The European Commission, together with local authorities and experts, agrees on the political nature of decentralisation and recognises local authorities’ crucial role in multi-actor dialogue processes and domestic accountability.
According to Angelo Baglio, Head of Unit D2 Civil Society and Local Authorities, EuropeAid is currently preparing a new communication to outline EC support to decentralisation in the coming years. The communication will build on the democratic ownership principle endorsed in Busan and on the EU’s Agenda for Change, which include commitments for working more closely with local authorities.
To ensure that policy-making responds to field realities and implementation can integrate these new agendas Mr Baglio’s unit organised a four day "Advanced Seminar on Support to Decentralisation in Partner Countries” in early July. The seminar brought together nearly 40 participants from 25 EU Delegations and various units at headquarters and was facilitated by the European Centre for Development Policy Management, ECDPM.
A number of high-level experts also attended and shared their insights on how to refine future EC engagement strategies, including Francois Vaillancourt, Fiscal Decentralisation Expert; Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi, Secretary General, United Cities and Local Governments of Africa and Leonardo Romeo, New York University.
One of the seminar objectives was to build a shared vision on some of the fundamental principles that should underpin support to decentralisation and local governance. Participants agreed that decentralisation is a political process of state building and state reform, driven by vested interests.
Elites may pursue political decentralisation as a mean to consolidate power, or access and control resources, but once their initial political motives are met, their commitment to administrative and fiscal decentralisation comes to a stalemate. However, the lack of elites’ political drive to push decentralisation forward should not necessarily mean that development partners should disengage from the national reform process altogether. They can find alternative entry points – such as local economic development and service delivery - to focus on development outcomes while (indirectly) strengthening decentralisation.
The key question for development partners is how to provide smart support to (emerging or imperfect) decentralisation processes to unleash this development potential.
Part of the workshop was dedicated to discuss operational challenges and debate how best to refine future EU engagement strategies. Participants perceived that donors generally lack political vision and a strategic and systemic approach to decentralisation. This holds particularly true for involving local governments in policy dialogue and cooperation processes. Creative use of procedures as well as experimentation with new funding instruments (e.g. performance-based grants) may help local governments to become legitimate and effective development actors.
As decentralisation is essentially a political process of state building, it is crucial to properly manage the politics of decentralisation. This requires, first of all, acquiring new skills to better understand the evolving political agendas and motivations behind decentralisation and to detect the dynamics and actors that push for or block decentralisation and local governance. This is where the political economy analysis (PEA) comes in.
PEA is a valuable tool for developing savvy intervention strategies that are attuned to local realities and the rhythm of the reform process. EU Delegations are also called to take up new roles, such as acting as brokers of national dialogue processes, building alliances with the champions of reform and facilitating consensus in order to gain traction over implementation.
There was also much debate on decentralisation and suitable aid modalities. Jorge Rodriguez Bilbao, Quality Support Manager on Decentralisation and Local Governance within Unit D2, summarised the challenge at hand.
“The starting point should be defining the EU’s strategic objectives and locating the political will to pursue them” said Mr Rodriguez. “Once this is done, it will be easier to identify the most relevant entry point – whether that is state reform, state-citizen relations, local economic development - and from there, work out the most suitable aid modality.”
A key idea emerging from discussions was the need to integrate decentralisation in sector interventions and budget support and to ensure a strategic sequencing and instrument complementarities.
Drawing from the EU Delegation’s experience in Ghana, participants discussed how sector budget support can be one of the best aid delivery modalities for consolidating national vision and policies, with reasonable opportunity costs for national authorities and donors. Yet, as illustrated by Madagascar’s ACORDS experience, the project approach may in particular contexts be the most promising road to supporting decentralisation ‘from below’ and scaling up local experimentation to influence sectoral and decentralisation policy development at national level.
EuropeAid’s Unit D2 is currently working on guidelines to strategically use project approaches in support of decentralisation processes.