The complexities, gains and future direction of the EU Support to Decentralisation processes were highlighted last month when specialists met in Brussels for the presentation of the evaluation of ten years of support, 2000-2009.

Decentralisation processes have been referred to as “a messy arena”, “a live animal” or "an expression of democracy" by specialists. All would agree that decentralisation is not a straightforward process, and this is exacerbated by its reach across a number of sectors. The EC has given particular attention to the development of the decentralisation policies and processes and this may further increase in future as governance is among the priorities of the Agenda for Change.

“It was very important to evaluate our activity in Decentralisation, because this has been a new policy area for our support and it is clear that there would be a learning curve,” said Klaus Rudischhauser, Director of Quality and Impact at DG Development and Cooperation. “Decentralisation is very important both because of the empowerment of local authorities, the devolution of powers to the ground where the action happens and it is important for service delivery to the population, and the question is, have we succeeded in that?”

A team of external consultants undertook the evaluation and over two years, with field and desk phases, they researched 22 country cases. Their report shows both clear achievements and areas requiring concerted attention.

“While the evaluation shows very clearly that we have certain strengths and can be a good actor in this area, there are also a couple of important improvements to be made,” said Mr Rudischhauser. “ One is the involvement and commitment of the central government – they have to actually want to decentralise.  Secondly, we have to make sure that the service delivery on the ground improves; it seems that capacity building of the local authorities works, but the service delivery itself needs to be looked at more closely.”  For instance, according to the evaluation, the improvement of local capacities for planning is an area where the EC has been relatively successful, and it has resulted in positive impact on citizens' access to local services. However, the quality of those services has only marginally improved.

Jean Bossuyt of the European Centre for the Development of Policy Management was closely involved with the development of EC policy for decentralisation. “The evaluation clearly says that there has been quite some policy development, also quite some search for effective cooperation with other donors,” he said. “I would argue, on the positive side that the policy has widened, there is more knowledge and the demand in the field has increased. But if the demand is increased in the field the pressure is on the Commission to say – how will we deliver effective policies?”

Mr Bossuyt also summarised the strengths and weaknesses exposed by the evaluation. “If you look at the four questions on results you can say, yes - you provided more resources, you helped to build infrastructure, you helped to build capacity, but the political aspects of decentralization? There, effects have been very limited”.  

Jorge Rodriguez Bilbao, thematic expert for Decentralisation at the European Commission, DG Development and Cooperation, spent nine years in Madagascar working as TA on decentralisation processes, and is well placed to reflect on the recommendations proposed in the evaluation. “Decentralisation is mainly a political reform, driven by politicians who look after political outcomes and we need to integrate that in our work,” he said. “What does that mean? It means that we have to apply the  Political Economy Analysis.”

“This is something that Headquarters can do for the Delegations right now – to provide concrete tools – ‘glasses’ to help them read the political economy situation in their country, in their context. Who is who? Who is doing what? Which interest has its own category of actors? We have to have this from the beginning to see how we can best facilitate this multi-actor perspective.  I insist, we are there to support the domestic process,” he explained.

Mr. Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi of United Cities and Local Governments of Africa concurred with this and had two messages for the Commission. “The first is that decentralisation is inevitable, and that the Commission would do well to make it among their political priorities.  Secondly, the local organisations are present and ready – in Africa there are 27,000, which means the Commission needs to know how to work in a decentralised manner.  The EU Delegations need to have the capacity to enter into constructive dialogue with local associations in their countries.”  This presents a real challenge for the Commission and Delegations to take-up.

The evaluation was carried out under the direction of the DG Development and Cooperation Evaluation Unit: Head of Unit, Martyn Pennington and Evaluation Manager, Paola Gessi.


To see full length versions of the video interviews with Mr Rudischhauser, Mr Bossuyt and Mr Rodriguez Bilbao, please visit this page in the Public Sector Reform and Decentralisation Public Group.

The Minutes of the Seminar can be found here.



This collaborative piece was drafted with input from Jorge Rodriguez Bilbao, Jean Bossuyt, Willem Vervaeke and Paola Gessi with support from the Coordination Team.

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DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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