Decentralization, Local Governance and The Democratic Transition in Southern Africa: A Comparative Analysis


  • James S. Wunsch


hat factors are required for viable, democratic, local governments in Africa? This is an important question for several reasons. First, in an era of continuing economic problems and structural adjustment, national governments have been forced to reduce the services they provide. While the private sector may pick-up some of these, collective and non-profit-earning social goods must be delivered or funded by sub-national governmental units if they are to be provided at all (World Bank, 1994). Second, research over the last two decades has suggested that highly centralized and top-down service delivery is expensive, cumbersome, inflexible, adapts slowly to new information (if at all), and is prone to political abuse (Esman, 1991). Third, government collapse and incapacity, with spontaneous patterns of local initiative in education, sanitation and marketing, suggest there is an untapped local capacity to make collective choices and take collective action (Green, 1995; Wunsch and Olowu, 1990; Fass and Desloovere, 1995). Finally, a growing body of research suggests that democracy must be rooted in functioning local, participatory self-governance institutions. This literature emphasizes the importance of the growth of civil society, development of public “ownership” of political institutions, mobilization of talents and resources into constructive patterns (positive sum rather than zero-sum or negative-sum political interaction), and countervailing power vis-à-vis national institutions (Harbeson, Rothchild and Chazan, 1994; Wunsch and Olowu, 1990). Despite these compelling reasons, most “experiments” in decentralization and local democratic governance suggest that African local democracy and governance has failed in virtually everyplace it has been tried (Olowu, 1990)!