin American and African countries started to experiment with decentralization, see the Country Profiles section in this Sourcebook.
  2. World Bank, "Decentralization, Fiscal Systems, and Rural Development".
  3. This background on decentralization is within the framework of the preparation, by the Division of Rural Development (SDA) of FAO, the World Bank, and others of an informational and analytical tool, The Online Sourcebook on Decentralization and Local Development, which aims to take stock of decentralization processes both from the conceptual and methodological point of view and the implementation of decentralization policies presented in the Country Profiles section of the Sourcebook.
  4. Analysis of decentralization processes shows that in the majority of cases, the processes have not gone beyond this stage.
  5. An example of deconcentration is the delegation of functions to semi-public and semi-autonomous entities: partial transfer of functions and authority to regional or sectorial agencies.
  6. It was expected that deconcentration by increasing the responsibilities of regions and departments, would lead to increased importance of local jurisdictions in the eyes of citizens, especially in areas directly affecting citizens (health, assistance, education).
  7. The renewal of decentralization experiments in the context of structural adjustment programs, and democratization, appears clearly in the experiences of Colombia, Niger and Mali.
  8. Bolivia and Mali are examples of the most advanced processes.
  9. With the notable exception of Bolivia and Colombia, where the local level was given priority.
  10. Mauritania and Niger in Africa, and Bolivia and Mexico, in Latin America, are interesting exceptions in this regard; see a list of in the Country Profiles.
  11. One of the most interesting trends in the country profiles is the diversification of actors providing agricultural support services in most countries. The public sector is no longer the sole provider of these services.